Satellite Communication

Self-driving cars, social media with more videos and the Internet of Things create a growing demand for more data. The existing connections cannot meet that demand. Laser satellite communication could be the solution.

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Optical satellite communication

TNO is working on this new optical communication technology that uses satellites to send information to Earth. This happens via invisible light signals and enables much faster data transfers than using the radio frequencies currently employed for communication everywhere.

TNO develops high-quality technology, in close collaboration with industry, that contributes to various components of a satellite communication system.

More data

Laser satellite communication ensures that you can send more data. It uses much less power and at the same time, the efficiency is higher. Moreover, it can be at least 10 times faster than normal communication. You can use laser satellite communication to process a terabit of information per second - that's about 125 gigabyte. Or, more tangible: streaming 200,000 Netflix HD quality movies in parallel.

Optical signals

The laser signals are used to directly connect satellites with so called inter-satellite links but also to connect satellites and terrestrial stations on Earth. It’s also possible to install such an optical terminal in an aircraft so that you can use the internet in the air. Laser satellite communication works best if you build a network of several satellites that exchange data and then send it back to Earth.

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Larger data usage

That’s a handy thing to have here on Earth. It gives you reach anywhere in the world. But beyond the convenience, laser satellite communication is actually a necessity. For example, the advance of the self-driving car is relentless, and such autonomous vehicles process gigabytes of data every second. And not only are cars becoming smarter (and therefore need more data), our homes can also do more and more. Thermostats, refrigerators and smoke detectors; they are all internet connected and thus increasingly consume data.

The current radio frequency spectrum is no longer sufficient to process all that data. It is too limited in terms of data processing, and many people already use it. The result is scarcity and malfunctions.

Satellite network

You have to use dozens or even hundreds of satellites to make a good laser communication network. Together they can then reach the entire surface of the Earth. There are a number of companies and institutions that are building such a network. SpaceX does it with StarLink, the European space agency ESA is building EDRS. Such networks consist of satellites that are becoming smaller and cheaper all the time.

TNO’s work

At the moment, more than 30 researchers at TNO are working on the development of this form of communication. TNO is not building the entire satellite, but the optical part with which the satellites communicate with terrestrial stations and the optical terminals for inter-satellite communications. TNO is also developing the key technologies needed for the future, more advanced, terminals. High precision mechanisms, optical components, mirrors manufacturing and photonics components, are just some examples.

One key obstacle, for example, is the price. In a network of satellites each satellite contains four terminals, so a network of dozens of satellites will quickly require hundreds of terminals, and that drives up the costs. An important task for TNO is to be able to produce these terminals in bulk, but above all to make them smaller, cheaper and therefore commercially more appealing.


One of those technologies that TNO is working on is the 'TOmCAT', the 'Terabit Optical Communication Adaptive Terminal'. Adaptive optics is a vital sub-system for these ground terminals since laser communication is affected by turbulence in the atmosphere and so the connection is not optimal. Adaptive optics stabilise that connection.

At the moment, we are working hard on laser satellite communication, but there is still a long way to go. Last year (2019) we have tested the adaptive optics performance, the stability and precision of the laser beam between two stations that were ten kilometres apart. It appeared that using our adaptive optics system substantially improves the performance i.e. 6 dB of improvement over 10km. As this demonstration was representative for a ground to GEO link (altitude of 39.000km above the earth) we also expect that performance improvement in the final product. 

TNO is collaborating with Dutch and European Space and High-Tech industry on this development. There are many companies in our country that are already working on building microchips or other components relevant for laser satellite communication. TNO helps these companies to use their work processes and machines so that laser satellite communication components can be built easily. Both parties benefit from this.

Practical applications

It is not enough to make the technology cheaper. Commercial applications must also become available to make laser satellite communication affordable. Such communication is also very interesting for Defence purposes. For example, laser satellite communication is much safer than radio communication because it is much more difficult to wiretap.


ESA awards TNO with contract for in orbit demonstration of laser communication terminal for faster data transmission

05 January 2021
ESA has awarded TNO an ARTES ScyLight contract to perform an in orbit demonstration (IOD), called SmallCAT (Small Communication Active Terminal), of a direct to earth laser communication terminal. Read more

TNO & Airbus NL sign MoU to bring terabit Optical Ground Station (OGS) to market

04 December 2020
TNO and Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands (Airbus DS NL) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). It confirms their commitment to work together to commercialise the ground-breaking Terabit... Read more

TNO & Aircision signed a contract to explore FSO-driven 5G

28 September 2020
TNO signed a consortium agreement with Aircision B.V. to advance Free Space Optics (FSO) connectivity technology. To harness the power of 5G and broadband connectivity, more robust FSO links are needed... Read more

TNO has signed a contract with ESA to start Phase 2 of TOmCAT

02 July 2020
TNO has signed a contract with ESA to demonstrate cutting-edge optical communication technologies for future terabit-per-second telecom satellites. The TOmCAT project (Terabit Optical Communication Adaptive... Read more

Knowledge institutes join forces to research climate change and air pollution using satellites

03 February 2022
The KNMI, TNO, SRON and Delft University of Technology will collaborate on research and technology development in the field of earth observation. The creation of the ‘Clear Air’ consortium is intended... Read more

Satellite reveals Australian coal mines emit much more methane than expected based on national reporting

29 November 2021
A Dutch group of scientists has used space instrument TROPOMI to calculate methane emissions from six Australian coal mines. Together these account for 7% of the national coal production, but turn out... Read more

TNO and Celestia STS sign agreement to commercialise Optical Modem

30 June 2021
The availability of optical modem technology (optical digital converter aka ODC) for the market has taken a major step forward with the signing this week of an agreement between TNO, the Netherlands Organisation... Read more

Aircision and TNO successfully demonstrate 10 Gbps FSO link over 2.5km, enabling fast deployable 5G networks

25 May 2021
Aircision and TNO successfully completed their field tests establishing the first optical wireless link of 10 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps) over 2.5km in the Netherlands. This will potentially enable 5G and... Read more
Space & Scientific Instrumentation