COPYRIGHT 2014 MICROLAUNCHERS LLC
A key technology to enabling small spacecraft missions is a lightweight means of
communication. Laser based communications provides many benefits that make it
attractive for small microlauncher spacecraft. First, because of the high frequency of
light, the optics required to do effective communication is relatively small, much smaller
than required for even microwaves. Second, laser communication is not regulated like
radio bands. Third, highly efficient and small technology is readily available for use by
microlauncher developers at very low prices.
The basic principle of laser communication lies in the modulation of a laser source with
information which is transmitted through free space then received and demodulated to
reconstruct the original signal at the destination. Think of flashing a light on and off and
detecting that flashing from a distance. It’s that simple. Obviously, the brighter the laser
light, the farther it can be detected.
However, at the distances being used for space-based laser communication, one might
think that it would take a lot of energy. In reality, a lack of high energy at the transmitter
side can be made up for by having really sensitive detectors. There are several very
sensitive receiver technologies that lend themselves very well to space-based laser
A laser diode is a semiconductor device able to convert electrical energy into coherent
laser light. Modern laser diodes generally convert electricity to light with efficiencies
near 25% and operate at low voltages near 2.5 volts. They can even be much more
efficient, close to 70% efficient for more advanced technologies.
Laser diodes produce light at a very narrow frequency; however, the frequency is usually
specified in terms of the wavelength of the light. The relationship between light
frequency and wavelength is:
Where c is the speed of light (186,282 miles/second or 299,792,458 m/s), λ is the
wavelength in the appropriate units and f is the frequency in Hz. Knowing the frequency
of light and the energy of the beam, we can also determine how many photons are being
emitted. The equation for the photon generation rate is:
Where n is the number of photons generated per second, p is the power (in Watts), λ is
the wavelength (say in meters), h is the Planck constant (6.62606957x10^-34 Joules/s),
and c is the speed of light (299792458 meters/second).
Therefore, if we have a laser that emits 30 mW of light at 650 nm, then the number of
photons generated is:
6.62606957 10 34
n 9.82 1016
photons per second
There are several methods by which you can carry data on the laser signal, some of which
give much better performance than others.
One basic modulation technique is known as On-Off Keying (OOK). In this technique,
the laser is merely turned off and on consistent with the data to be transmitted. The signal
can also modulate a carrier frequency to allow increased noise immunity.
Pulse Position Modulation (PPM) is a different technique of transmitting data. In this
case, the presence of a signal in a time slot is used to indicate the data. Using this
technique, it might be possible to transmit more than one bit of data with each on time
Although there are many other modulation techniques, these two represent two of the
more commonly used modulation methods for laser communications.
Beam Divergence And Energy
Usually, the number of photons generated by the laser is confined to a small diameter
near the outlet of the diode laser. However, over long distances, this beam spreads out
and those photons get spread out over a larger area; this is called its divergence and is
measured as the spread angle of the emitted beam. A typical value for low cost
commercial lasers’ divergence is about 1 mRad (or milliRadian).
The relationship between degrees and radians is:
where r is in radians and d is in degrees.
Therefore, a beam divergence of 1 mRad is equivalent to a divergence angle of:
Another important aspect of understanding laser power levels is to be able to know how
many photons exist in a given area. Looking at the previous diagram, we can see two
different locations marked A1 and A2. If A1 is 5 inches away from the laser diode and
the divergence is 1 mRad, then we can calculate how many photons exist per square inch.
The equation to calculate the photons per unit of area for a diverging beam at range is:
photons per unit area
Where n is the number of photons generated by the source (per second), l is the distance
in whatever units you choose and θ is the beam divergence angle.
