Photline reaches for the stars

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Photline Technologies, an iXBlue company, is to play a material role in the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) project being pursued jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Photline supplied a seed laser and a ModBox lithium niobate-based optical data modulation unit to ESA for incorporation into an all-optical, two-way space communications system. The system uses an optical laser rather than radio waves to transmit data across space.

The LLCD project recently succeeded in establishing a communications link between an ESA ground station in Tenerife, the Canary Islands, and NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) satellite 400,000km away in orbit round the Moon. Both the station and the satellite are fitted with terminals to transmit and receive pulses of highly focused, near-infrared laser light. Using these terminals, it has been possible to rapidly transfer data upwards and downwards in a robust, error-free fashion. Downlink reception has been demonstrated at data rates of up to 40Mbps. The system has already been used to measure the time of travel of the satellite accurately and, from this, to calculate its orbit around the Moon.

Henri Porte, CEO of Photline, said: ‘ESA has expressed its confidence in the practicality of high data-rate optical links and stated that the present system points the way to lighter, smaller communications systems capable of downloading massive amounts of data from spacecraft orbiting the Earth and distant planets. We are thrilled to have been granted the opportunity to contribute to this ground-breaking project. It is a great reward for the enormous effort we have put into the development of lithium niobate opto-electronic technology over many years.’

Photline Technologies has worked closely with iXBlue for a number of years, particularly on the development of inertial navigation systems based on fibre-optic gyroscope technology. The company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of iXBlue in July 2013.