By: Matt Daneman
October 25, 2018
In use for years by civil space agencies and getting interest from the earth observation industry, there’s no clear picture of how soon a commercial rollout of optical satellite communications might occur. Industry participants see that imminent but industry watchers are more conservative. One aspect that makes the field attractive is the lack of FCC or ITU regulation, which is far off, we were told. “These are serious people and serious investors making this happen; they wouldn’t be engaged if this was speculative,” said Aerospace Vice President-Space Systems Frank Slazer.
There’s sizable interest in optical, with the satellite industry sure to adopt the technology, but “we’re still at fairly early stages” before that happens, said Northern Sky Research analyst Carolyn Belle. She said the technology still needs developing, and the traditionally risk-averse satellite industry will need to “see heritage on a given technology before putting it on a satellite. You don’t want to go all-in on a technology that might not be totally proven yet.” Belle said there’s much satellite industry interest in optical inter-satellite links (ISL) and a number of systems have been designed around that. ISLs are the child market today, agreed Robert Brumley, CEO of Laser Communications, which is working on a global optical network of satellites and fiber that plans to compete with terrestrial cable.
A big hurdle for wider government and commercial use has been weather interference and the need to develop architectures that are resilient to that form of signal degradation, said Kevin Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations, which makes optical amplifiers, modems, terminals and end-to-end systems for optical communications systems. “I feel we’re there; this is a technology ready for prime time,” he said. He said years of R&D by agencies like NASA and the Air Force helped refine the laser pointing systems and other tech and demonstrate its viability to the commercial market. Eventually, it will be the data backbone for satellites, given increasing spectrum crunches, though that transition will take years due to lifespans of satellites, he said. Optical, like high-frequency RF, also is vulnerable to atmospheric conditions, and requires a variety of ground sites in case one is covered by clouds, Belle said, noting weather issues are manageable: “It’s just a question of how you do that.”