TNO & partners bring deep-space communication a step closer

Satellite communication
16 June 2023

Could there ever be a space station on the moon? Or a shuttle to orbit around Mars? Perhaps. But only if there’s an effective communication system in place. Recently, TNO and its partners completed a project that will enable effective communication from a Lunar Gateway, an orbiter around Mars, or deep-space exploration missions. With the successful development of a breadboard optical communication terminal, TNO and its partners have brought the entire industry a significant step closer to its deep-space ambitions.

deep-space TNO - Optical Satellite Communication HD

Partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA), Teledyne e2V and G&H (Gooch & Housego), TNO designed, developed and integrated the breadboard during the two-year Building Blocks for High Photon Efficiency Optical Communication project, sponsored by ESA. The project’s aim was to develop key technologies for the terminal. In the Dutch NXTGEN HIGHTECH project, Dutch partners like ISISSpace are involved for potential next steps in these exiting deep space communication developments.

A breadboard beyond

The breadboard – a sort of laboratory prototype – has an uplink path for controlling the optical communication terminal from Earth and a downlink path to stream essential data with high throughput back to the Earth’s surface. ‘Optical inter-satellite and space-to-ground communication terminals can enable large amounts of data to be transmitted much more reliably and securely,’ says Gabriele Bulgarini, Project Manager. ‘This breadboard is one of the crucial building blocks for a deep space communication system, and we are proud to be part of its successful development.’

With the terminal, data is transmitted by laser beams by positioning the peak power to be released at specific time intervals – what is known as Pulsed Position Modulation. For lunar communications, TNO first aims to achieve downlink speeds of 400Mbps at a distance of 38,000km, and then improve it to more than 1Gbps. For comparison, the International Space Station has a downlink speed of 300Mbps, but is only 400km away from the Earth.

’Perhaps most remarkable about the breadboard is that it truly pushes the technological limits,’ Gabriele continues. ‘The laser buffers for a relatively long time (up to 128ns) and then releases its energy for a very short time (as little as 0.25ns). So, we can achieve high peak energy and efficiently bridge long distances in space. Plus, this method helps us overcome the signal losses that usually accompany transmissions across these distances.’

A revolutionary development

Using its foundation of more than 50 years of experience in space instrumentation and its expertise in optical satellite terminals, TNO built the modem to control modulation of the downlink laser. This means that the modem can be adjusted for missions at a variety of distances and for a number of different use cases – from a Lunar Gateway to a mission to Jupiter’s orbit. It therefore is an essential piece of technology to inspire the next generation of exploration.

The development is more relevant now than ever, with the resumed interest in returning to the Moon and the Artemis program of NASA. Fast and secure communication is critical to enable long term habitat for humans in Space.

‘We want optical communication to become a standard in space exploration and deep space communication.’ explains Ewa Kadziolka, Business Developer for Space and Scientific Instrumentation department at TNO. ‘With the completion of this project, we hope to inspire the next steps of development, demonstrate capabilities, and stimulate the next level of interest in deep space.’

‘We have proven that the technology works, and we’re ready to work on testing in space,’ Gabriele adds. ‘We’re currently searching for partners as eager as we are to get our communication terminal launched, and enable the next giant leap in space exploration and communication.’

Interested in being part of the step? Contact Ewa to uncover the opportunities available to accelerate development of the deep-space optical communication terminal.


“We hope to spark interest in the potential of the technology, and generate future commercial opportunities for deep space.”

Ewa Kadziolka

Business Developer


“Europe is one of the leading developers of optical satellite communication terminals. Now, TNO has proven the terminal concept and is ready to work on the roadmap to its launch.”

Gabriele Bulgarini

Read more about TNO’s work on the Building Blocks project and other laser satellite communication research.

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