International Journal of Electronics and Communications

© Urban & Fischer Verlag

Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States
Gerhard A. Koepf, Robert G. Marshalek, and David L. Begley
Dedicated to Professor Walter R. Leeb on the occasion of his 60th birthday
Abstract This paper reviews space laser communication technology developments in the United States of America from 1960 to 2000. Early programs initiated and funded by government agencies closely followed the advancements made in laser transmitter technology. In the 1980s, growing commercial interest in long distance terrestrial fiber cables contributed significantly to the advancement of critical components. While several laser communications terminals were fully developed and flight qualified, actual space flight tests were not conducted due to funding problems, schedule overruns, and changed priorities. The first opportunity for commercial intersatellite links, the Iridium program, was missed due to a lack in technology readiness. The second opportunity for large-scale commercial deployment of very wide band terminals was the Teledesic program. The Teledesic terminal combined the most advanced design concepts with the latest component technologies. Unfortunately, business considerations forced the program to be cancelled in 1998. Keywords Tutorial, Space, Laser, Communications, Technology

1. Introduction
The application of laser technology to communications, particularly space communications, was envisioned in the very early days of laser development. For example, one of the earliest laser communications patents, filed in 1962, described a method for secure communications between a satellite and a submarine. In the 40 years since, government agencies, companies, universities, and individuals in many countries have made tremendous technical progress. Today, the demanding requirements of both government and commercial applications can be met; requirements that far exceed those envisioned by even the most aggressive planners in the early 1960s. This paper reviews the developments from the beginning to the Teledesic optical intersatellite link terminal design. Our focus on developments in the United States complements other contributions in this special edition that address programs conducted in other parts of the world. As we retrace the path of laser communications development, we cannot give the proper credit due to all contributors, teams and individuals. Such an effort would occupy a much larger space. We, therefore, do not cite references and trace our presentation only to the organizations that initiated and funded the various programs. We do not claim that our review includes all the main activities and programs in the U.S., but we believe it does present a history of the development of this exciting technology.

Forward: This paper is written in honor of Prof. Dr. Walter Leeb, who as a researcher and teacher has substantially influenced the development of laser communications technology. His name and work are well known in the U.S. lasercom community through both his tenure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and his numerous major conference presentations, particularly those at the annual SPIE conferences. As a friend and former colleague at the Technical University in Vienna, Austria, Gerhard Koepf contributed this article in remembrance of his and Walter’s participation in Gerhard Schiffner’s late60s “Laser Group” when we built gas lasers, performed the early communications experiments, and developed the first laser communications class.

2. The beginning
In the 1960s, lasercom developments in the U.S. were driven by NASA’s need for reliable, high-volume space communications links. The earliest attempt at space-toground laser communications, and the first attempt at automated tracking of a ground beacon, was made during the Gemini 7 mission in 1965. Astronaut James Lovell was to look out one of the space capsule windows and observe an un-modulated Argon Ion laser beacon sent from a NASA ground tracking station on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. He had a hand-held laser communicator equipped with a viewfinder and a microphone. The transmitter was a single heterojunction diode laser operating at 900 nanometers that was directly modulated by the
1434-8411/02/56/4-232 $15.00/0

Received February 1, 2002. Revised February 18, 2002. Gerhard A. Koepf, EM-Technology, 700 Kalmia Avenue, Boulder, CO 80304, USA. E-mail: Robert G. Marshalek, Staff Consultant, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., 1600 Commerce Street, Boulder, CO 80301, USA. E-mail: David L. Begley, Corporate Relations and Strategic Management, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., 1600 Commerce Street, Boulder, CO 80301, USA. E-mail: Correspondence to G. A. Koepf.
¨ Int. J. Electron. Commun. (AEU) 56 (2002) No. 4, 232−242

Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States


Fig. 1. Testing the handheld optical transmitter for the Gemini 7 space to ground lasercom experiment.

speech signal. By pointing the laser communicator at the beacon, he was to attempt to send messages to the NASA scientists on the ground. Fig. 1 shows a technician testing the laser communicator at the Manned Spaced Center prior to the Gemini 7 flight. The experiment was unsuccessful because the Argon Ion ground beacon laser failed repeatedly. The laser was mounted on a tracking gimbal. When the gimbal was tilted toward the space craft, the water cooling system malfunctioned leading to an overheating of the laser tube. In 1968–69, a group of NASA scientists used an optical receiver with a constant wide field of view onboard the GEOS B satellite for uplink experiments. A high power CW Argon Ion laser beam was expanded into a 40-deg cone and pointed at the satellite. By chopping the beam at the ground site using the Morse alphabet, they sent messages to the satellite. These were then relayed back to the ground on the telemetry link.

