The International Space Centre at The University of Western Australia has been awarded Federal funding to advance optical communications between Earth and space – just a month after the centre was launched.
Optical lasers could enable the transfer of data through space at rates thousands of times greater than can currently be achieved using radio signals.
The three-year research project has received $1 million funding from the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre, a consortium of universities and research institutions partnered with industry to advance our ability to operate from space.
Unlike standard optical fibre networks that carry the bulk of the world's internet traffic, data rates over free-space optical communication laser links are limited by the destructive impact of atmospheric turbulence on the transmitted optical signals.
The UWA team will investigate a unique combination of atmospheric turbulence mitigation technologies, including adaptive optics and coherent phase stabilisation, to correct unintended variations in the optical signal.
Project lead Dr Sascha Schediwy, from the UWA node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, said the project aimed to develop and demonstrate high-speed, free-space optical communications via laser links between a ground station and airborne vehicles.
“We will demonstrate optical fibre-like data rates to drones, aircraft, and stratospheric balloons, as means to prove this technology prior to its deployment on future satellites,” Dr Schediwy said.
The advanced free-space communication technologies being developed will be integrated into the Western Australian Optical Ground Station, currently based at UWA.
Interim Head of the International Space Centre Associate Professor Danail Obreschkow said a global network of optical ground stations based on the technology could provide significant benefits to modern society.
“Future satellites utilising such high-speed optical communication technologies would drastically improve disaster management, including live tracking of wild fires, storms, sea ice, and flooding, Associate Professor Obreschkow said.
The project includes partners from the University of South Australia, the Department of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Group, Thales Australia, Thales Alenia Space, and Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd.