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Coherent Optics In Space

Coherent Optics In Space

When it started, the space race was a competition between two superpowers, but now there are 90 countries with missions in space.

The prices of space travel have gone down, making it possible for more than just governments to send rockets and satellites into space. Several private companies are now investing in space programs, looking for everything from scientific advances to business opportunities. Some reports estimate more than 10,000 companies in the space industry and around 5,000 investors.

According to The Space Foundation’s 2022 report, the space economy was worth $469 billion in 2021. The report says more spacecraft were launched in the first six months of 2021 than in the first 52 years of space exploration (1957-2009). This growing industry has thus a growing need for technology products across many disciplines, including telecommunications. The space sector will need lighter, more affordable telecommunication systems that also provide increased bandwidth.

This is why EFFECT Photonics sees future opportunities for coherent technology in the space industry. By translating the coherent transmission from fiber communication systems on the ground to free-space optical systems, the space sector can benefit from solutions with more bandwidth capacity and less power consumption than traditional point-to-point microwave links.

It’s all About SWaP

One of the major concerns of the space industry is the cost of sending anything into space. Even during the days of NASA’s Space Shuttle program (which featured a reusable shuttle unit), sending a kilogram into space cost tens of thousands of dollars. Over time, more rocket stages have become reusable due to the efforts of companies like SpaceX, reducing these costs to just a few thousand. The figure below shows how the cost of space flight has decreased significantly in the last two decades.

The cost of a space flight since 2000
Figure 1: The cost of a kilogram of payload into space since 2000. Source: Visual Capitalist (data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies)

Even though space travel is more affordable than ever, size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements are still vital in the space industry. After all, shaving off weight or size in the spacecraft means a less expensive launch or perhaps room for more scientific instruments. Meanwhile, less power consumption means less drain on the spacecraft’s energy sources.

Using Optics and Photonics to Minimize SWaP Requirements

Currently, most space missions use bulkier radio frequency communications to send data to and from spacecraft. While radio waves have a proven track record of success in space missions, generating and collecting more mission data requires enhanced communications capabilities. Besides, radiofrequency equipment can often generate a lot of heat, requiring more energy to cool the system.

Decreasing SWaP requirements can be achieved with more photonics and miniaturization. Transmitting data with light will usually dissipate less than heat than transmission with electrical signals and radio waves. These leads to smaller, lighter communication systems that require less power to run.

These SWaP advantages come alongside the increased transmission speeds. After all, coherent optical communications can increase link capacities to spacecraft and satellites by 10 to 100 times that of radio frequency systems.

Leveraging Electronics Ecosystems for Space Certification and Standardization

While integrated photonics can boost space communications by lowering the payload, it must overcome the obstacles of a harsh space environment, which include radiation hardness, an extreme operational temperature range, and vacuum conditions.

Mission TypeTemperature Range
Pressurized Module+18.3 ºC to 26.7 °C
Low-Earth Orbit (LEO)-65 ºC to +125 °C
Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO)-196 ºC to +128 °C
Trans-Atmospheric Vehicle-200 ºC to +260 ºC
Lunar Surface-171 ºC to +111 ºC
Martian Surface-143 ºC to +27 ºC
Table 1.  Temperature Extremes by Mission Type. Source: NASA

The values in Table 1 show the unmanaged environmental temperatures in different space environments. In a temperature-managed area, these would decrease significantly for electronics and optics systems, perhaps by as much as half. Despite this management, the equipment would still need to deal with some extreme temperature values.

Fortunately, a substantial body of knowledge exists to make integrated photonics compatible with space environments. After all, photonic integrated circuits (PICs) use similar materials to their electronic counterparts, which have already been space qualified in many implementations.

Much research has gone into overcoming the challenges of packaging PICs with electronics and optical fibers for these space environments, which must include hermetic seals and avoid epoxies.  Commercial solutions, such as those offered by PHIX Photonics Assembly, Technobis IPS, and the PIXAPP Photonic Packaging Pilot Line, are now available.


Whenever you want to send data from point A to B, photonics is usually the most efficient way of doing it, be it over fiber or free space.

Offering optical communication systems in a small integrated package that can resist the required environmental conditions will significantly benefit the space sector and its need to minimize SWaP requirements. These optical systems can increase their transmission capacity with the coherent optical transmission used in fiber optics. Furthermore, by leveraging the assembly and packaging structure of electronics for the space sector, photonics can also provide the systems with the ruggedness required to live in space.

Corlia van Tonder

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