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NASA Awards University of Arkansas $750K for Satellite Communications Project

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NASA has awarded a $750,000 grant to a University of Arkansas project focused on enhancing high-data-rate communications between satellites and Earth, particularly for deep space missions.

Morgan Ware, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will serve as the lead scientific investigator for the project. His co-investigator will be Robert Fleming at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

If successful, the technology could significantly speed up satellite-to-satellite or deep space communications, the U of A said in a news release. According to Ware, there is a growing need for high data transfer rates from very distant systems. “Having the capability to watch pseudo-live video feed from the Mars rovers, for example, would make future explorations there significantly more productive,” he said.

While the long-term focus is on advancing communications technology, the project is rooted in advanced semiconductor research, which spans multiple scientific disciplines and industries. The results of this and similar research endeavors have the potential to fundamentally change space exploration as satellites and other space probes travel farther from Earth.

“Currently there is an effort at NASA to move from very traditional radio-based communications to communications based on the modulation of light,” Ware said. “Current efforts use lasers like those used in fiber optic communications, which make up nearly all terrestrial communication backbones. This would make possible a thousand to million or more times improvement in data transfer rates. However, these optical signals must transmit through the air, or in the case of satellite-to-satellite communication, through space.”

The project will simulate and test semiconductor alloys and nanostructures to ensure they can emit the desired wavelength of light, while remaining unstrained to prevent cracking and future degradation in the harsh environments of space, Ware said.

The grant was awarded through NASA’s Estab­lished Program to Stim­u­late Com­pet­i­tive Research.

The project is administered through the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium by the principal investigator, Constance Meadors. In addition, Paul Minor will join the team as an industrial adviser from Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc. of Fayetteville.

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