Until 2021, optical communications with Aerospace Corp. AeroCubes were handled by a single, manually operated terminal located in El Segundo, CA. To address weather and cost challenges, Aerospace installed two remote optical ground terminals in Maui and Albuquerque (pictured). Credit: Aerospace Corp.

LOGAN, Utah – The Aerospace Corp. is developing a network of remotely operated optical communications terminals to support existing and future small satellite missions.

To date, much of the optical communications research and development has been focused on reducing the size and cost of the space-based terminals. In order to make optical communications operational, it’s also important to develop a cost-efficient ground infrastructure, Darren Rowen, Aerospace Small Satellite Department director, told SpaceNews.

Aerospace, a federally funded research and development center focused on space, demonstrated laser communications in 2018 with two Optical Communications Satellite Demonstration cubesats. For OCSD space-to-ground communications, Aerospace built an optical ground station prototype that two people operated in El Segundo, California.

With similar technology, Aerospace established remotely operated optical communications ground stations in Maui, Hawaii, and at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Currently, Aerospace is evaluating whether to install a third station at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

“We are going to have a network of three off-the-grid stations that are remotely controllable,” Rowen said. “We’re working toward making them fully autonomous.”

Aerospace operational missions underway, including the Rogue Alpha and Beta cubesats, are delivering imagery to the remotely operated optical ground stations. The Rogue cubesats, which Aerospace built and operates for the U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command, gather visible and shortwave infrared imagery of rocket launches, volcanoes, wildfires and weather phenomena.

For decades satellites have primarily sent data to the ground through RF signals to satellite dishes around the world. Those dishes require no human operators.

“We’re trying to get to the same operational point because paying people to operate the ground stations would be too expensive,” Rowen said.

Government agencies and companies are experimenting with optical communications as a way to speed up data transfer. Aerospace’s OCSD mission has transmitted data at a rate of 200 megabits per second. Engineers are working on an upgrade aimed at increasing the speed to 800 megabits per second.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...