In the few years since the 2012 KISS (Keck Institute for Space Studies) workshop on Small Satellites: A Revolution in Space Science, a near-frenzied growth has taken place in SmallSat missions and capabilities. The functionality of CubeSats (< 10 kg) and SmallSats (< 200 kg) is increasing, providing the opportunity to achieve a wide spectrum of scientific objectives on these relatively low-cost/low-risk platforms. These spacecraft today rely on RF communication systems, which, despite their maturity and small footprint, cannot keep up with the growing demand for data, nor satisfy the various government controls on frequency and bandwidth for the radio frequency spectrum. Therefore, highly compact laser communication systems are being pursued because of their potential to return 100-1000x more data than the current options.
This study will bring together space scientists, technologists, and mission designers across two workshops to understand the current limitations faced by SmallSat science missions stemming from the communication bottleneck, and together craft novel technical approaches for optical data transfer that significantly enhances the quality and volume of data returned by these missions. The overarching theme is to identify the most logical development path for optical communication instruments, in order to retire the key risks associated with this technology and ensure that it will meet the needs of SmallSat customers and be competitive with their RF counterparts. Resource-efficiency will also be evaluated for these two options in different regions of space to determine the ranges where one holds a clear advantage over the other. For example, many deep space SmallSat missions may only be achieved through creative laser communication where RF bent-pipe alternatives are not available.
This program will be driven by a rich cross-fertilization of the various contributors’ backgrounds and motivations to define new compelling science that is realizable by utilizing many existing ground and space optical facilities combined with achievable optical communication flight systems. While serving to initiate many near-term revolutionary SmallSat mission concepts, the concrete results that blossom from this symposium will clearly guide and impact longer-term strategies for supporting large-scale space optical communication architectures.