When most people think of lasers, they might think of the brightly colored beams of light in a printer, a treatment in an eye doctor's office, or the end of a science fiction sword. But not all lasers are visible. In addition to burning something, light rays are also very suitable for transmitting data over large distances, such as the distance between the Earth and a satellite in space. The research organization TNO has managed to do just that: send data from space to The Hague via an invisible laser. Kees Boijsrog, Director of Space Travel at TNO, explains what this milestone means.
What exactly did TNO do?
“TNO sent data from a Norwegian satellite to the ground station in the Netherlands using laser technology. This is done by part of the light spectrum. The satellite is equipped with a laser communication system developed by TNO. Making contact was not easy. The satellite flies at high speed at an altitude of 500 Kilometers. This speed meant that there were only ten minutes to connect. You also have to work very carefully to aim the laser correctly. The atmosphere also disrupts the signal. So we had to compensate for that with moving mirrors.
How private is this connection?
“Sending data using lasers has been possible for some time. For example, this technology is already being used to establish communications between satellites higher up in space. Japan and Germany are also working on sending data to Earth from large, and therefore expensive, satellites using Laser technology. But data communication using a small satellite has never been done like it is now. And that is exactly what is important. Several entities are building fleets of thousands of satellites that can use this technology, so they prefer to be small and cheap.
What are the advantages of this technology?
“You actually want two things: for your data to be secure and to be able to send more data faster. Laser information transmission does both. Almost all communications like WiFi or 5G work with radio frequency waves. Laser communication is 100 to 1,000 times faster. Compare it to fiber optics. Laser beams are very narrow and precise, unlike radio signals which they radiate. This is why the signals are faster and more difficult to hear. The technology is relevant to consumers and the military. For example, to provide fast internet in places where it would not be possible In it currently. This way you will soon be able to watch better videos on your phone.
Is this laser technology the future?
“This technology is being used more and more. Starlink, for example, is slowly shifting from wireless communications to lasers. The first satellites have already been linked in this way, and the next generation of satellites will increasingly do so. Europe, the United States and China are also developing a constellation TNO is working on developing its own satellites. For Europe, the plan is to achieve this by 2027. We would like to develop the technology for this in the Netherlands, and we are now ahead in this field. The idea is to make Dutch companies indispensable in building this type of network. TNO is working on “Developing technology for various applications. For example, we are developing a laser station for aircraft and drones. We receive financial support in this matter from the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Defense.”
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