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Research & Development

Orbital Systems project aims to boost optical space comms

20 Jan 2021

French partners Cailabs, Onera, and CNES to develop, evaluate atmospheric turbulence compensation module.

Cailabs, Rennes, France, a technology company that develops photonic solutions to maximize the industrial potential of beam shaping, is to team up with French aerospace lab ONERA to collaborate on the CNES research and technology program called Orbital Systems.

The aim of this 18-month program is to improve laser satellite communication solutions by developing a module to compensate for atmospheric turbulence. To achieve this, the two organizations, with the support of CNES, will pool their respective expertise in beam shaping, optical communications in turbulent environments, and orbital systems.

Some of the background to this work was described in PICOLO: turbulence simulator for adaptive optics systems assessment in the context of ground-satellite optical links in the latest SPIE Remote Sensing digital conference, in October 2020.

Laser communications ventured into space in 2001 with an inter-satellite link operated by CNES and ESA. Over the last 20 years, the explosion of in-flight data processed by the new constellations of telecom and observation satellites has been a game changer. Dozens of terabytes of information now have to be sent back to earth every day at throughput rates that radio frequency technologies are struggling to keep up with.

The advantage of laser communication is its virtually unlimited theoretical throughput. It is already widely deployed via optical fiber in ground-based telecom infrastructures using standard, mature components. Also, unlike RF, laser communications are difficult to detect and they are not susceptible to interference. These are important issues for space-based communication, which is closely linked to national defense.

The aim of this project is to develop and evaluate the performance of an innovative atmospheric turbulence compensation module specifically designed for laser communications with satellites. One of the key barriers to the deployment of laser communication technologies is an efficient, competitive interface between light from space and standard ground-based telecommunications equipment. The atmosphere is inhomogeneous and is disturbed by atmospheric turbulence, which distorts the light wavefront and hinders coupling in standard optical components.

‘High precision’

“Cailabs' Multi-Plane Light Conversion technology allows us to shape light beams extremely precisely,” said David Allioux, laser communications product manager at Cailabs. “This allows us to collect a beam of light, even if it is very perturbated, in a standard telecommunications optical fiber.”

With over 20 years' experience, ONERA's optics department researches and implements adaptive optics systems for optical communications. It will work with Cailabs to develop this new technology and evaluate its performance on representative links, such as the one modeled with the PICOLO1 optical bench.

“By collaborating with French organizations such as CNES and ONERA, which are internationally recognized in the field of space-based communication, we hope to contribute to the emergence of a French industry in optical space communications,” said Jean-François Morizur, CEO of Cailabs. “This is, of course, a technological and industrial issue, but it is also a sovereignty issue because it's directly linked to safeguarding means of communication.”

In the long term, the Rennes-based company's ambition is to enable the widespread deployment of laser communications, not only with satellites, but also between ships, aircraft and drones. These applications are being closely monitored by the civil and military sectors.

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