UK moves to demonstrate satellite laser communications

10th August 2021 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on Monday that the country’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) had awarded a £9.5-million contract to British company In-Space Missions to build the ‘Titania’ future defence communications technology research satellite. This will use narrow laser beams (which cannot be jammed like radio frequencies) to transmit data.

The project is known as the ‘Titania Operational Concept Demonstrator’ and will have two elements – the Titania low Earth orbit communications satellite and its associated ‘Puck’ Optical Ground Station. (Titania and Puck are the names of characters in William Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; the UK has a tradition, dating from the start of the space age, of naming research satellites after Shakespearean characters.) Titania is planned to be launched in 2023.

The use of lasers for communication to, from and between satellites is known as Free-Space Optical Communications (FSOC). In addition to its great resistance to jamming, FSOC offers greatly increased data transfer speeds, of multi-gigabytes per second. Titania, which will be the size of a domestic washing machine, will be used to demonstrate the high-speed transfer of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance data.

“The Titania space mission will accelerate the development and adoption of space-based optical communications, allowing our armed forces the ability to operate in an increasingly contested environment,” affirmed Dstl space programme manager Dr Mike O’Callaghan. “The Titania satellite will support the UK space sector and provide a solid foundation on which to conduct experimentation into FSOC and allow the science to be developed. We are delighted to be working with In-Space Missions on this highly innovative project.”

“Following [Space Command’s] stand-up as a Joint Command, the Titania satellite contract is the next exciting step for the UK in space,” highlighted UK Space Command chief Air Vice Marshal (equivalent to Major-General in South Africa) Paul Godfrey. “It’s a brilliant example of the partnerships being developed and enhanced across the UK space enterprise, developing capabilities that not only enable military operations, but underpin countless activities essential to our way of life and the safety of our nation.”

The Titania satellite project is part of the UK MoD’s programme to develop next-generation defence space technology. This has a budget of more than £1.4-billion over the next ten years. The contract was awarded through a commercial framework designated Serapis Lot 2, which is aimed at reaching companies that have not been traditional defence suppliers, small and medium enterprises, and academia, in order to develop new space capabilities. Serapis Lot 2 is run by Dstl in cooperation with major UK aerospace and defence group BAE Systems.