Is Facebook really playing with space lasers? Well, maybe …

facebook space laser
Photo by Tobias Cornille on Unsplash

ITEM: There’s a very good chance Facebook is working on satellites that will use lasers to beam internet connectivity from space.

So says a report from IEEE Spectrum, which is full of suppositions and maybes, but nevertheless deduces that Facebook is undertaking such a task via a little-known subsidiary called PointView Tech, which is understood to be working on an experimental satellite called Athena, and last year applied to the FCC for permission to test E-band signals for delivering broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved areas.

Spectrum says it has obtained copies of construction permits from the County of Los Angeles that show PointView is building two detached observatories on Mount Wilson. The permits don’t say what the observatories will be used for, and PointView isn’t commenting, but Spectrum believes they could be used as ground stations for testing free-space optics links from its Athena satellite.

Obviously that’s just a guess, albeit an educated one. Facebook has already tested free-space optics using equipment from German firm Mynaric – last year, the two companies successfully set up a 10-Gbps connection between a ground station and a Cessna aircraft overhead.

Meanwhile, Spectrum notes, Facebook Connectivity Lab engineers Raichelle Aniceto and Slaven Moro have been researching the plausibility of free-space optics for satellite communications.

Aniceto gave a Tedx Talk on the topic in October last year. However, it’s worth noting she was talking about geostationary satellites, which would require a different optics system than the one developed by Mynaric. Laser communications for satellites is far from a new idea, but as Aniceto points out, the big challenge is accurately beaming a laser point-to-point at consistent power at a distance of 36,000 km. LEOsats could reduce the distance problem, but LEOsats are also moving targets, which creates the challenge of handing off the laser signal from one satellite to the next.

If PointView is indeed working on space lasers for Facebook, it wouldn’t be surprising – Facebook has been keen to develop alternative broadband access technologies, from its recently halted Aquila drone program to its work with the Telecom Infra Project to develop affordable and user-friendly open-source versions of networking equipment.

But even if the Spectrum report turns out to be correct, we’re likely several years away from seeing anything even remotely useful coming from it – at least as far as earth-to-space communications is concerned. To be sure, PointView isn’t the only outfit working on this, but for now laser communications in space have been limited to links between satellites, such as the European Data Relay System (EDRS), which has been in operation since 2016. Upcoming LEOsat projects such as LeoSat Inc and SpaceX Starlink also plan to use lasers for intersatellite links.

In any case, PointView reportedly plans to launch its Athena satellite early this year, so we’ll find out soon enough what exactly they have in mind.

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