Northumbria University enters next phase in developing a shoebox-size comms satellite

Researchers are collaborating on a new satellite system based on shrinking laser communications into a device no bigger than a shoebox

UK Space Agency has awarded Northumbria University almost £650,000 to fund the development of a commercially available laser-based inter-satellite communications system.

Researchers at the university are working to develop a laser-based communications system for small satellites, known as CubeSats, which they believe has the potential to transform the satellite communications industry. 

By using lasers instead of radio frequency, the CubeSats become much more secure and can transmit 1,000 times more data per second. 

Total funding for the project has now reached  £1m, which Northumbria University said is helping the research team to build and test their laser system over the next 12 months.

Working in partnership with Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, Gateshead-based satellite communications technology company e2E Group and telecoms and electronics manufacturing company SMS Electronics, the project involves piecing together three CubeSats. These devices, roughly the size of a shoebox, will hold the new laser communication system. 

Cyril Bourgenot, technology development lead at Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, said: “This new technology will enable communication between satellites at an unprecedented speed. The challenge in this project is to fit all this cutting-edge technology into only three CubeSat units, basically the size of a whisky bottle box.” 

The ultimate aim is to develop an off-the-shelf product for major global organisations and telecoms providers that can be sent into orbit easily and cheaply and which will improve data transfer in space. According to Northumbria University, the CubeSat system will also improve real-time satellite monitoring of environmental issues on Earth, enabling climate scientists to see high-resolution images and even live-streaming of remote areas. 

Science minister George Freeman said the award will help the UK put into action the latest advances in space innovation. “Satellites in space are helping us solve some of the most significant challenges we face,” he said. “Through the National Space Strategy, we are putting the UK at the forefront of unleashing these innovations. This new funding will take game-changing ideas from the UK space sector and our brilliant scientists and turn them into reality.”

Project lead Eamon Scullion, a solar physicist in Northumbria’s Solar-Terrestrial Science research group, said: “This award will enable us to move to the next phase of our plans, where we can put our ideas into practice to build and test our designs.We need to carefully design, test and miniaturise electronic boards, optical lasers, receivers and transmitters which can fit together in the satellites and be ‘space qualified’, meaning they will be tested to ensure they continue to work at an optimal level while in orbit, dealing with the impact of radiation, atmospheric drag and extremely cold space temperatures.”

The first devices are expected to be tested in early 2023, with a goal to send them into orbit by 2025.

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