UKSA Grants Northumbria University £5m For Laser Communications System

26th Jul 2023
UKSA Grants Northumbria University £5m For Laser Communications System

UK Space Agency (UKSA) has awarded Northumbria University nearly £5 million in funding for their student-led inter-satellite laser communication system. With this injection of funds from UKSA: “Northumbria’s laser-based device could potentially become the predominant communications mechanism for satellites in future,” the University said in a press release. Now, the University’s Solar and Physics Research Group are working towards constructing the first university-led multi-satellite system using their laser communication technology.

Northumbria’s Laser Optical Communications Technology

Under development since 2020, Northumbria’s new satellite-to-satellite laser communication system will allow satellites to communicate through lasers rather than radio frequencies. Currently, satellites primarily use radio frequencies to transmit data, but these frequencies can make the satellites more vulnerable to disruptions. However, lasers are highly secure and have the ability to transmit 1,000 times more data per second, making them more favourable, according to the student team.  

The University said: “[our] new laser-based system… has the potential to transform the satellite communications industry.” 

“We have established the working principles and a prototype of a unique, compact, lightweight, high-speed inter-satellite laser optical communication device,” Project lead and solar physicist, Professor Emon Scullion, added.

Funding The Student-Led Project

UKSA’s funding will help the Northumbria University’s student team take their laser system to the next level by integrating it into the first university-led CubeSat satellite. Credit: Northumbria University

Previously, UKSA awarded Northumbria £1 million in a series of funding rounds – through the National Space Innovation Programme – to research and engineer their inter-satellite communications system. Originally, there were 22 projects receiving funding; however, for the third and final funding round, only two projects remain, Northumbria being one of them. The students will now put their research to the test by designing, testing, and building the first university-led CubeSat satellite with laser optical communications technology, expected to launch in 2025.

Partnering With Experts

Through Northumbria’s Space Technology Laboratory, the student team has been working in partnership with Durham University to develop the laser satellite communication network. They have also been collaborating with SMS Electronics to manufacture the laser-based system. Recent expansion has led to Northumbria joining forces with US aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, who are tasked with “leading the system’s engineering development”.

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