A £5million award from the UK Space Agency will allow Northumbria University to take forward its world-leading research to build a new satellite communications system, setting the scene for Northumbria to launch the UK’s first university-led multi-satellite space mission. The funding will allow the university to move forward with its prototype work on the new laser-based system, which it says has the potential to transform the satellite communications industry.
Researchers from Northumbria’s Solar and Space Physics research group have been leading a consortium whose goal is to develop the world’s first commercially available system that allows satellites to communicate with each other via lasers rather than radio frequencies.
Satellites currently use radio frequencies to transmit data, but this has limited capacity and is vulnerable to disruption; lasers can transmit 1,000 times more data per second and do so much more securely.
The UK Space Agency had already awarded more than £1million to Northumbria to fund the earlier phases of the research through its National Space Innovation Programme. Northumbria’s project was one of 22 projects initially chosen to receive funding in 2020, with further funding granted in 2021. It’ now one of only two projects selected for this third and final phase of funding.
The latest award will allow the consortium to design, test and build the first CubeSat with laser optical communications technology. It’s expected to launch in 2025.
Through the university’s Northumbria Space Technology Laboratory, experts have been working in partnership with Durham University, satellite communications specialists e2E and manufacturing company SMS Electronics Limited to create the new system. The consortium recently expanded to include global aerospace company Lockheed Martin, which joined forces with Northumbria University last year. Lockheed Martin will be leading the system’s engineering development.
‘We are absolutely thrilled to be one of the two final projects chosen by the UK Space Agency for funding after a highly competitive process over the last three years,’ said Northumbria University solar physicist Professor Eamon Scullion, who is leading the project. ‘With our new technology, we are not only bridging the gap between satellites in low Earth orbit, but we are bridging an even bigger gap between academic R&D and industry. Thanks to previous funding from the UK Space Agency, we have established the working principles and a prototype of a unique, compact, lightweight, high-speed inter-satellite laser optical communication device.’
‘We are now ready to follow a rigorous technology-readiness process to build and test a pair of flight-ready, payload-integrated CubeSats that are not only ready for launch to space in 2025 but will also be ready for sale as the UK’s first commercially available laser communication device for small satellites,’ said Professor Robert Wicks, head of Northumbria Space Technology Laboratory. ‘We are very excited to be designing, building and testing our very own CubeSat mission here in the Northumbria Space Technology Laboratory. It is a great way to get our electronic engineering and physics students involved in cutting-edge research.’
The team is also working to improve satellite technology to better protect and utilise humanity’s use of space, and, through the university’s state-of-the-art Space Technology Laboratory, will help train the next-generation of space-related engineers and instrument teams.
Prospective students can find out more about the research area on Northumbria University’s physics with astrophysics and electrical and electronic engineering degree courses.
The courses provide students with hands-on experience in areas such as the design of payload and embedded digital systems for CubeSats and optical communications links in hazardous environments.