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Case Study: Custom optical components enhance space communications

Free space communication systems

Free space communication systems have emerged as an alternative for fixed fibre optic communications (Credit: AntonKhrupinArt/

With some 5.3 billion internet users globally, according to the most recent data from Statista, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the amount of data used throughout the world is rapidly increasing every year.

Deployment of fibre optic networks is on the rise all over the world, which generally use ground or pole-based optical infrastructure, but in many regions, this is not a realistic option. In recent years, free space communication systems have emerged as an alternative for out of the way communities, and even those impacted by natural disasters. It has also become popular amongst off-road adventurers and campers. Free space communications systems can also ofter higher data transmission rates compared to fibre systems. This can refer to outer space (via satellites), air, a vacuum, or similar. But free space optical communications, especially satellite communications, are not without their challenges when it comes to sourcing the right optical components.

These must withstand the harsh conditions of space, be reliable and durable enough to last, and require high levels of precision and performance to ensure optimal signal transmission and reception. In addition, satellite communications systems often have unique requirements based on factors such as frequency bands, data rates, and mission objectives, so sourcing customisable components to meet these specific needs can be challenging.

Designing custom optics for space communications

Happily, there is help available, as one provider of satellite internet discovered, thanks to a collaboration with the team at Omega Optical. The project started with a need from the client, and a large dose of curiosity from Markus Fredell, Principal Thin Film Design Engineer; and Steve Washkevich, Application Engineer – something of a dynamic duo at Omega Optical.

The pair were actually drawn to the allure of space long before their collaboration with the customer began. Explains Fredell: “We're both the kind of guys that really liked Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek, everything of that nature. So even before the very early days of space communications, we would talk about it constantly. To the point where with this particular project, we speculatively began design work and testing, and we actually produced the optical filters that they were looking for very early in the process.”

When the opportunity to collaborate with the space communications company arose, Fredell and Washkevich’s curiosity went into overdrive. For them, it wasn't just about meeting the client's needs; it was about crafting solutions that would surpass even their own expectations. Continues Fredell: “I think a big part of the dynamic that we've developed is we'll start talking about a project or application, and within a minute or so one of us goes over to this very big whiteboard. Soon, other engineers from the group are peeling off and joining us. We've developed this incredibly safe space to be curious about what an application is. A lot of ideas will come up very quickly about the approach that we're going to take to producing these parts.”

Agrees Washkevich: “One of the reasons I enjoy my job so much is because we all come from distinct backgrounds, but there's trust and respect amongst the group of engineers we work with. We operate in a ‘no bad ideas’ kind of place. That open mindedness and creativity have led to us solving many of our customers’ problems.”

Customising optical mirrors for space: the lightning bolt solution

One such challenge came in the production of customised optical mirrors for the project. This lay in achieving the required level of flatness while also maintaining high reflectivity at specific wavelengths.while meeting stringent performance specifications. Says Fredell: “I remember looking at Steve and thinking, I don't know if we can do that from a design standpoint. At that moment, the bolt of lightning came from Steve, he was looking at the problem and he just had his own unique perspective that pushed us past a roadblock.”

This approach is not something that can be achieved from an “off-the-shelf” only approach. It is in having the design authority to try different things, and even to (respectfully) challenge a customer’s initial specification if something else will provide them with better results.

Washkevich says: “These optics need to reflect light at a level of 99.9%+ and traditional measurement technologies have too much signal-to-noise to accurately measure that. We engaged with the customer and said ‘here's the limitation. We know that what we’re doing is amazing, but we can't verify it in the way that you want us to. We have an alternative solution where we can measure this in a deep optical density where we have the resolution, and we can present you with comparison plots between the performance of how this filter should behave in this different space as a verification of how much better it is.’ Through that dialogue, we were able to present to them, with a really high degree of certainty, that we were offering far beyond what they needed. They really thanked us for our efforts and accepted our solutions. That is standard practice for us.”

Further information
Find out more about Omega Optical’s design authority for customised free space communications optics by visiting the company's website. 


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