Improvements in the data flow from Earth orbiting satellites to ground stations is underway as the result of a new collaborative research project between the Georgia Institute of Technology and satellite communications provider Xenesis to offer new age solutions to open the bottleneck that now limits the flow of data from space to Earth.
The project will miniaturize, space qualify and test the laser communications transceiver from the International Space Station which is set to dramatically expand the bandwidth available for downlinking information from the growing number of satellites in low Earth orbit. Xenesis has licensed the technology from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and will work with Georgia Tech and JPL to mature it for use as a primary communication system for satellites as small as CubeSats.
Brian Gunter, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering who will be leading the project stated that they expect to significantly add to the total bandwidth of information that they can get down from space, and the more bandwidth they have, the more information they can exchange and the more value they can get from satellite networks.
Gunter’s lab has experience with small satellites, and will apply that expertise to the project with Xenesis – which signed a $1.2 million contract on June 14 to support the work.
Dennis Poulos, chief technology officer at Xenesis stated that with all of the satellites that are going into space, everything from CubeSats to major satellites, there is more information being generated than can ever be downloaded. Most of today’s systems depend on radio frequency downlinks, and there is just a limited amount of bandwidth available for use. Xenesis is essentially setting itself up to be the first in the industry to offer a real-time solution to this archaic problem.
Laser-based systems can dramatically expand that bandwidth to beyond 10 gigabits per second, Poulos said. In addition to boosting bandwidth, optical systems can use smaller antennas, use power more efficiently, and provide better data security.
Mark LaPenna, CEO of Xenesis added that Xenesis recognizes the need for a global communications revolution, and they plan to empower space with an optical product called XenHub. Through this architecture, any company, EO mission or global operator on the ground or in space, will be able to compete on a level playing field for the first time since Sputnik.
The initial focus will be space-to-ground communication, though the system could also be used for cross-linking communication between satellites. Gunter added that once they can show that this works from space to ground, that will demonstrate that the technology can survive the harsh environment of space, and allow them to continue the development of the transceiver for commercial use. This has the potential to open up a range of new capabilities, including the ability to provide high-volume data services to anywhere in the world.
In Georgia Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering, the contract will support graduate students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a group of undergraduate students, Gunter said that this will be a major satellite project for their lab, and they look forward to advancing the technology with their collaborators.