challenge was to find a set of components that combined high power, efficiency, and spatial and temporal coherence on the transmitter side with high-speed modulation and sensitive detection capabilities. Initially only gas lasers were available, but soon solid state and semiconductor lasers matured and displaced the gas lasers as the prime candidates for space communication. As programs demanded ever-higher bandwidths, more and more sophisticated modulation and receiver techniques were employed ultimately leading to homodyne detection receivers with close to theoretical sensitivity. Similarly, major advances were realized in PAT technology including lightweight, structurally and thermally stable telescopes; fast steering mirrors and other line-ofsight control mechanisms; precision position sensors; inertial measurement devices; nested-loop and feed-forward LOS control electronics; vibration isolation techniques; and lightweight a-thermal optical bench designs. Numerous technology demonstration programs were initiated and mostly cancelled before the technology could be demonstrated in actual flight operations. These cancellations occurred for a number of reasons including funding limitations, difficulties associated with meeting performance requirements and schedules, difficulty with or insufficient attention to packaging and system integration issues, and failures during space qualification.

4. Government programs
This section reviews significant, selected U.S. government programs. It is organized by laser type, starting with gas laser programs, mostly conducted at NASA, moving on to solid state laser programs, initially driven by the Air Force, and finally semiconductor laser programs. These later programs paralleled and benefited significantly from commercial component developments for long-range terrestrial fiber optic systems.

3. The challenge
The early efforts described above confirmed the potential of laser communications for space applications. They also made it clear that substantial developments were needed in both the pointing, acquisition and tracking (PAT) and the laser transmitter technologies. It had become clear that the characteristics of the laser transmitter drive the selection and design of all of the other components needed to transport data on an optical carrier over very large distances. The laser output power largely determines the size of the telescope and that, in turn, has a major influence on the PAT subsystem. The laser wavelength drives the selection of the modulator and detector components, while the laser stability/phase noise characteristics influence the modulation and detection method. In the following three decades, numerous laser communications technologies were investigated. The main

4.1 Gas laser programs In the early 1970s, NASA initiated a technology development program for laser pointing and tracking technology. Using CW high power (up to 100 Watt) Argon Ion lasers and ground-based optical telescopes, a number of beacon experiments were conducted with satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). In 1973, a coud´ telescope with a precie sion tracking capability was used to send a beacon to the Spacelab. Onboard, a variety of sensor/camera systems were employed to study various aspects of beacon reception and pointing accuracy. The Spacelab experiments led to the development of the Mobile Optical Mount System. Fig. 2 shows this trailer-mounted, 75-cm diameter tracking telescope. It had an integrated Q-switched, frequency doubled Nd:YAG laser beacon and was used in conjunction with retro reflectors mounted on several satellites to test and refine acquisition and tracking technologies. In its closed-loop

234 Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States

Fig. 2. NASA’s Mobile Optical Mount System for high precision ground to space laser beacon pointing and tracking.

tracking mode, it achieved an rms noise equivalent angle of 1.4 arc seconds, demonstrating that the extreme pointing and tracking requirements for space lasercom could be met. In the late 1960s, following the development of the rare gas lasers, researchers discovered a number of other types of gas lasers including molecular lasers. Of these, the performance characteristics of carbon dioxide, (CO2 ) lasers closely matched the needs of laser communications: stable single-mode CW operation, high power, good efficiency, and two wavelength bands for excellent forward and return link isolation. The high output power combined with the CO2 laser’s long wavelength–in the mid-infrared region–substantially decreased the mechanical tolerance requirements of the PAT subsystem. Furthermore, the excellent degree of coherence of the laser combined with the availability of linear electro-optic modulator materials and photo detectors provided the opportunity for use of sensitive heterodyne and even homodyne detection receivers. Recognizing these benefits in the early 1970s, NASA started a development program for space laser communications based on a CO2 laser transmitter. This program led to key advances in the understanding of the systemlevel aspects of high-data-rate space laser communications. Among the significant technology advances made were high-speed phase modulation and heterodyne detection techniques, closed-loop tracking of a laser local oscillator in the presence of Doppler shifts, and efficient beam combining and mode matching at the photo detector. NASA’s plan was to fly a CO2 laser terminal on the ATS-6 satellite and demonstrate 1 Mbps communications to a ground station. For a second, later experiment, an inter-satellite link experiment between two ATS satellites was planned. Unfortunately, difficulties with space qualification of the laser tube delayed the completion of the flight hardware beyond the technology cut-off date for the launch and the program was terminated. Beginning in the early 1980s, DARPA funded a series of technology efforts to demonstrate spaceborne laser

