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Prospects Abound for Photonics in Space

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For European companies, the space market has always been a key avenue for photonics technologies. That’s due in large part to the relatively short time to market using the tender system enabled by the European Space Agency (ESA), the ability to bypass volume manufacturing roadmaps and the strong demand for edge technologies and highly reliable components.

Photonics is critical to reducing size and data handling of future satellites.

Photonics is critical to reducing size and data handling of future satellites. Courtesy of EPIC.

Over the last year at EPIC, we have embarked on helping our members develop their technologies under a set of mutually agreed upon priorities. These include fostering the development of free-space communications over large distances, earth observation and navigation, reducing payloads for miniature satellites, high-resolution measurement systems and improving the reliability and qualification of optical packaging. Additional priorities address information processing and transmission in telecom satellites, including the links for on-board data handling and the processing units and future technologies for science.

Free-space communications Laser-based free-space communication between space terminals and Earth-based stations is a particular focus, as it addresses the limitations of radio frequency communications, with added values mainly related to enabling higher bandwidth and smaller, lighter and less power-hungry communication modules. Depending on the mission application, an optical communications solution could achieve 50 percent savings in mass, enabling decreased spacecraft weight; 65 percent savings in power, enabling increased mission life; and up to 20 times increase in data rate. Increasing data rates enable increased data collection and reduced mission operations complexity.

An embedded hybrid sun sensor used in CubeSats.

An embedded hybrid sun sensor used in CubeSats. Courtesy of CSEM.

In essence, while a microwave link’s bandwidth might be entirely consumed by a single 30-GHz channel, a laser link could support 1000 of these channels and only consume 10 percent of the carrier channel. Photonic integrated circuits (PICs) based on silicon or indium phosphide are going to play a major role in this change. VLC Photonics, a design house for most of the PIC foundries worldwide, is working with ESA toward future use in applications such as clock recovery or optical switching and, in general, for handling the vast amount of information in, for instance, telecom satellites.

Observing Earth

Beyond communications, photonics plays a major role in Earth observation. A single satellite image has the potential to reveal the spread of air pollution across a continent, the precise damage done in a region struck by an earthquake or forest fires, or the entire span of a 500-km hurricane from the calmness of its eye to its outermost storm fronts. Looking back through archived satellite data shows us the steady clearing of the world’s rainforests, an apparent annual rise in sea level approaching 2 mm a year and the depletion of the ozone layer by atmospheric pollution.

A CubeSat where a hybrid sun sensor is integrated.

A CubeSat where a hybrid sun sensor is integrated. Courtesy of CSEM.

One major class of Earth observation instruments is termed optical because the instruments obtain data by recording this reflected energy across various wavelengths, including visible light and invisible infrared bands. The number of bands available to an optical instrument is called its spectral resolution, and a higher resolution allows more accurate characterization of different materials. Spectrometer manufacturer Avantes, in the Netherlands, has been closely collaborating with ESA in that respect.

Proton irradiation test setup for reliability tests of distributed feedback (DFB) lasers for space applications.

Proton irradiation test setup for reliability tests of distributed feedback (DFB) lasers for space applications. Courtesy of Eagleyard Photonics.

Satellite subsystems

In cameras and spectrometers, optical and photonic components have been widely used for several decades, while the use of photonic technologies within radar, telecom and navigation payloads is certainly less mature, in spite of some technological demonstrators having already been developed. Photonics can play a key role in nearly all subsystems forming a satellite platform because of its intrinsic advantages with respect to conventional technologies.

Optoelectronic gyroscopes have routinely been included in altitude and orbit control systems for several decades, and some important advantages of optical fibers in the implementation of on-board data buses have been proved in several space missions, starting from the 1990s. Since their first utilization in space in 1958, solar cells have been included in the power supply subsystem of all satellites. Mapping of strain and temperature in some critical sections of the spacecraft can benefit from fiber Bragg grating technology, whose space applicability has already been proved.

 Mapping of strain and temperature in some critical sections of the spacecraft can benefit from fiber Bragg grating technology.

Mapping of strain and temperature in some critical sections of the spacecraft can benefit from fiber Bragg grating technology. Courtesy of EPIC.

Finally, optical wireless links to transfer data from one satellite to another, or from a satellite to a ground station, have been successfully demonstrated in some recent space missions. In this last case, the ground station is equipped with an appropriate optical terminal, including many photonic components. Some launchers are equipped with optoelectronic gyros for attitude control, while the fiber Bragg grating technology seems to be very advantageous to monitor the tanks in specific types of launchers. Furthermore, in the reduction of the payloads, PICs play a major role, with companies like Optocap and Alter Technology managing their qualification for space applications. Companies like Technobis Fibre Technologies have also used PICs for the interrogation of fiber Bragg grating sensors.

Meet the author Jose Pozo is the director of technology and innovation at EPIC (European Photonics Industry Consortium). He has 15 years’ background in photonics technology and market knowledge, and a large network within the industrial and academic photonics landscape. Jose is a member of the board of the IEEE Photonics Society Benelux. He holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Bristol in England and a M.Sc. and B.Eng. in telecom engineering.


EPIC wishes to thank the members of EPIC who constantly share their vision and ambitions; in particular, for this article we would like to acknowledge Avantes, CSEM, LioniX International, Alter Technology, eagleyard Photonics, Linkra, TU Eindhoven, TNO, VLC Photonics, Diamond Fiber and Technobis Fibre Technologies.

Summer 2017
EPICEuropean Photonics Industry ConsortiumJose PozoESAEuropean Space Agencylaser-based free space communicationsphotonic integrated circuitssilicon photonics. PICsaerospace Europelasersfiber opticsfiber Bragg gratingsoptical sensorsgyroscopesAvantesCSEMLioniX InternationalAlter TechnologieseagleyardLinkraTU EindhovenTNOVLC PhotonicsDiamond FiberEPIC Insights

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