September 2, 2008

Beaming Data Across the Cosmos

By Wagner, Cynthia G

Lasers beat radio waves for speed and accuracy in communications. Data exchange between satellites could be increased a hundredfold by using lasers instead of radio waves, according to German researchers. Laser beams are also easier to focus than radio waves. Data exchange requires bandwidth - the more data, the more bandwidth required. Space research and development is running up against radio waves' bandwidth limits, making laser technology more attractive.

In the most recent satellite-to-satellite test of technologies developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), transmission equivalent to about 400 DVDs worth of data per hour was achieved. Such rates would make it possible to transmit large data packets between satellites or between Earth and satellites.

Physical and mechanical challenges to laser-based satellite communications remain. Communications lasers in space are activated by pump modules, which must be resilient against the vibrations and forces of launches, and then survive harsh conditions in space, such as radiation and extreme temperature variations.

- Cynthia G. Wagner

Rugged but small, a fiber-coupled pump laser module developed by Fraunhofer ILT in Germany may dramatically expand communications capabilities in space.

Artist's concept of the German Aerospace Center's TerraSAR-X radar satellite, which is being used to test lasers for data transmission.

Source: Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology, ILT, Steinbachstrasse 15, 52074 Aachen, Germany. Web site

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