Fig. 3. Optical receivers on submarine for SLC–Sat air to ground lasercom testing.

communications to submerged submarines. Under the SLC-Satellite program, a lasercom terminal operating in the blue-green range was developed. Two different lasers were investigated. The initially preferred wavelength was in the blue-green portion of the spectrum provided by a Xenon–Chloride laser Raman shifted with a Lead vapor cell. The laser was tuned to the ultra-sharp passband of a Cesium vapor atomic resonance filter used at the receiver side to block all out-of-band spectral components. For a competing approach, a novel Nd:YAG laser design operating in the green portion of the spectrum was also developed. This laser design used a slab instead of the customary rod configuration and is discussed later in this article. The two laser transmitters were tested in separate trials onboard a P3 aircraft that flew in a circular pattern above the submarine at an altitude of about 10 km. The airborne terminal tracked a beacon transmitted from the submarine. The green wavelength approach was demonstrated during a set of sea trials in the North Atlantic. The bluegreen approach was demonstrated in trials off the coast of San Diego. Fig. 3 shows the optical receivers attached to a Dolphin class submarine. These trials confirmed that sea water penetration to the required depth could be achieved. Although successful, the program was not continued beyond the trials as operational interests had shifted. 4.2 Solid state laser programs In the late 1970s, the U.S. Air Force began funding laser communications work with system-level studies that compared the different laser technologies available in a variety of communications scenarios. These studies led to the se-

Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States


lection of the Nd:YAG solid state laser as the prime transmitter candidate for a number of communications needs and led to the first fully integrated laser terminal development and demonstration. The outstanding features of the Nd:YAG laser that led to this selection were: • Delivered high output power in continuous wave and pulsed (Q-switched) modes • Offered two wavelengths – infrared and frequency doubled green • Provided spectral pure and spatial single mode output • Availability of external electro-optic modulators with high bandwidth at both wavelengths • Availability of photodetectors at both wavelengths The main disadvantage of the laser was its very low efficiency, particularly in the early stages of flash lamp pumping. However, this changed dramatically with the maturing of semiconductor laser technology in the mid1980s that ultimately led to the predominance of the Nd:YAG laser technology. The first major Air Force program was aimed at building a technology demonstrator, a communications terminal breadboard capable of transmitting a 1 Gbps data rate. The transmitter was a flash lamp pumped Nd:YAG laser operating in the frequency-doubled mode. A novel modulation technique, pulse interval modulation, was applied using electro-optic modulators. Multiplexing a number of TV channels available in the St. Louis, Missouri area and transmitting the digitized aggregate data over the laser link successfully demonstrated this capability. This success led to the funding for the Airborne Flight Test System (AFTS) program. The objective of the AFTS program was to develop a fully integrated lasercom terminal for space communications and to demonstrate its operation in an air-to-ground, 1-Gbps data transfer from a KC-135 aircraft flying at an altitude of 10 km to a ground counter terminal. During this program, the flash-lamp pumped, Q-switched, cavitydumped Nd:YAG laser was integrated with a tracking telescope that interfaced with a two-axis beam steering mechanism. Initial problems with the modulator crystal during the high power acquisition mode were overcome by doping the modulator crystal. The first flight demonstration was successfully performed at White Sands, New Mexico in 1980. Besides demonstrating the feasibility of the Nd:YAG technology, the AFTS program demonstrated that a reliable link could be established between a dynamic platform (aircraft) and a tracking ground station. Fig. 4 shows a technician operating the terminal in the aircraft. The equipment was not packaged for compactness, with rackmounted electronics and a “flying optical bench” making up the hardware. Based on the success of this demonstration program the Air Force decided to proceed with a production lasercom terminal development (Laser Communications Subsystem [LCS]) for inter-satellite communications for the Defense Support Program (DSP). The objective of the DSP program was to provide communications between the geostationary DSP surveillance satellites at about 1 Mbps over a distance

Fig. 4. Airborne Flight Test console for 1 Gbps Nd:YAG transceiver demonstration.

Fig. 5. Schematic of frequency doubled diode pumped Nd:YAG slab laser transmitter.

of 85.000 km. One major objective of the program was the development of a significantly more efficient Nd:YAG laser by replacing the flash lamp pump with a bank of high power semiconductor lasers. This led to the design of the slab laser illustrated in Fig. 5. The most difficult challenge was meeting the high output power and lifetime requirements for the AlGaAs pump lasers operating in the absorption band of the Nd:YAG material. A series of improvements in the semiconductor fabrication process were needed before the required output power could be achieved. The lifetime objectives could only be met by operating the entire bank of pump lasers at −20 ◦ C. This slab laser design eventually became the first fully space qualified laser transmitter.

