The HiLASE Centre wants to become one of the respected leaders defining the trends in high power laser applications. To be the first-choice R&D partner for companies and research organizations seeking innovative laser technologies and solutions, on the Earth and beyond…
Space, is still an abstract concept for some. For HiLASIANS, Space means a challenge, determination, innovative solutions, and an opportunity to push past the boundaries of laser technology.
Of the newly defined strategic areas, the one that focuses on the use of laser technologies in Space is probably the most ambitious. The expert guarantor of the area of Space-borne Laser Technologies is the Head of the Advanced Lasers Development Department, Ing. Martin Smrž, Ph.D.
Since this is a new direction that the HiLASE Centre will be pursuing, we have asked Martin to give us an interview in which he will explain the field of laser technology and its use in Space.
For many people, Space technology still appears to be in the far future…
It may sound like science fiction, but the practical use of Space, and indeed the transfer of many technologies into Space, is closer than it may seem.
What can we imagine under the term laser Space technologies?
Laser technologies suitable for Space applications include communication, navigation, surface prospecting, space traffic management, and even laser propulsion of rockets and spacecrafts.
What will be the benefit of laser technology in Space?
Space technologies are a strategic direction for the HiLASE Centre, the Institute of Physics, and the Czech Republic. These are technologies with a very high added value, which can bring many new projects to Czech companies and industry, and push them into hi-tech areas. The Czech Republic could then use a part of Space for the well-being of its citizens.
The long-term potential, which may exceed a person’s lifetime, is certainly high, but the short-term benefits are also considerable. Sending instruments/lasers into Space involves, for example, the development of entirely new mechanical and electrical designs that will conserve scarce material and natural resources. However, we can also send such a laser, which will be more robust and more economical, into extreme conditions here on Earth.
How realistic is the idea of sending the HiLASE Centre’s laser technology into Space?
The HiLASE Centre has long been involved in the use of lasers for industrial applications, such as machining and 3D printing, but the logical choice for the future is to move into Space applications. Operating a laser under conditions such as those on the Moon or in the orbit is a major challenge. Moreover, many interesting applications related to mineral extraction and component manufacturing can be expected to move to these locations.
Many of our lasers have achieved world records in the area of high-energy, diode-pumped lasers and if we continue this development, I think HiLASE is well on its way to actually putting a laser into Space. At the moment, for us, this means continuing to work on laser efficiency, increasing it to the highest possible value, reducing cooling requirements, eliminating problems associated with, for example, radiation load, reducing weight, etc. In cooperation with local partners in the Czech Republic, whether businesses or academic institutions, we have a very good chance of developing such a laser.
Which sub-area or direction is the HiLASE Centre focusing on?
The strategic direction of laser technology for Space is not purely lasers. There are other technologies associated with it – laser machining technologies, communication technologies, measurement technologies, and others that use laser systems as light sources for their operation.
In the future, we want to focus on, among other things, several directions. For small lasers, these are communication links, between the surface of the Earth and the orbit or the Moon, or in the more distant future between the Earth and Mars and other planets. This can be communication between satellites in orbit and the distant Universe. The advantage of optical links is that the beam is directional and can carry quite a lot of information at once. This is particularly important with the requirement to transmit high-resolution images, to transmit large amounts of data from future bases on the Moon, to transmit data towards a mission to Mars… The HiLASE Centre proposes to use long-wavelength light sources for these purposes, which are less susceptible to adverse effects and will ensure more reliable transmission in the long term. However, such sources are still in their infancy and also require long-term development of detectors, algorithms associated with communication at these wavelengths.
LIDARs are also an interesting application with extensive use. By detecting light reflected or scattered by the analyzed object/phenomenon, it is possible to remotely map the surfaces of celestial bodies in detail, measure the presence and concentration of gaseous components and pollution in the atmosphere, analyze air movements in the atmosphere, etc. In case of high measurement speed and resolution requirements, high-power lasers are key. For pollution analysis, there is, on the other hand, demand for light sources at various exotic wavelengths in terms of source availability.
A significant economic benefit will be the mining of ores and minerals on the Moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies. Techniques for analyzing the surface of these bodies exist. Laser-induced plasma spectroscopy reveals what a given sample is composed of. However, it is not possible to land on an asteroid and the surface analysis needs to be done remotely. The aim is to vaporize a small surface area of that material using a laser, which means sending out a pulse of light with high energy so that it can ionize the desired piece of material and create a suitable type of plasma for analysis. The next issue is to reliably detect the radiation that the plasma will emit. This is, therefore, a complex problem associated not only with the development of a high-energy light source that would work reliably on a spacecraft, but also with the detection system, algorithms, etc.
