Australian telescope to enable high-speed data connections from space

Astronauts will soon be able to send high-speed data transmissions from space with the construction of a new optical communications station in Western Australia.

The ground station has the potential to receive high-definition video footage in real time and will probably be how video from Nasa’s next Artemis mission to the Moon in 2024 is beamed back down to Earth.

The project is being steered by researchers at The University of Western Australia (UWA). It will use make use of a 0.7m observatory-grade optical telescope (pictured below) and will be fitted with advanced atmospheric-noise suppression technology.

The station will be connected to the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, UK, via high-speed fibre. Goonhilly’s supercomputer will handle data traffic and it already supports secure communications links for the world’s major satellite operators.

Dr Sascha Schediwy from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) said optical communications is an emerging technology expected to revolutionise data transfer from space.

Optical telescope

Image credit: The University of Western Australia

“Most current space communications rely on radio waves – it’s the same technology that brought us the voice of Neil Armstrong when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon in 1969,” he said.

“Free-space optical laser communications has several advantages over radio, including significantly faster data rates and hack-proof data transfer.

“It’s the next-generation of space communications, and it’s likely to be how we’ll see high definition footage of the first woman to walk on the Moon.”

The project could be the first ‘on-sky’ optical communications ground station in the Southern Hemisphere, and besides space communications, it could also be used for applications ranging from cutting-edge fundamental physics to precision earth science and resource geophysics.

Scientists also believe it will contribute to the development of the ‘quantum internet’ – secure global data transmission using quantum-key distribution via optical links to quantum satellites.

Dr Schediwy said the ground station will help launch Australia’s space communications capacity.

“This will cement Australia’s position as a leader in optical data transmission, and position the nation to tap into the multi-billion-dollar space communications market,” he said.

The $535,000 station is expected to be ‘on-sky’ in early 2021 and open for business later that year.

In February, the International Space Station got a boost to its internet connection with the delivery of a new communications antenna. 

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