236 Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States The 1970s also saw significant advances in semiconductor photodetectors. These quickly replaced the photomultiplier tubes because of their size, cost, and robustness, although their sensitivity in the visible spectral region did not match up to that of the tubes. Both PIN diodes and avalanche photodiodes (APDs) working in the visible and infrared with good quantum efficiencies became available for data rates in the 100s of Mbps. Although the internal gain of APDs was a major advantage, their relatively low bandwidth, high excess noise levels, and sensitivity to ionizing radiation limited their use in space laser communications. One of the first programs employing semiconductor lasers was the Laser Intersatellite Transmission Experiment (LITE) conducted by MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the mid-1980s. It was to provide data rates up to 220 Mbps over a 40 000 km range. LITE used a low power (30 mW) laser, FSK modulation, and heterodyne detection. Although never launched, several integrated terminals with full communication, acquisition, and tracking capability were built and rigorously tested for space operation. After an interruption of several years, NASA returned to communications technology development in 1981. Their renewed interest in laser communications was spurred by the need for higher transfer rates between the increasingly productive LEO Earth sensing satellites and the geostationary Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). The use of TDRSS was more cost effective than providing the LEO satellites with direct wideband communications links to a large number of ground stations. The constellation baseline was for an East satellite service, a West satellite service, and a backside satellite service separated by approximately 120 deg. via the GEO – GEO laser links, A second constellation, the tracking and data acquisition satellite (TDAS) included laser links between GEO – GEO satellites 160 degrees (84 000 km) apart. The in-view satellites would act as relays for the out-of view satellites. Similarly, the increasing data rates of the LEO sensors led to investigations for replacing the LEO – GEO microwave links with laser links for the next generation of these satellites. Data rates were asymmetric, with initially 650 Mbps and later 2 Gbps for the GEO –GEO forward links, and 110 Mbps for the GEO – GEO return links. The LEO – GEO links required baseband digital return rates of up to 1 Gbps on the uplink, and 50 Mbps on the downlink for signaling, control, and commands. Fig. 7 depicts several major space lasercom applications supported by this system configuration, including the three TDRSS satellites with their respective links. NASA conducted a number of system-level studies for these intersatellite terminal designs comparing different laser technologies and decided in favor of semiconductor transmitter technology (AlGaAs and InGaAs) combined with direct detection receivers. They investigated incoherent power combining using wavelength division multiplexing, coherent power combining using a master oscillator power amplifier (MOPA) concept, and performed extensive laser life tests. The MOPA concept separates

Fig. 6. Space qualified LCS ND:YAG lasercom terminal mounted in test bed structure.

Another significant accomplishment of this program was the packaging of the laser transceiver, the diffraction limited optics, and the PAT functionality into an integrated, lightweight terminal using a composite material structure. Fig. 6 shows the completed, space-qualified terminal. Unfortunately, none of the terminals were ever launched, even though one of them was integrated with the spin-stabilized DSP 17 satellite in 1991. After years of development work and the delivery of two flight-qualified terminals, the program was cancelled in 1993 as the requirements of the DSP program had changed. 4.3 Semiconductor lasers The late 1970s saw the emergence of continuous semiconductor lasers operating in the near infrared. Compared to other laser types, these devices provided an optical communications breakthrough because of their small size, efficiency, potential low cost, and ability to be directly modulated at high data rates. For space laser communications, their output power was initially too small and their nonGaussian beam characteristics required development of novel optical components. However, in the early to mid1980s, some of the early problems, such as facet damage, spectral purity, and lifetime limitations, were overcome as their solution was also of interest to the commercial terrestrial fiber communications industry. Single mode semiconductor lasers delivering tens of mW and operating over a fairly wide band became available. These made it possible to generate the high output power levels needed for space communications through both coherent and incoherent power combining methods. The semiconductor fabrication process improvements mentioned in the previous section led to major improvements in multi-mode semiconductor laser sources. Devices with output power levels at the Watt level became available and led to development of optically pumped transmitters and amplifiers.

Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States


Deep Space Probe

GEO-Data Relay Spaceborne Remote Sensing Surveillance Satellite Network

Teledesic LEO Crosslink

Space Station Data Relay

Fig. 8. High power diode laser transmitter breadboard using incoherent power combining.