For laser-powered spaceships, humanity’s focus is on returning to the Moon, but trips to Mars and deep Space, to more distant planets and bodies outside the solar system, are also in long-term consideration. The ship can be powered by emitting a beam of light (from Earth or the orbit) that creates a plasma source at a pre-defined location on the spacecraft. This is associated with the creation of a force pulse that is capable of moving the spacecraft in the direction of the distant Universe. If the light source is intense enough and focused/targeted enough that we can hit a small defined target on that spacecraft with that energy, it can be quite a significant impulse to go a great distance beyond the solar system. However, the prerequisite is the existence of a high-power high-energy laser in the orbit.
Are we as the HiLASE Centre | FZU CAS, possibly in conjunction with other partners, able to create such a laser?
Well, I dare say we have a very good foundation in the design of high-energy laser systems. Many of our lasers have achieved world records in the category of high-energy diode-pumped lasers. They are among the best in laser technology in general in terms of efficiency, and if we continue this development in cooperation with the right partners, I think we have a very good chance of actually sending a laser into Space in the not-too-distant future.
What are the pitfalls when developing a suitable laser for Space applications?
The area of mechanical design is definitely a challenge. Space has its own specifics which means that the laser can’t be too big or too heavy. We have to take into account that the only power source is solar. The solution could be a very efficient power source using solar cells. We need to work on maximizing the efficiency of the laser, reducing the cooling requirements, i.e. designing it to deal with the radiation of heat into Space. Furthermore, the already mentioned radiation load needs to be addressed. All instruments are exposed to Space radiation which can damage optical systems and electronics and in the long term can lead to the degradation of such a system. In cooperation with partners, optics and electronics must be developed to withstand these adverse effects. Indeed, this is a very complex multidisciplinary task, the outcome of which can have a widespread impact on society, industry and the economy.
Is the HiLASE Centre already involved in any project related to Space technologies?
Recently we have begun to take the first steps toward sending our own technology into Space. In cooperation with the Turnov-based company CRYTUR, we are developing a 2.1 µm laser demonstrator that we would like to test for Space communication.
For now, this is a preparatory phase. After creating a small prototype laser, we want to actually let the beam propagate through the atmosphere and then quantify the benefits of using this wavelength for communication between Earth and Space. If we are successful, we will continue the project and in the next phase, build a larger laser, more robust, directly designed for this type of communication. In Space technology, the multidisciplinary involvement of other partners is really important, in this case with expertise in detecting small optical signals.
The LUGO (Lunar Geology Orbiter) mission, led by TRL Space from Brno, is also in the pipeline, with the aim of designing and building a LiDAR that will map a specific area beneath the moon’s surface. We should be able to take high-resolution images of what is there.
“The HiLASE Centre has the development of lasers for Space applications as one of its strategic priorities for the next decade. TRL Space is a key partner for us in this respect, with whom we can jointly fulfil these ambitions and develop products such as LiDAR for tracking objects in Space or lunar topography,” says the Head of the HiLASE Centre, Tomáš Mocek, about the cooperation with TRL Space.
Another project in cooperation with TRL Space is the launch of the TROLL satellite into Earth’s orbit. It involves the development of a small test laser, a LiDAR, which would actually be sent into orbit around the Earth on a test mission. With LiDAR, the satellite could monitor objects moving in orbit with high accuracy.
The HiLASE Centre is also one of the partners in a new project to develop advanced optical systems, in this case, the FREYA compact optical hyperspectral camera, for the CubeSat mission for use in the stratosphere and Space.
Laser technologies in Space have a wide range of applications, including remote sensing, laser propulsion, communications, navigation, research on the atmosphere and surface of planets and space bodies, defence applications, as well as space science research. For example, they are also used in astrophysical research to detect and study gravitational waves that can be generated by colliding black holes and neutron stars.
The HiLASE Centre has modern laser systems, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and an international team with high expertise in laser technology that allows us to successfully engage in Space-related projects.
We see the use of laser technologies and their application in space as a promising area. We believe that it can positively influence not only the Czech economy and the prestige of the Czech Republic in space research, society and industry, but also science as such.
The interview with Martin Smrž, the guarantor of Space-borne Lasers, was conducted by Marie Thunová, Head of Marketing & PR.
Do you know how to recognize a HiLASIAN?
They love Star Wars, Stargate, Doctor Who, The Big Bang Theory and Red Dwarf. They are not afraid to dream and try new things, often things that seem impossible, that no one has tried before. They are attracted to new technologies and continue to improve them themselves. In a way, they are constantly learning. They enjoy Asian cuisine, “dry intelligent ” humor and mostly listening to rock.