UK Space Agency to develop the first commercially available laser-based satellite

Researchers at Northumbria University, UK, have been awarded more than £360,000 from the UK Space Agency to develop the first commercially available laser-based satellite communication system.

The team will work with specialist component manufacturer ISOCOM to develop and test small satellites, known as ‘CubeSats’, which will orbit the earth, transmitting data 100 times faster than currently possible. Their aim is to develop an ‘off the shelf’ laser-based satellite for telecoms providers, as well as global companies such as SpaceX, Facebook and Google, which could deliver Internet of Things (IoT) technology, as well as remote sensing, environmental monitoring and disaster prevention.

The project, named, Entitled Laser Optical Communications for CubeSats, is expected to help achieve the government’s ambition to increase the UK’s share of the global space market to 10% by 2030 – estimated to be worth around £400bn.

The project is being led by solar physicist Dr Eamon Scullion of Northumbria University’s Department of Mathematics, Physics and Electrical Engineering. Speaking about the project he said: “We are establishing a new paradigm for space-based communications, with a marked increase in data transmission rates, transforming CubeSats into critical space assets.

“This is all about designing a new system capable of firing laser beams between satellites that are not much bigger than a shoe box, many thousands of kilometres apart and moving at many thousands of kilometres per hour around the world – it does not get much cooler than that.”

The CubeSats will be capable of transmitting data at a rate of one gigabit per second (1 gbps) using free-space optical communication technology (FSO). FSO technology uses light to transmit data and is significantly faster than the low-speed radio frequency currently used by CubeSats, which has a maximum speed of 1-10 megabits per second (mbps).

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “We want the UK to be a world leader in space technology which is why we are supporting our most ambitious innovators who are developing first of a kind technologies to help solve some of our greatest challenges. From slashing carbon emissions to protecting the UK’s critical services from harmful cyber-attacks, today’s funding will unshackle our most entrepreneurial space scientists so that they can transfer their revolutionary ideas into world class products and services, while helping to boost the UK economy.”

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