Fig. 7. GEO TDRSS configuration with intended intersatellite communications links.

the signal generation/modulation components from the high power generation component, and was an important milestone in transmitter design. It enabled optimization of the design of each component without compromising the other. This led to significant increases in both transmit power levels and higher data rates. During the same time frame, other technologies also made major strides. One of these was electronic data storage with higher capacity and low power consumption. This capability allowed LEO platforms to collect and store sensor data without a continuous data link to the TDRSS network and led to a temporary setback in the interest for high rate LEO – GEO laser links. However, work at NASA continued and led in the late 1980s to a new laser communications program. Jointly funded by NASA and the Air Force, this program had the objective to demonstrate laser communications from a GEO synchronous platform to the ground by developing a terminal for the Advance Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS). The ACTS program itself was intended as a testbed for high-risk, new space communications technology, particularly millimeter wave transceiver technology, on-board baseband processing, and switching. This very successful program led the way to a new generation of communication satellites. The ACTS laser communications experiments were to include both direct detection and heterodyne detection trials with ground-based and airborne counter terminals. Based on its experience with the LITE program, MIT Lincoln Laboratory developed the PAT, the optical bench, and the heterodyne transceiver, while NASA undertook the development of the direct detection transceiver, which would be integrated onto the optical bench.

Unfortunately, work on the terminal took more time than planned and ACTS was launched in September 1993 without the lasercom terminal. Development of the terminal continued for some time at reduced funding levels. It led to an advanced terminal design based on fiber interconnects between optical components with polarization maintaining single-mode fibers. The performance of the completed terminal, including the acquisition and tracking capability, was fully tested in a specially developed ground-based testbed. Link acquisition and handover to tracking was tested repeatedly resulting in a probability of success of 99.9% at power levels below the expected on-orbit value. Another program directed at the development of semiconductor transmitter technologies was the U.S. Air Force’s Boundary Layer Experiment program. A part of this effort, the 1982 High Data Rate Laser Transmitter (HDRLT) program employed a series of very narrow bandpass filters attached to a glass block for wavelength division multiplexing. A number of single mode pulsed laser diodes tuned to slightly different wavelengths were co-aligned so that all the beams exited the glass combiner along the same optical axis. As shown in Fig. 8, this transmitter consisted of two sets of eight lasers, each operating at a closely controlled wavelength. The two sets have orthogonal polarization and are polarization combined into a single output beam. With this approach and a direct detection receiver, data transmission at a 1 Gbps data rate was demonstrated. In 1985, the U.S. Air Force funded the Boost Surveillance and Tracking Satellite (BSTS) program. Having data links between the satellites, it was planned to one day replace the DSP constellation. Fig. 9 illustrates the proposed lasercom platform with its three terminals and its position on the satellite. Despite the success of the DSP program with the slab Nd:YAG laser, the decision was made to use semiconductor laser technology for the BSTS program. The intent was to develop a transmitter based on coherent power combining with a large array of laser diodes. Soon, however, it became apparent that the

238 Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States Table Mountain Facility and satellite-to-ground lasercom experiments were conducted. As it turned out, the host satellite’s ephemeris data was not sufficiently accurate to support open-loop pointing of the ground terminal beacon. A communications link could thus not be established before priorities changed and the program was terminated.

5. Deep space laser communications
A discussion of laser communication developments for planetary and deep space missions is included here as a separate section because this application presents developers with unique challenges in two critical technologies– PAT and maximally efficient transport of data. In the U.S., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology took the lead in the 1980s in this area, focusing on technology that could meet the specific demands of NASA’s missions. The JPL deep space optical communications program continues to this day focusing on system-level improvements and field demonstrations with ground-based transceiver stations. One of the early contributions of this program was the development of high-order M-ary pulse position modulation (PPM). This modulation format is especially well suited for deep space missions as it takes advantage of the high peak-power, low average power operation of lasers in the Q-switched mode. Through framing of the data stream into a large number of time slots and precise positioning of a laser pulse in one of these time slots in each frame, record transmission efficiencies can be achieved. With a 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser and direct detection, JPL demonstrated a transmission efficiency of 0.4 photons per bit, that is, roughly two orders of magnitude higher than other techniques including homodyne detection. Such a laser link can support useful data rates (approximately kbps to Mbps) between a planetary platform and an Earth terminal using telescope apertures of 10 to 30-cm on the satellite and 10-m on the ground. On the uplink, atmospheric scintillation causes deep signal fades. These lead to long burst errors that are difficult to overcome with interleaving and coding techniques and limit useful data rates. Adaptive optical techniques and multi-beam transmission approaches need to be employed to mitigate such signal fades. The extremely large distance combined with the atmosphere poses a major challenge to the PAT technology. Fig. 11 shows that closed-loop acquisition and tracking techniques cannot be employed as space craft venture towards the outer planets and into deep space. For missions in the outer planetary regions, closed-loop laser beacon tracking becomes ineffective due to the long propagation delay. The road map to deep space laser communication implementation thus relies on experience gained from technology demonstrations with Earth-orbiting satellites. Such demonstrations must be conducted to prove the reli-

Fig. 9. Three-terminal satellite lasercom platform desing for BMDS program.

