Optical lights up nascent space communications applications market

Research highlights potential of what it calls “exciting and rapidly developing” global market for optical communications terminals driven by NGSO broadband constellations

Inter-satellite communications via optical links are rapidly becoming the preferred means of transmission in space, and are opening up a dynamic new market for optical communications terminals and inter-satellite links driven by the growing number of non-geostationary earth orbit (NGSO) broadband constellations, according to a study from Euroconsult.

The Optical Communications Market report contains analysis of the equipment and services using optical data transmission links which are gaining traction due to their inherent potential advantages to satellite operators. These include higher data throughput rates, which are essential for handling the continuous global increase in demand for data exchange in the booming satellite sector. Another key advantage is the narrowness of the light beam, which makes it more complicated to intercept and helps ensure information security. Source incoherence also significantly reduces communication systems interference, an essential prerequisite for large constellations such as those from the likes of Starlink and OneWeb.

Euroconsult predicts that over the three categories of applications for optical communications terminals, inter-satellite links (ISL) are largely dominant, driven by increasing adoption among NGSO broadband constellations. Optical inter-satellite links (OISL) terminals are expected to surpass 70,000 units in orbit by 2031.

Even though the report notes that major satellite constellation operators see the benefits of switching inter-satellite communication from mainly radiofrequency electromagnetic waves to optical or laser communication, it also observes that there are key technological challenges to address before widespread adoption. This includes link reliability governed by beam accuracy.

Optical communications will also enable data-relay space services thanks to terminals used for third-party communications, usually to transfer data to satellites orbiting at different altitudes. Euroconsult added that companies such as Skyloom have been founded for this purpose. Though less than 10 data-relay capable satellites were in orbit at the end of 2021, the report expects the number of such terminals to grow constantly over the decade to reach 250 units by 2031. Earth observation (EO) data providers are expected to be the main stimulators for this growth.

Euroconsult also believes that a further type of optical communication terminal will be used for direct-to-earth communications, but given the physical constraints for such communications, the technology is not yet mature, and development efforts are being made by most manufacturers. That said, the analyst said the technology is still expected to equip a rising number of satellites post-2025 and should reach around 450 units by 2031, encompassing most satellite applications.

Looking at how the market will develop, Euroconsult said that to support manufacturing development, standardisation efforts are being undertaken at the initiative of the US government under its Space Development Agency programme with the objectives of lowering prices and increasing technology adoption across different types of satellites. It predicted current prices of around a million dollars per terminal will decrease to less than $100,000 at the end of the decade. While current market leaders such as TESAT-Spacecom, Mynaric and Honeywell are all taking part in this initiative, potential new entrants are also involved, and are ready to take their shares of the market when it will accelerate.

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