R. Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
In the 60s and 70s, scientists had carte blanche to develop space instruments. However, in todayis cost-conscious space programs, laser designers look towards Earth and improving commercial technologies to meet cost guidelines and accomplish mission objectives.
Ruby lasers with rotating mirror Q-switches flew on the final three Apollo missions in the early 1970s, but for the15 years after that, lasers remained within the Earth's atmosphere (except for some military applications). More recently, lasers have become practical for space applications such as topographic mapping and atmospheric studies.
Diode laser systems have proven their resistance to the harsh launch and space environments, generating significant funding and research interest. Dozens of communications companies are investigating lasers as the means of transmitting data and conversations from Earth to broadband satellite communications constellations and between satellites.
A large part of these applications' success lies in material selection and design. Lasers, like all instruments that ride into Earth orbit or beyond, must withstand radiation, large thermal variations, shock and vibration.
Laser Communications Business is No Science
Before a satellite laser communications business can be successful, it has to overcome one major hurdle: the scientists who run it.
Jim Freidell, president of the satellite communications market research company Daedalian Technologies in Littleton, Colo., said the infant satellite communications industry draws from its mother, the aerospace industry. Unfortunately, he said, the industry has very little experience in running a business based on bottom lines, private customers and market savvy.