Fig. 10. 1.2-Gbps diode laser satellite communications terminal mounted on STRV-2 space craft.

semiconductor fabrication process state-of-the-art was not ready to provide the high level of uniformity across the diode array needed to achieve the desired beam quality. The program was cancelled in the early 1990s. During the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Army Space and Strategic Defense Command funded a program to design, build and fly a satellite laser communications terminal. Using directly modulated semiconductor lasers and avalanche photodiode detectors communications up to gigabit per second speeds were to be demonstrated. The acquisition and tracking subsystem used separate diode beacon lasers, a CCD camera, and a narrow band Cesium atomic line filter for background light rejection. This program led to the launch of a satellite terminal as part of the Space Technology Research Vehicle-2 experiment which flew on TSX-5 in 2000. The satellite terminal including the electronics weighed 31.5 pounds, and is shown mounted on the front of STRV-2 in Fig. 10. It was capable of full duplex communications at 1.2 Gbps (2 × 600 Mbps channels on right and left circular polarizations) between satellites in a LEO constellation. The STRV-2 experiment also called for a satellite-to-ground lasercom link at distances up to 2000 km. In cooperation with JPL a ground terminal was installed at the

Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States


Fig. 11. Lasercom tracking techniques for deep space missions.

ability of the technology under representative operational conditions. During the Ground-to-Orbit Lasercom Demonstration (GOLD), JPL conducted the first such demonstration using JPL’s Table Mountain Observatory (TMO) in California and the ETS-VI satellite developed and built in Japan. This 1.064 Mbps two-way optical communications experiment was conducted over a period of seven months in 1996. It required simultaneous and cooperative operation by team members in Tokyo and California. A key objective was to measure the atmospheric attenuation and to validate the performance of the optical link. The telemetry downlink provided in-orbit performance data for the laser communications equipment. Bit error rates of 10−4 and 10−5 were measured using pseudorandom code generators on the downlink and uplink, respectively. The measured signal power levels, when dynamically calibrated for atmospheric attenuation, agreed with theoretical predictions. A second successful deep-space pointing experiment was performed during the second Earth flyby of the Galileo spacecraft, as part of the Galileo satellite Venus– Earth–Earth Gravity Assist (VEEGA) trajectory. This afforded a unique opportunity to perform a deep space optical uplink experiment as the space craft receded from Earth on its way to Jupiter. Eight days after Earth flyby, the Galileo Optical Experiment (GOPEX) was conducted from December 9 through December 16, 1992. Laser beams were transmitted to the satellite from transmitter sites at TMO and at the Starfire Optical Range in New Mexico. At 6 million kilometers range (15 times the Earth–Moon distance), the laser beam sent from TMO was recorded by one of Galileo’s cameras as shown in Fig. 12. Since then, JPL has developed both an integrated deep space optical communications demonstrator, shown in Fig. 13, as well as NASA’s first optical communications ground station, the Optical Telecommunications Telescope Laboratory located at TMO.

Fig. 12. Earth beacon pulses recorded by Galileo camera at 6 million km.

Fig. 13. JPL deep space optical communications demonstrator terminal.

240 Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States

6. Commercial intersatellite links
The first commercial interest in intersatellite links (ISL) was by INTELSAT. This interest was initially for RF ISLs to provide links between satellites that were fairly closely spaced. INTELSAT sponsored development of the required TWTAs and other hardware, and requested a quote for ISLs for INTELSAT VI. The purpose of the ISLs was to decrease the number of earth stations a given site would need to access two satellites. INTELSAT subsequently sponsored studies of optical ISL technologies and some hardware development including laser arrays, pointing systems, and an optical head with redundant lasers. In the 1980s, ESA sponsored a program to define the requirements of an optical ISL that could connect EUTELSAT satellites with INTELSAT satellites. Both EUTELSAT and INTELSAT provided inputs to the requirements for this commercial system. As a commercial operation, INTELSAT’s major concern, besides the lifetime of lasercom terminals in space, was the reliability of highspeed intersatellite links. Closed-loop mutual tracking of two laser terminals on space platforms with limited inertial stability and locally generated disturbances can cause severe burst errors. This concern led to pioneering work on burst error analysis at INTELSAT in the mid-1980s. However, neither RF nor optical intersatellite links were pursued, as INTELSAT’s business was not strongly dependent on developing this capability. The mid-1980s saw the beginning of a reversal in the use of wired and wireless communications media. Up to that time, personal communications were based on fixed wired networks where circuit switched connections were made between users by a hierarchy of switching centers. Wireless communications were the domain of broadcast radio and television and two-way push to talk radios. The start of this reversal was the availability of car phones. It triggered a growing public interest in mobile communications and led to several programs for providing global seamless roaming services through commercial communication satellites in LEO. The first of these programs was Iridium, launched in the late 1980s by Motorola. The concept was bold: place a constellation of satellites in LEOs in such a way that phone service with handheld devices would be available anywhere on the globe. Direct links between the satellites was an integral part of the call routing process. Early in the design phase, Motorola compared millimeter wave and optical technologies for these intersatellite links. They selected the 60 GHz solution because it had the ability to deliver the relatively modest predicted data rates and was technically more mature. Thus, the first major opportunity for a large volume commercial breakthrough for intersatellite laser communications was lost. Despite over two decades of development work in laser communications, the technology was not ready for operational deployment. Too many technology changes had been made and too many programs had been cancelled.

