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Norwegian NorSat-TD microsat achieves optical communication breakthrough
Artist rendering of NorSat-TD microsatellite developed by Space Flight Laboratory (SFL).
Norwegian NorSat-TD microsat achieves optical communication breakthrough
by Robert Schreiber
Berlin, Germany (SPX) Feb 01, 2024

In a significant advancement for small satellite capabilities, the NorSat-TD microsatellite, developed by the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) for the Norwegian Space Agency (NOSA), has successfully established an optical satellite-to-ground communications link. This achievement marks a pioneering moment for a Dutch-built laser communication device and positions the NorSat-TD among the early microsatellites to accomplish this feat.

Optical communications, utilizing laser technology, are known for their ability to transmit larger data sets at faster rates and with greater security compared to traditional radio frequency communications. This technology is particularly crucial for low Earth orbit applications like Earth observation, telecommunications, atmospheric monitoring, maritime ship tracking, and space astronomy, where reliable data transmission is vital.

Dr. Robert E. Zee, Director of SFL, highlighted the importance of this development: "The successful demonstration of satellite-to-ground communication by the 35-kg NorSat-TD microsatellite greatly expands the utility of affordable smaller satellites that are more cost effective than traditional spacecraft to develop, launch, and operate."

The NorSat-TD microsatellite integrates two essential technologies for optical communications. The first is precise attitude control, a challenging feat for low-mass spacecraft. This control enables the microsatellite to accurately and continuously align with a ground station during its rapid orbital passage. The NorSat-TD incorporates groundbreaking small satellite stability and pointing capabilities, a testament to SFL's expertise honed across dozens of missions.

The second critical element is the onboard Small Communication Active Terminal (SmallCAT) laser communication system, developed by a consortium led by TNO (The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research). This system includes a high-quality laser terminal with a fine steering mirror, essential for locking the narrow optical beam onto a ground station beacon.

NOSA Senior Advisor, Tyler Jones, commented on the achievement: "The quality of the pointing performance of SFL's DEFIANT bus speaks for itself. NOSA is also pleased with the flexibility and problem solving that SFL demonstrated while accommodating the SmallCAT terminal in the NorSat-TD design, and working through payload evolutions with TNO."

Launched in April 2023, NorSat-TD represents the sixth mission developed by SFL for Norway. While primarily designed for maritime ship tracking, the demonstration microsatellite also carried experimental payloads for enhanced GPS positioning, spacecraft tracking by laser, and iodine-fueled propulsion, in addition to the SmallCAT terminal. The forthcoming NorSat-4, scheduled for a 2024 launch, will feature a novel low-light imaging sensor, further demonstrating SFL's commitment to advancing satellite technology.

This successful demonstration by NorSat-TD not only signifies a leap in the capabilities of microsatellites but also paves the way for more efficient and secure satellite communication methods, essential for the ever-expanding scope of space-based applications.

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