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Laser Communications

Published on Apr 02, 2024


Laser communications offer a viable alternative to RF communications for inter satellite links and other applications where high-performance links are a necessity. High data rate, small antenna size, narrow beam divergence, and a narrow field of view are characteristics of laser communications that offer a number of potential advantages for system design.

Lasers have been considered for space communications since their realization in 1960. Specific advancements were needed in component performance and system engineering particularly for space qualified hardware. Advances in system architecture, data formatting and component technology over the past three decades have made laser communications in space not only viable but also an attractive approach into inter satellite link applications.

Information transfer is driving the requirements to higher data rates, laser cross -link technology explosions, global development activity, increased hardware, and design maturity. Most important in space laser communications has been the development of a reliable, high power, single mode laser diode as a directly modulable laser source.

This technology advance offers the space laser communication system designer the flexibility to design very lightweight, high bandwidth, low-cost communication payloads for satellites whose launch costs are a very strong function of launch weigh.

This feature substantially reduces blockage of fields of view of most desirable areas on satellites. The smaller antennas with diameter typically less than 30 centimeters create less momentum disturbance to any sensitive satellite sensors. Fewer on board consumables are required over the long lifetime because there are fewer disturbances to the satellite compared with heavier and larger RF systems. The narrow beam divergence affords interference free and secure operation.

Laser communication systems offer many advantages over radio frequency (RF) systems. Most of the differences between laser communication and RF arise from the very large difference in the wavelengths. RF wavelengths are thousands of times longer than those at optical frequencies are. This high ratio of wavelengths leads to some interesting differences in the two systems.

First, the beam-width attainable with the laser communication system is narrower than that of the RF system by the same ratio at the same antenna diameters (the telescope of the laser communication system is frequently referred as an antenna). For a given transmitter power level, the laser beam is brighter at the receiver by the square of this ratio due to the very narrow beam that exits the transmit telescope.

Taking advantage of this brighter beam or higher gain, permits the laser communication designer to come up with a system that has a much smaller antenna than the RF system and further, need transmit much less power than the RF system for the same receiver power. However since it is much harder to point, acquisition of the other satellite terminal is more difficult. Some advantages of laser communications over RF are smaller antenna size, lower weight, lower power and minimal integration impact on the satellite. Laser communication is capable of much higher data rates than RF.

The laser beam width can be made as narrow as the diffraction limit of the optic allows. This is given by beam width = 1.22 times the wavelength of light divided by the radius of the output beam aperture. The antennae gain is proportional to the reciprocal of the beam width squared. To achieve the potential diffraction limited beam width a single mode high beam quality laser source is required; together with very high quality optical components throughout the transmitting sub system.

The possible antennae gain is restricted not only by the laser source but also by the any of the optical elements. In order to communicate, adequate power must be received by the detector, to distinguish the signal from the noise. Laser power, transmitter, optical system losses, pointing system imperfections, transmitter and receiver antennae gains, receiver losses, receiver tracking losses are factors in establishing receiver power. The required optical power is determined by data rate, detector sensitivity, modulation format ,noise and detection methods.

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