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UK targets laser satellite communications with NorthumbriaU research grant
Artist's impression of Northumbria University project to develop a new satellite communications system
UK targets laser satellite communications with NorthumbriaU research grant
by Robert Schreiber
London, UK (SPX) Jul 14, 2023

Northumbria University in the UK is set to revolutionize the satellite communication systems, thanks to a generous funding award of 5 million pounds from the UK Space Agency. This investment will enable the university's researchers to pioneer the creation of a laser-based system that will significantly overhaul the current satellite communication methodologies.

Currently, satellites depend on radio frequencies to transmit data, a method that poses capacity limitations and is prone to disruption. By contrast, lasers offer the capability to transmit 1,000 times more data per second than radio frequency, and provide far more secure transmission. The proposed laser-based device by Northumbria is poised to be the primary communication mechanism for satellites in the foreseeable future.

The Northumbria team, from the Solar and Space Physics research group, is part of a larger consortium that aspires to develop the world's first commercially available system for satellite intercommunication using lasers. This project had previously been the recipient of over 1 million pounds from the UK Space Agency, through its National Space Innovation Programme. From the initial 22 projects chosen for funding in 2020, it has now been shortlisted as one of the two projects to proceed to the third and final phase of funding.

The recent funding injection of 4.98 million pounds will allow the consortium to construct and test the first CubeSat equipped with laser optical communication technology. The device is expected to launch in 2025.

The consortium comprises Northumbria University's Northumbria Space Technology Laboratory, Durham University, satellite communication specialists e2E, and manufacturing company SMS Electronics Limited. Recently, global aerospace and company Lockheed Martin also joined the project and will spearhead the system's engineering development.

Leading the project is Professor Eamon Scullion, a solar physicist at Northumbria University. He stated, "With our new technology, we are not only bridging the gap between satellites in low Earth orbit but we are bridging an even bigger gap between academic R and D and industry. We are now ready to follow a rigorous technology-readiness process to build and test a pair of flight-ready, payload-integrated CubeSats that are not only ready for launch to space in 2025 but will also be ready for sale as the UK's first commercially available laser communication device for small satellites."

Tony Forsyth, Head of Space Technology at the UK Space Agency, also acknowledged the potential of Northumbria's innovative technology. "This funding will support Northumbria University to develop its innovative technology that will enhance inter-satellite communications systems by using efficient optical lasers, in comparison to the traditional devices," he said.

The UK space sector, which contributes 16.5 billion pounds to the UK economy, is likely to receive a significant boost from this revolutionary technology. Northumbria University, along with its consortium partners, is actively working on various fronts to improve satellite technology, enhance space weather forecasting, and train future generations of space-related engineers. The team's efforts are expected to contribute greatly to the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre and support the UK space weather community.

The university offers Physics with Astrophysics and Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree courses that provide students with practical experience in payload and embedded digital systems design for CubeSats and optical communications links in hazardous environments. These courses offer an excellent foundation for prospective students who are interested in this progressive research area.

Related Links
Northumbria University
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