How laser communication may sharpen future navigation systems

© NASA

deEven before satellite television, most people clearly are more familiar with the application of satellites in the field of navigation. For decades, satellites have been providing more and more precise position data in various different global navigation satellite systems such as GPS, GLONASS, Galileo or Beidou. More than just allowing people to navigate through unknown territories, those systems essentially enable globalization in its core, with all its global value-, goods-, and data streams.

Responsible for that are the large number of satellites in a system that are permanently in contact with each other, exchanging position and time fata and thus calculate their relative position to one another and to Earth. In order to determine a position on Earth’s surface, vector and positioning data from several satellites simultaneously is required. At the present time, all of this still works exclusively via radio signals.

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Mission scenario suggested in OTTEX-Pre © DLR

Recently, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) launched an initial research program that is intended to check and validate the functionality of optical communication solutions. As part of an ESA tender by the Institute of Communications and Navigation at the DLR, the possibility of experimental use of optical technology (clocks, frequency comb, laser communications and laser distance determination) on the Galileo transition satellites is to be investigated and technically detailed. TESAT, as an industry partner, is part of this research project and happy to support in this pioneering research project called “OTTEx-Pre”.

What does laser communication have to do with all of this?

In short: a lot. Not only can distances be determined much more precisely with the help of lasers, data can also be transmitted at a much higher data transmission rate and – above all else – at a much higher speed. This reduces latency times and enables more precise communication and a more precise comparison of the various parameters. This “faster & more precise”-chain continues through to the data transmission to the ground and thus to the end user.

The advantages of laser communication

Precision and speed are not only sales-promoting buzzwords in a “higher, faster, further”-society, but also an essential factor on a technical level for the further development of existing systems and applications. In the field of local public transport, global freight traffic on land, oceans and in the air, or in agriculture, this information is a real game changer and enables future-oriented fields of application. Such can already be seen in the currently experimental field of autonomous driving.

With the help of laser communication, all of these fields can be further developed, expanded and made even more efficient. Laser communication is also much more secure: optical data signals can hardly be jammed, eavesdropped or manipulated. In addition to civil areas such as air traffic control, interference-free information is essential and an immense advantage, especially in the area of ​​military use.

All of this is still a long way off, and the next generations of current global navigation satellite systems will probably not rely on optical data transmission yet – but in all probability, the next ones will. Therefore, laser communication is revolutionizing the everyday systems of the future, at least in research projects.

Header image copyright © NASA

© Tesat-Spacecom GmbH & Co. KG, 2021
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