Are laser links ready for prime time?

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PASADENA, Calif. — Although NASA’s Mars Laser Communications Demonstration never flew, the project proceeded far enough to establish a price for terminals to relay data for the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter: $90 million.

In contrast, costs for NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) terminals were “on the order of $30 million” and the space agency is likely to pay $10 million to $15 million for Orion crew capsule laser terminals, said Bernard Edwards, LCRD chief engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA’s TeraByte InfraRed Delivery, a cubesat to demonstrate optical links from the ground to low Earth orbit, will employ $100,000 terminals, he added.

“The bottom line is the costs are coming down,” Edwards said May 21 at the Space Tech Expo here. “That’s what we have to do to make this realistic: get cost out of there.”

Private companies are addressing that challenge and proving optical communications systems are ready for government and commercial applications, said Barry Matsumori, chief executive for BridgeSat, a company building a network of laser-equipped ground stations.

Several companies including BridgeSat sell optical communications terminals or ground stations. Satellite communications service providers, meanwhile, are adopting the technology.

Kongsberg Satellite Services is working with Tesat-Spacecom to add optical nodes to its ground station network. “By adding optical to the mix this year, we are making a high data-rate option available,” said Katherine Monson, KSAT USA head.

Still, laser terminal prices need to fall further before the technology is adopted widely. Matsumori sees progress on that front as the industry adopts electronics from the fiber optic industry. In addition, manufacturing techniques like 3D printing are helping to reduce the cost of optical head assemblies, he added.

Once demand picks up, “the cost per unit will go way down,”  Matsumori said.