ESA's Laser and Quantum Interconnects website celebrates its 25th anniversary

ESA’s Laser and Quantum Interconnects website celebrates its 25th anniversary

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ESA’s optical ground station, high on the slopes of Tenerife’s Teide volcano, has been looking at the sky for a quarter of a century now. Originally designed for laser-based communication with satellites, it is now also used to track space debris and near-Earth asteroids, as well as to support world-class science: This year’s Physics Nobel Prize winner used the station for a quantum teleportation experiment, which extended to the neighboring island of La Palma.

Visit to the OGS

The Optical Ground Station, OGS, is a 1 m diameter, cryogenically cooled telescope in a domed observatory equipped with a titanium-sapphire laser and state-of-the-art photon detectors to pick up optical communications signals from low or geostationary orbit. The OGS is located at the Teide Observatory, operated by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, IAC, at 2,400 m altitude, well above the cloud layer and closest to the equator of an ESA member state.

Managers from ESA’s mechanical department and experts from the optoelectronics department responsible for managing OGS met with IAC representatives to celebrate the silver anniversary and discuss the future role of OGS.

OGS 1m telescope

“The station acts as a test bed for optoelectronic technology and drives performance in optical communications for space,” noted Jose Gavira, Head of ESA’s Mechanical Department.

“At today’s event we talked about new optical instruments, cryocooling and adaptive optics systems that could improve its performance even further. In particular, the OGS will play a key role in testing new quantum communication systems through open space, providing a means for unhackable secure connectivity.”

The OGS was created in 1994 by an agreement between ESA and the IAC to test laser-based optical communications with satellites. Because light has a much shorter wavelength than radio signals, a high-bandwidth connection becomes possible.

Lasers from OGS

The station became operational in 1997 and in 2001 achieved the milestone of the first laser-based communications link, first with ESA’s Artemis satellite in geostationary orbit, then with satellites in lower orbits – more challenging as they are in constant motion relative to the Earth’s surface and only briefly visible in the local sky, requiring the telescope and laser to track its movement.

OGS even set up an optical uplink and downlink to the moon in 2013 with NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter. She also performed invaluable reviews of the optical terminals used on many ESA and European satellites – particularly the European Data Relay Satellites, which return Earth observation data from the Copernicus Sentinel satellites.

Artist’s rendering of ‘Oumuamua

The station’s excellent optical performance means it is also linked to ESA’s Space Security Program to observe orbital debris from as little as 10cm to geostationary orbit, 36,000km up in space, and for asteroids much further out. For example, it was one of the first observatories to conduct follow-up observations of the asteroid/comet Oumuamua in 2017, helping pinpoint the interstellar origin of the mysterious body.

For more than two decades, the OGS has observed debris about 10 nights a month and asteroids four nights a month, with observations concentrating on the darkest nights around the new moon. The station is also used by ESA and IAC for purely astronomical observations.

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