[SmallSat 2023 Report] Impact of “Demonstration” of Optical Communications Reverberates throughout the Small Satellite Industry

Warpspace Inc.
6 min readSep 11, 2023

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The Small Satellite Conference (Small Sat), the world’s largest conference on small satellites, was held at Utah State University from August 5 to 10, 2023. The Small Sat has been held since 1987 and is the world’s largest event for exchanging and exhibiting researchers and business people from universities. This year, 266 organizations and 3,700 participants gathered from 44 countries. From Warpspace, CSO Mori participated in a panel discussion on issues related to our earth observation satellites and trends in the optical communication satellite industry, attracting much attention. This article summarizes the events of the Small Sat and Mori’s presentation.

What are the small satellite missions that are attracting the world’s attention? -Nano-satellite technology, the pride of Japan

At this year’s Small Sat, various small satellite missions were the topic of discussion. Mori said that the EQUULEUS mission and the TBIRD system onboard the Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) were particularly interesting to the participants.

EQUULEUS is a mission being worked on by a team led by the University of Tokyo. EQUULEUS is a very ambitious mission, aiming at the Lagrangian point between the Earth and the Moon with only a little orbit control that can be achieved by an ultra-small spacecraft.

This is a highly ambitious mission. The EQUULEUS spacecraft has lost power and is flying to return to Earth, but it has already successfully demonstrated new onboard technologies and performed a lunar swing-by. In this regard, the EQUULEUS mission is highly regarded in the small satellite-related field. In fact, EQUULEUS was selected as a finalist for SmallSat Mission of the year 2023 at the Small Sat. Incidentally, the SmallSat Mission of the year 2023 was awarded to the LICIACube mission, which, in collaboration with NASA’s DART mission, photographed the impact of a spacecraft on an asteroid and contributed significantly to science related to asteroids.

Image of the EQUULEUS probe ©The University of Tokyo

From Low Earth Orbit to Deep Space: NASA’s Roadmap Illuminated by Optical Communications

TBIRD (TeraByte InfraRed Delivery) is NASA’s communication system that enables high data rate optical communications aboard the CubeSat (PTD-3) in low Earth orbit. Specifically, the system successfully downlinked 200 gigabits per second of data in June of this year. Considering that the data rate of conventional radio wave communication is several gigabits per second, you can see that optical communication has the potential to be “off the charts.

NASA seeks a more efficient communication system to transmit the data required for future manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. For example, NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) project will be launched this fall, and a transceiver for optical communications will be launched this October aboard NASA’s Psyche mission. The TBIRD has demonstrated optical communications technology in low Earth orbit, and now the DSOC will pave the way for demonstrating optical communications in deep space. Thus, NASA’s active and strategic use of optical communications technology is expected to have a revolutionary impact on future deep space exploration.

Image of the TBIRD communication system aboard NASA’s CubeSat (PTD-3) in low Earth orbit ©NASA

New Trends as Seen from the Panel Discussion. Optical communications are finally entering the demonstration phase.

Meanwhile, Warpspace hosted a panel discussion on optical communications at the Small Sat. The panel’s theme was “How Opt-Comm Could Solve the Problems of Earth Observation Sat Operators?” In addition to moderator Mori, the panel included Olivier Jacques-Sermet, Business Development Manager at Cailabs, an optical ground station operator, Tim Deaver, Vice President of Mynaric, a manufacturer of optical communications equipment, and Toshihiro Obata, Board Director & Head of Technology Strategy Office of Synspective, an earth observation company that develops its own SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellites.

The panel, moderated by Mr. Mori, discussed:

  1. The challenges faced by earth observation companies.
  2. The features and advantages of optical communications.
  3. How optical communications can provide solutions to these challenges.

(1) The challenges faced by earth observation companies

At present, the Earth observation satellite data that is publicly available is mainly image data from observation satellites launched by governments of developed countries, such as the Landsat and Sentinel series. These satellites take only about one image per month for each location on the Earth, and some of these images may not be available due to cloud cover. Also, if there are about 200 satellites in operation, such as Planet’s Dove satellite, it is possible to take one image of the entire globe daily. Still, since these Earth observation satellites orbit in sun-synchronous sub-recurrent orbits (*2), the image acquisition time is limited to around 10:30 a.m. local time. Therefore, if we refer only to free satellite data, we can obtain images only once a month. If we include paid data, even if we can obtain data daily, we cannot capture phenomena that did not occur when the image was taken at around 10:30 a.m.

(2) The features and advantages of optical communications.

The advantages of optical communication are many, including its overwhelmingly high communication speed compared to radio waves, its low cost relative to the communication speed due to the easy miniaturization of the terminal mounted on the satellite and its low power consumption, and the security aspect such as the difficulty of interception of communications.

(3) How optical communications can provide solutions to these challenges.

An example of a solution using optical communications is WarpHub InterSat, an optical near real-time communication network service for satellites in work by Warpspace. WarpHub InterSat connects numerous earth observation satellites via an optical communications network, making it possible to acquire and use more earth observation data and other data in near real-time, thereby contributing to realizing a sustainable global economy by speeding up disaster response and improving resource management efficiency.

In the Q&A session following this arrangement, Mori said “We have received strong interest from a wide range of businesses.”

Mori did not hide his satisfaction with the strong interest he has received from various businesses. Warpspace has presented the benefits and advantages of optical communications at various academic and industry conferences. “At this year’s Small Sat, we received more core technical questions than ever before, and we realized that more and more businesses are seriously considering adopting optical communications for their services,” said Mori. He continues, “Awareness of optical communication has certainly spread. Then the audience’s and potential customers’ next concern is ‘When will it be proven, and when will it be available?’”

With this background in mind, looking back on this year’s Small Sat, we can see that there were many iconic presentations on the theme of “demonstration,” including NASA’s TBIRD and DSOC, which were introduced earlier, as well as the demonstration of in-orbit optical communications by the Swedish earth observation satellite operator, AAC Clyde Space. The market surrounding optical communications is certainly about to enter a new phase. Amid these new trends, WarpHub InterSat will continue to steadily develop WarpHub InterSat while communicating in international forums to cultivate demand and explore collaboration.

Panel discussion speakers. From left, Warpspace CSO Mori (moderator), Olivier Jacques-Sermet, Business Development Manager at Cailabs, Tim Deaver, Vice President at Mynaric, and Synspective, Board Director & Head of Technology Strategy Office, Toshihiro Obata.

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Warpspace Inc.

Warpspace develops “WarpHub InterSat”, an optical inter-satellite data relay service. We will realize this service for LEO Sat operators by 2025.