Looking at our earlier example we can calculate the number of photons receivable from a
spacecraft some distance from Earth. If the spacecraft is 1,000,000 miles away and it has
a 650 nm 30mW laser pointing with 0.1 mRad divergence pointed at Earth, then from our
n 9.82 1016
Using the photons per unit area equation we just introduced, we can see that the area of
the beam at Earth is:
photons per unit area
photons per unit area
photons per unit
photons per unit area 1.25 1013
photons per second / square mile
If we had a telescope of 10 inches in diameter, we could determine how many photons
per second would be received there. A 10 inch diameter telescope has an aperture area of
78.5 square inches. Since there are 4.0144896x10^9 square inches per square mile:
With a 10 inch diameter scope, there are 244000 photons per second (not counting
atmospheric losses). Using the equation relating photons per second to the power in
watts, we can determine how many watts to which this is equivalent.
p 7.43 1014
This is roughly equivalent to a 10th magnitude star in brightness. Is it possible to detect
these photons? The answer is “yes” if you use a photon counting sensors like
photomultiplier tubes or Avalanche Photo Diodes.
Photon Counting Sensors
There are several kinds of sensors that are useful for measuring weak light signals:
Charged Coupled Devices (CCD’s), Photomultiplier Tubes (PMT's) and Avalanche
Photo Diodes (APD's) are the ones most likely for microlauncher missions. Each has
different benefits for the purposes of laser communications.
Charge Coupled Devices
Charge Coupled Devices (CCD’s) are familiar as the sensors for video cameras. They
have a unique capability to build up an electrical charge on each picture element related
to the intensity of light over time. By waiting one can allow sufficient charge buildup to
count the number of arrived photons over longer durations of time. This can allow very
weak signals to be detected and imaged.
Photomultiplier Tubes (PMT’s) are an older electron tube based technology which
enables single photons to cause avalanches of electron generation within the tube; they
can have gains as high as one million. Therefore, a single photon can generate possibly
millions of electrons in the sensor and thereby make even small signals detectable.
Avalanche Photodiodes (APD’s) are solid-state diode-based sensors that operate similarly
to PMT’s. Each photon that impacts the sensor can generate many electrons which can be
detected. Therefore, they too have an in-sensor gain which enables the detection of very
Given the availability of a suitable sensor (either PMT, CCD or APD), it is necessary to
build a supportive system to make a suitable laser communications receiver. The first,
obviously, is some sort of passive light amplifier like a telescope. The optics focuses the
light impinging on a larger area to be focused to a smaller area and thereby collects more
photons than a bare sensor would be able to detect.
Another necessary component which is part of the sensing system is a suitable optical
filter which removes almost all light except the desired transmitted laser light. This
allows the signal to be more easily detected without too much extraneous light
interfering. Typically, what are known as interference filters are used because they allow
only a very narrow band of light to strike the photodetector. A filter like this greatly
reduces the amount of noise seen by the sensor.
An Integrated Transceiver
It is possible to integrate the transmission and reception functions into one assembly. This
allows a single amplifying/focusing telescope to be used for both transmission and
reception. In this example, the downlink transmitter (out from the spacecraft) uses a 650
nm laser and a 780 nm signal wavelength is used for reception. By using a dichroic
mirror/filter, the incoming 780 nm signal can be reflected towards the CCD sensor while
the outgoing 650 nm transmission laser signal passes through the filter. A 780 nm filter in
front of the CCD improves incoming signal discrimination.
Laser Source Tracking
Because the laser light source appears as such a small spot of light, and because the
receiving telescope likely has a narrow receiving cone, it is necessary to be able to ensure
that the receiver is pointed at the transmitter.
The method used to track the transmitter source depends on the type of receiver used. In
almost all cases, though, the principle of quadrant sensing is the likely mechanism. This
consists of using four (or more) receiving elements in a 2x2 square array and using the
pattern of signal intensity to indicate the direction of error and correction.
If one is using a CCD as the receiver sensor, then some number of picture elements in the
middle of the sensor can serve as both tracking sensors and signal sensors. There are
APD's available in the quadrant layout which can be used to track the laser source. A
similar but more complicated technique might use an optical chopper when one uses a
A slight variation of this approach might use two sensor sets: one a signal sensor and the
other a CCD for tracking. By using a beam splitter, the incoming signal can be sent to
both the signal sensor (of whatever kind) and also to the CCD so that tracking can be
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