Many people may not realize the essential role space plays in our everyday lives here on Earth. We can monitor Earth with remote sensing, communicate with each other on our smartphones and watch high-definition TV shows all thanks to satellite constellations that power the applications that make our economies and societies function.
However, an emerging innovation is about to take the space sector and Earth’s telecom industry to soaring new heights: laser communications. These free-space tools, meaning no fiber-optic cables needed, build on recent telecom advancements. These innovations work in conjunction with satellites and improve the flow of data to Earth so that humans can transmit more telemetry, which allows deeper exploration into space. Thanks to the growing demand for secure, high-speed wireless and a drive for more flexible communications at more affordable costs on and off Earth, the global space-based laser communication market is expected to reach $4.1 billion by 2031, with a CAGR of 26.9% over the next decade. (Full disclosure: My company is involved in the production and sale of this technology, as are many others.)
The Launch Of Laser
In recent years, commercial industries have focused on developing space-to-space laser systems for use in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Companies in and adjacent to the NewSpace sector have invested in satellite constellations that leverage laser communications to provide widespread broadband coverage. Many proposed constellations would host hundreds or thousands of satellites with an extensive in-space laser communications network. While today’s commercial constellations still primarily rely on radio frequency links to send data back to Earth, new technology could implement lasers for in-space and direct-to-Earth communications.
NASA is proving to be a major innovator in laser technology with the help of private companies. The agency’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) sends data back and forth from ground stations and eventually will be capable of sending in-space users data over laser links.
While the industry refines in-space optical communications to support terrestrial users, NASA also showcases direct-to-Earth capabilities from geosynchronous orbit. In turn, this will increase communications capabilities for future space missions. With laser communications aboard space vehicles, missions will be able to send more data in one transmission than with traditional radio frequency communications.
NASA is also focused on its partnerships with private space companies to refine laser communications hardware. LCRD includes commercially crafted and manufactured components alongside NASA’s customized systems. Multiple features like controller electronics and telescope systems in LCRD came from private companies, including L3/Harris Technologies and SEAKR Engineering.
Meanwhile, Mynaric, a German laser communications company, recently listed on the NASDAQ, citing the robust U.S. investor base that understands the nascent space market. While the subsector is still growing, this addition to the NASDAQ is a strong sign that laser technology is just getting off the ground.
The Future Of Laser Communications
Among the many benefits of laser communications, they could offer high-definition imagery streams, live video from other planets and for astronauts, real-time data transmission from deep space missions.
Importantly, space lasers are critical for future missions to Mars. Astronauts on these missions will communicate with Earth far more than robotic missions have. Space companies and agencies like NASA will need real-time data to assess landings and other real-time events as well as to examine life support systems and equipment on any Mars base. As data will stream much faster, scientists will be able to spend more time analyzing the data instead of waiting for its arrival.
Ideally, laser communications would also improve spacecraft, making them more energy-efficient, sustainable and smaller (and therefore more affordable). According to Suzanne Dodd, the director of the Interplanetary Network, lasers may be able to increase the data rate from Mars to about ten times what we receive from radio. Dodd hopes that future space explorers will experiment with lasers on space missions.
Real-time face-to-face video isn’t available now, but it’s close to becoming a reality. On the Moon, it’s possible to establish multiple, bi-directional HD video channels with two-second latency. Eventually, folks at home could have a virtual presence on a return trip to the Moon. While it would be challenging to implement laser communications to watch a live Mars landing, it could theoretically be achieved with direct-to-Earth links. However, implementing a Mars telecom orbiter is the ultimate goal to make relay services more reliable. Scaling laser communications for deep space destinations like Saturn or Jupiter will take more time to develop. Distant spacecraft will also have to battle the latency issue that laser communications developers seek to upgrade.
A critical test will take place this year when the Psyche mission, aimed at 16 Psyche, a metal asteroid in the asteroid belt, launches spacecraft that will communicate with Earth using laser communications. However, we’ll have to wait to see the results of this space mission, as Psyche won’t reach its destination until 2026.
Laser communication is an innovation that will be a huge part of the space industry in the coming years. Investors should consider how vital communication will be to deep space exploration and how supporting these industries and infrastructure will grow both on and off-Earth economies.
Originally published in Forbes Business Council.