A high-resolution radar observation satellite carrying a laser communications terminal has been booked for an October launch on a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket. Space-to-ground tests of the high-speed laser link are set to start early next year, according to the system prime contractor Tesat-Spacecom GmbH & Co. KG.
Tesat is scheduled to deliver its 25-kilogram laser communications hardware to EADS Astrium in June for integration into the TerraSAR-X satellite, a public-private partnership in which EADS’ Infoterra subsidiary and the German government share use of the 1-meter resolution imagery.
The same Tesat hardware is scheduled to fly in 2007 aboard the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite as part of a U.S.-German governmental agreement. TerraSAR-X and NFIRE will test communications links at a speed of 5.5 gigabits per second.
Tesat’s laser communications terminal is riding as a co-passenger on the launch as part of a multi year program by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, to prove the value of laser intersatellite links.
Germany also is leading development of a small geostationary-orbiting satellite program as part of the European Space Agency’s Artes 11 technology-development effort. Tesat Chief Executive Berry Smutny said Tesat is in negotiations to place a laser terminal on the first of these geostationary satellites. OHB Technology, Bremen, Germany, is the expected prime contractor. The European Space Agency has identified data relay — with which it has in-orbit experience — as a future priority for its security-related space program conducted with the European Commission. Beaming Earth observation data from a low-orbiting satellite to a spacecraft in geostationary orbit, and then sending it to ground stations, is a principal future application. Laser communications is also one of the candidate payloads for Europe’s AlphaSat satellite, which is designed to test numerous new technologies. AlphaSat is unlikely to be in orbit before 2011, however.
While Tesat technology has been funded by the German government and now-departed prospective Tesat commercial customers, Smutny expects most future business will be U.S. military satellite programs. Backnang, Germany-based Tesat recently concluded a cooperation accord with General Dynamics C4 Systems, Scottsdale, Ariz., to market the technology in the United States.
The U.S.-German governmental accord on NFIRE already has given Tesat’s laser technology a passport into the United States. Smutny said future work, mainly on U.S. classified satellite programs, made it essential to find a U.S. partner. “Laser communications terminals are considered strategic technologies at some companies in the United States,” Smutny said March 31. “Without a strong partner in this area, our chances for new business are not as good. There are several [U.S. classified] programs in the next six years or so that are promising for us. General Dynamics has been a good partner for us.”
The TerraSAR and NFIRE laser missions follow a successful series of ground-to-ground tests of the Tesat terminals late last year. During the tests in Spain’s Canary Islands, two Tesat laser terminals were placed on island mountaintops at 2,000 meters in elevation about 142 kilometers apart.
The highly concentrated infrared laser beams tend to disperse as they travel through the atmosphere in what is sometimes referred to as a “shower-curtain” effect. Ground-to-ground communications are not viewed as a future market. But Smutny said the tests nonetheless validated the laser terminals’ performance.
Once TerraSAR-X is in orbit, initial tests of the Tesat laser units will be conducted from DLR’s Ob erpfaffenhofen research facility. A separate optical ground station in Spain also likely will be used. Tesat is operated as an independent company but is 100-percent owned by EADS Astrium. Smutny said one example of Tesat’s independence is that it currently does more business with U.S. prime contractors than with EADS Astrium. Tesat builds satellite components including tube amplifiers, and in 2005 posted its best year ever, with sales of 117 million euros ($140.9 million), Smutny said. He said 2006 should surpass that, with sales of around 130 million euros.