UK scientists awarded $4.5 million to attach lasers to CubeSats

Lasers could transmit 1,000 times more data than conventional satellite radio communication systems used in orbit today.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration.
An artist's impression of NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration.


A team at Northumbria University in the UK will build a satellite communications system after receiving a £5 million (approx. $4.5 million) award from the UK Space Agency, a press statement reveals.

The new funding paves the way for the UK's first university-led multi-satellite space mission. The team will work on a new type of laser-based system that has the potential to improve satellite communications vastly.

The UK Space Agency funding will allow the consortium to design, test, and build the first CubeSat with laser optical communications technology, to launch it in 2025.

Lasers strapped to CubeSats

The team behind the new system leads a consortium that aims to develop the world's first commercially available system that communicates with separate satellites using lasers rather than radio frequencies.

Today, satellites typically use radio frequencies to transmit data. The issue with radio communications is that it is more vulnerable to disruption and has a limited capacity.

In theory, Lasers can transmit 1,000 times more data per second than radio frequency and can also do so more securely.

The Northumbria University team has partnered with Durham University, satellite communications specialists e2E, and manufacturing company SMS Electronics Limited. It also recently expanded to include global aerospace company Lockheed Martin, which will lead the system's engineering development.

Earlier this year, NASA demonstrated the incredible capacity of space-based laser communication by performing the fast data transmission ever in orbit using its TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system. The Chinese Academy of Sciences also recently completed a test that showed a 10x faster communication capability using lasers.

Building a prototype for space

The Northumbria team had previously received more than £1 million in funding from the UK Space Agency. In 2020, it was one of 22 projects chosen to receive funding as part of the agency's National Space Innovation Programme. The Northumbria team's technology is only one of two projects to be selected for the last, third round of funding.

The team said that this previous funding had established the working principles for a compact, high-speed inter-satellite laser optical communication device prototype. With the new financing, it will continue to develop the technology to test it in space.

"We are now ready to follow a rigorous technology-readiness process to build and test of 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," Professor Robert Wicks, head of Northumbria University's Space Technology Laboratory explained in the statement.

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