Fig. 14. Teledesic’s “Internet in the Sky” constellation with 126 LEO satellites.

During production of the Iridium satellites, Motorola and Teledesic Corp. both made plans for yet another, more ambitious space communications program: provide a broadband “fiber in the sky” global service for corporate and private Internet users. Both companies competed for a period, refining their LEO configurations and service offerings. In 1997, Motorola agreed to merge their Celestri program with Teledesic’s program and became the prime contractor for the space segment of the Teledesic program. The space segment converged to a constellation of 126 satellites positioned at an altitude of 1400 km in 14 equally spaced orbital planes at 50◦ inclination as shown in Fig. 14. Each satellite was to be equipped with six Optical Intersatellite Link (OISL) Terminals providing full duplex connectivity with six counter terminals. Two of these were located on forward and backward neighbors in the same orbital plane, and two on the closest neighbors in adjacent planes. The last two counter terminals were dynamically allocated for links with two more forward/backward neighbors in adjacent planes or links with satellites in the next-to-adjacent planes. For maximum flexibility, as well as system reliability, each terminal had to be able to repeatedly make and break communications links with its designated counter terminal whenever there was a direct line of sight. Communication data rates were not to be affected when either the Sun or the Moon entered the receiver’s field of view. The top systemlevel requirements for the Teledesic OISL are provided in Table 1. By the time, the Teledesic program was put on hold, the lasercom terminal design was largely completed and met all the critical requirements. Fig. 15 shows the engineering model of the optical head. The design represents the culmination of the prior decade’s developments and

Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States


Table 1. Key Teledesic OISL System-Level Requirements.
User Data Rate Data Input in 24 Channels Link Availability Maximum Range Maximum Range Rate Packet Loss Ratio Maximum Range Acceleration Operating Azimuth Range Max Azimuth Range∗ Maximum Azimuth Rate Maximum Elevation Range∗ Maximum Elevation Rate Power Mass Lifetime

tight interface specifications. The main design features were: • Single, fine tunable optical carrier at 1064 nm wavelength • Separation of oscillator, modulator, and power amplifier functions • Ultra-sensitive data transport using phase shift keying and homodyne detection • High transmit/receive isolation by geometrical design, polarization, and carrier wavelength • High-speed digital data processing using custom designed low-power application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) • Burst error mitigation by coding and scrambling • Separate control channel for closed-loop control of transmit power control and point-ahead angle • Separate high power beacon transmitter • High speed tracking loop using two-axis fine pointing mirror

6.96 Gbps 290 Mbps each 99.999% of time 6000 km 6.8 km/s 3.6 × 10−9 34.0 m/s2 +/ − 95 deg 270 deg 0.5 deg/s 0 to 21 deg 0.04 deg/s 95 W 105 kg 8 years

Includes capability to point terminals on the same satellite at each other for calibration

