Light-based networks in outer space are changing the paradigm for terrestrial communications.
Driving through the open countryside on a clear night, you may see thousands of stars dotting the sky, and maybe a few satellites, too. While those stars are at least trillions of kilometres away, satellites manufactured on Earth can be as close as 400 km. Today, more than 2,500 artificial satellites populate the skies, and within the next 10 years that could grow to 50,000.
Satellites already touch every part of our lives. They provide telecommunications connections at the speed of light—and can reach into the farthest ends of the Earth. They follow weather patterns to help meteorologists with their forecasts. They beam internet, TV and GPS signals for public and government use. And satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station help scientists explore space in new and exciting ways.
In an era of soaring demand for universal, affordable internet service and unlimited bandwidth—accelerated by the global COVID-19 pandemic—the importance of satellites is skyrocketing. They have stellar advantages over traditional fibre optics, particularly in rural and remote areas. However, to provide the same data rates as optical fibres, satellites must use optical signals (lasers) rather than current radio signals that are considerably slower, and clouds on a stormy day or even normal fluctuations of air density can block or disrupt optical signals.
"Part of the research we're doing is to try to overcome such challenges," says Dr. Sylvain Raymond, Deputy Director of High-throughput and Secure Networks, a challenge program delivered by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). This ties in to the main focus of the research which, as part of the program, is to find innovative options that provide Canadians in sparsely populated rural and remote regions with affordable networking capabilities similar to fibre-optic networks in dense urban areas.
"Optical satellite communications could be the most disruptive way to achieve these hyper-connectivity goals for all populations," adds Dr. Raymond. "Using narrow, focussed laser beams rather than widely dispersed RF signals, satellites could send much more information more securely, as well as avoid the need for spectrum allocation." Laser signals linking the ground network to satellite constellations could generate a huge leap forward in bandwidth and coverage, as light-based networks can transport about 10 to 100 times more data, enabling transfer speeds of terabits per second. As companies around the world begin to deploy constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites that communicate constantly not only with ground stations but also each other, solving problems and carving out solutions for the Canadian space industry has become a top priority.
Launching solutions via collaboration
The NRC quickly realized that bringing the satellite vision down to earth would require talent and brainpower from all levels of academia, government and industry. After extensive consultations with representatives from related sectors, the High-throughput and Secure Networks Challenge program signed a 5-year consortium agreement in November 2019 with 16 Canadian organizations that brought the right mix of leadership, experience and capability to the table.
"This consortium established a cohesive R&D group that has the ability to go from basic research and prototype demonstration to commercialization of space-based telecommunication systems," says Ryan Anderson, President, Satellite Canada Innovation Network (SatCan). "We have some of Canada's best leaders taking on the challenge, and together we are building the infrastructure to bridge the digital divide between urban and remote areas."
The NRC's decades of research expertise in photonics for fibre telecommunications is a crucial element of the equation because this knowledge can be readily adapted for optical satellite communications. Photonics, which manipulates particles of light that make up laser beams, has the potential to transform the space sector.
Shedding light from the industry point of view is Guillaume Lamontagne, Director of Technology (Payloads) at the Satellite Systems division of MDA—a leading Canadian provider of space systems and satellites for more than 50 years. He points out that, throughout the lengthy R&D process, consortium members are keeping an eye out for practical commercial uses of optical satellite communications. "In the end, satellite technology must meet customers' business needs and performance requirements," he says. "And once we develop products, there is a robust supply chain involving hundreds of companies that can participate in manufacturing, both in Canada and abroad."
According to Dr. Raymond, optical satellite communications promises to become the great enabler for all Canadians by providing telecommunication service standards in rural and remote communities that are currently only offered in more urban areas across Canada.
"The consortium is looking at the entire optical satellite communications ecosystem, finding gaps and great opportunities for Canadian companies so they can get acquainted with the right technologies early on," he says. And this will position Canada as a strong global leader in the satellite communications galaxy.
The challenge programs are part of a suite of collaborative R&D initiatives bringing together researchers and facilities from across the NRC's 14 research centres with academic and industrial partners. Grant and contribution funding is provided through the NRC's National Program Office for collaborators who offer complementary expertise, including academic institutions and small and medium-sized enterprises.