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Graphic depicting two satellites in space with a red laser bouncing between them and hitting the earth

Durham researchers are helping transform satellite communications in a joint project that has won millions in funding from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

The project aims to launch the UK’s first university-led, multi-satellite space mission for demonstrating inter-satellite laser communications. 

Our Physics Department’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation (CfAI) develops state-of-the-art space instruments that have been used in high profile equipment such as the James Webb Telescope. 

Since 2021 a CfAI team has been working with a group led by Northumbria University to develop a new laser-based system of satellite communications. 

This technology is housed in a square-shaped miniature satellite known as a CubeSat and the plan is to launch it into space for a test mission in 2025. 

Laser innovation 

Satellites currently use radio frequencies to transmit data, but this has limited capacity and is vulnerable to disruption. 

Lasers, however, can transmit 1,000 times more data per second than radio frequency and can do it much more securely. 

Because the device worked on by the Durham team uses innovative laser technology, it could potentially become the predominant communications mechanism for satellites in future. 

It can also be sent into orbit easily and cheaply, significantly improving data transfer abilities in space. 

Durham expertise 

Durham physicists were brought into the project due to their expert knowledge in the design and manufacture of satellite optics and their inhouse machining capability ideal for prototyping and development. 

The CfAI has developed particular knowledge in diamond-based ultraprecision machining techniques used to produce large and freeform optical components such as mirrors, lenses and diffraction grating in space instrumentation. 

The team was invited to join the Northumbria project in its second phase in October 2021 to help with the opto-mechanical design and manufacture of the optical head of the future satellites.  

Experts from the satellite communications technology company e2E Group and manufacturing firm SMS Electronics Limited are also involved in the project and Lockheed Martin joined the consortium last year. 

What next? 

The UK Space Agency has announced £4.98million in funding for the next stage of the research through its National Space Innovation Programme.  

It was one of 22 projects initially chosen to receive funding in 2020, with further funding granted in 2021 for those showing highly promising potential. 

It is now one of only two projects selected for this third and final phase of funding. 

The funding will enable the design, test, and build of the first CubeSat with laser optical communications technology ready to be launched into space in 2025. 

Find out more: 

  • Learn more about our Centre for Advanced Instrumentation here
  • Discover more about our highly-rated Physics Department here
  • Read about our Physics research and impact here 

Our Department of Physics is a thriving centre for research and education. Ranked 2nd in the UK by The Guardian University Guide 2023 and in the World Top 100 in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023, we are proud to deliver a teaching and learning experience for students which closely aligns with the research-intensive values and practices of the University. 

Main picture: An artist's impression of the satellites in action. Credit: Eamon Scullion/Northumbria University