7. Conclusions
We hope with this review that we succeeded in correctly retracing the U.S. laser communications developments of the last 40 years. Unfortunately, the common characteristic of most of the programs to date in the US was incompleteness and cancellation before flight demonstration. However, space lasercom has clearly matured to the point where performance, schedule and cost risk have become comparable to other accepted space technologies. This became evident during the Teledesic program and has since been validated by the recent success of a European program. Nevertheless, after the termination of the Teledesic program, the technologist are is still waiting for a major encouragement by the space application community, particularly on the commercial side. As a common Austrian saying goes: “Erstens kommt es anders, zweitens als man denkt” (things don’t happen as expected). For Walter Leeb and many of us, who have spent a good part of our professional careers developing space laser communications technology, it is a consoling thought that lasercom has become the dominant technology, at least for medium and long distance terrestrial communications. Our globe is knit with a dense network of optical fibers that provide the backbone for all our telephone and Internet traffic. Today, communications carriers are also deploying fiber in metropolitan area networks (metro rings) and even as a “last mile” medium for broadband access to homes. Acknowledgement
The authors very much appreciate contributions to this article made by Louis Caudill and Nelson McAvoy, NASA (both retired); Dr. Robert Peters, formerly with Intelsat; Dr. Keith E. Wilson, JPL; Prof. Dr. Gerhard Schiffner, Ruhr Universität in Bochum, and Dr. Eric Korevaar of Optical Access Inc. Thanks also go to

Fig. 15. Engineering model: Teledesic lasercom head.

the convergence of the most advanced technologies available on both sides of the Atlantic. The transmitter uses a non-planar ring Nd:YAG oscillator, an external integrated modulator, and a single-mode polarization preserving fiber amplifier. The receiver side uses homodyne detection in a unique detector plane combining acquisition, tracking, and communications detectors. All major components were breadboarded and tested, either individually or in subassemblies. A radiation hardening program for all components was underway. Back-up solutions were in place for the most critical components. To meet the needs of high volume production (close to 900 units), the design consisted of highly compact subunits and modules with

242 Space Laser Communications: A Review of Major Programs in the United States
Ms. Gail Donovan for her thorough editing, and to the staff of the Communications Services Department at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado for their help with the graphics. Company with increasing responsibilities, developing components and subsystems for a range of programs including the Space Relay System, Boundary Layer Experiment, Laser Crosslink Subsystem, Diode Pumped Slab Laser and Phase Integrated Laser Optical Transmitter program. He joined Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in 1988 as senior program manager for Laser Subsystems and Applications and was promoted to Director of Laser Subsystems and Mechanisms in 1996. His responsibilities included technology and program development for E-O sensors, star trackers, LIDAR transceivers and lasercom subsystems, including diode pumped solid state laser transmitters, wideband receivers, pointing, acquisition and tracking subsystems, and the integration of these electro-optical subsystems on ground, airborne, and space platforms. In 1998 he became director of the BATC Technology Incubator which produced two spin-out companies based on BATC technologies. He is presently Vice President of Strategic Management developing long term strategic directions for BATC through research and development, mergers and acquisitions, and new corporate business initiatives.

Gerhard A. Koepf During his tenure at the Institute for Hochfrequenztechnik at the University of Technology in Vienna, Dr. Koepf was a member of the “Lasercom Group”. He spent 5-years at the NASA Goddard Space Center, where he developed a laser heterodyne receiver for the far infrared and submillimeter wave regime. With this receiver, he took part in two astronomical observations at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. He then joined Comsat Laboratories as manager of the optical communications department, where he worked on undersea fiber-optic communications, TDRSS and Intelsat space lasercom studies and on coherent optical beamforming for phased array antennas. He joined Ball Aerospace Corp. in 1985 as manager of the lasercom department, was appointed Chief Scientist in 1986, and manager of the active microwave antenna department in 1992. In that role, he developed advanced technology for millimeter wave phased array antennas. In 1994 he joined Superconducting Core Technology as Chief Technology Officer. Since 1998 Dr. Koepf is working as a self-employed consultant. His main engagements were in the Teledesic lasercom program with Motorola, a government program in superconductivity with General Dynamics, and for the last two years with Mobility Networks, a Silicon Valley start-up company developing products for wireless communications.

David L. Begley Throughout his career, Dr. Begley has played a leading role in lasercom technology in the US. With his numerous contributions in journals and at conferences, he is well known and respected within the industry. After an initial 3-year academic career, his interests shifted to device development for aerospace applications. Between 1982 and 1988 Dr. Begley held various positions at the McDonnell Douglas Astronautics

Robert G. Marshalek Robert G. Marshalek was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1954. He received the B.E.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from The Johns Hopkins University in 1976 and 1982, respectively. From October 1981 to September 1987 he was a Member of the Technical Staff in the Optical Communications Department of COMSAT Laboratories, Clarksburg, Maryland. His work there included theoretical and experimental studies of optical intersatellite links, wavelength-division multiplex links, fiber-optic data distribution systems, and fiber-optic local area networks. In September 1987, he joined Ball Aerospace Systems Division, Boulder, Colorado, as a Principal Design Engineer and later Staff Consultant, to pursue modeling and experimental characterization of components and subsystems for space laser communications, as well as design and risk-reduction hardware development for a variety of electro-optic and laser-based systems.

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