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Friday, January 29, 2016

NASA to build first integrated-photonics modem

By Nick Flaherty

A team at NASA is to build an integrated photonics modem that that could be a significant step forward in telecommunications, medical imaging, advanced manufacturing and quantum computing.

The agency's first-ever integrated-photonics modem will be tested aboard the International Space Station beginning in 2020 as part of NASA's multi-year Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, or LCRD. The cell phone-sized device incorporates optics-based functions, such as lasers, switches, and wires, onto an etched silicon substrate. 

Once aboard the space station, the so-called Integrated LCRD LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) User Modem and Amplifier (ILLUMA) will serve as a low-Earth orbit terminal for NASA's LCRD using high-speed, laser-based communications.

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has relied exclusively on RF links but with higher data rates than ever before, the need for LCRD has become more critical, said Don Cornwell, director of NASA's Advanced Communication and Navigation Division within the space Communications and Navigation Program, which is funding the modem's development.

LCRD promises data rates 10 to 100 times faster than today's communications equipment, requiring significantly less mass and power. The project, which is expected to begin operations in 2019, is designed to be an operational system after an initial two-year demonstration period. It involves a hosted payload and two specially equipped ground stations.

"Integrated photonics are like an integrated circuit, except they use light rather than electrons to perform a wide variety of optical functions," Cornwell said. Recent developments in nanostructures, meta-materials, and silicon technologies have expanded the range of applications for these highly integrated optical chips. Furthermore, they could be lithographically printed in mass -- just like electronic circuitry today -- further driving down the costs of photonic devices. This will also be a key enabler for photonics-based quantum computing at room temperature.

"We've pushed this for a long time," said Mike Krainak, who is leading the modem's development at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The technology will simplify optical system design. It will reduce the size and power consumption of optical devices, and improve reliability, all while enabling new functions from a lower-cost system. It is clear that our strategy to leverage integrated photonic circuitry will lead to a revolution in Earth and planetary-space communications as well as in science instruments."

In addition to leading ILLUMA's development, Krainak serves as NASA's representative on the country's first consortium to advance integrated photonics. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the non-profit American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics, with headquarters in Rochester, New York, is developing low-cost, high-volume, manufacturing methods to merge electronic integrated circuits with integrated photonic devices.
Mike Krainak and his team plan to replace portions of this fibre-optic receiver with an integrated-photonic circuit, whose size will be similar to the chip he is holding. The team then plans to test the advanced modem on the International Space Station. CREDIT: NASA/W. HRYBYK

NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) also appointed Krainak as the integrated photonics lead for its Space Technology Research Grants Program, which supports early-stage innovations. 

Under the NASA project, Krainak and his team will reduce the size of the terminal, now about the size of two toaster ovens (above). Although the modem is expected to use some optical fibre, ILLUMA is the first step in building and demonstrating an integrated photonics circuit that ultimately will embed these functions onto a chip, he said.

"What we want to do is provide a faster exchange of data to the scientific community. Modems have to be inexpensive. They have to be small. We also have to keep their weight down," said Krainak. The goal is to develop and demonstrate the technology and then make it available to industry and other government agencies, creating an economy of scale that will further drive down costs. "This is the pay off," he said.

The technology can also be used in the data centre to reduce size and power consumption. "Google, Facebook, they're all starting to look at this technology," Krainak said. "As integrated photonics progresses to be more cost effective than fibre optics, it will be used," he added. "Everything is headed this way."

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