Norwegian satellite with SmallCAT laser communication system aboard, successfully launched

Satellite communication
Space and scientific instrumentation
15 April 2023

The Norwegian NorSat Technology Demonstrator (NorSat-TD) has been successfully launched from SpaceX at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. NorSat-TD is commissioned and operated by the Norwegian Space Agency (NOSA) and will demonstrate technology for satellite control, tracking, navigation, communication and maritime traffic monitoring.  Aboard the spacecraft are several payloads, one of which is the SmallCAT (Small Communication Active Terminal) laser communication system. Developed in a consortium led by TNO, SmallCAT uses direct to earth laser communication to increase data transmission capabilities of small satellites. In the coming months an in orbit demonstration of SmallCAT will ensue by connecting with the optical ground station at a TNO location in The Hague.

NORSAT-TD_spacecraft-EMC_s-web (1)
Photo credits: University of Toronto Institute of 'Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory'

“We’re absolutely thrilled that the launch of NorSat-TD has been successful. It’s exciting to know that after all the hard work we did with our international partners, there is finally going to be a demonstration of our technology. This is a great step towards an European ecosystem for fast and secure laser satellite communications and a chance to position Dutch companies to become a node in these networks”

Kees Buijsrogge

Director Space & Scientific Instrumentation

Optical satellite communication

The SmallCAT uses 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 the radio frequencies currently employed for communication everywhere. Where radio frequencies are limited to some gigabits per second (Gbps), using laser communication can increase the transmission capabilities of these satellites ten to hundred fold. On top of that laser communication links are also interesting in the lower speeds (Gbps) as the data links are much more secure and systems have much lower size, weight and power, which is important in Space.

European cooperation

SmallCAT consists of a <1U laser terminal module (smaller than 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter) called CubeCAT mounted into a novel mechanical shock and vibration damping structure. SmallCAT will demonstrate a 1 Gbps, CCSDS 03K compliant high speed downlink (The Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems). The CubeCAT module is mounted into a highly damped and hysteresis free suspension system developed by TNO that will allow to withstand the NORSAT-TD satellite launch loads.

When in orbit SmallCAT will communicate primarily with the TNO optical ground station at a TNO location in The Hague, The Netherlands. It is also targeted that SmallCAT will communicate with other European optical ground stations which form part of the nucleus OGS network initiative led by KSAT (Kongsberg Satellite Services).

Project partners and funding

SmallCAT has been developed in a consortium led by TNO and includes the Dutch company AAC Hyperion (part of AAC Clyde Space) for the onboard electronics, drivers as well as software, and the UK company Gooch & Housego (laser transmitter). The development of SmallCAT was financed with NSO funds from the ESA ARTES program and the Dutch Ministry of Defense from their innovation budget. TNO also contributed in co-funding this program.

SmallCAT Laser Terminal

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