AES Semigas


27 June 2024

NASA awards $750,000 EPSCoR grant for project using UV light for space communications

Under the ‘Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research’ (EPSCoR), the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded a grant worth $750,000 to the project ‘III–Nitride Ultraviolet Laser Diodes for Harsh Environments, Space-Based Communications, and Remote Sensing’, which focuses on enhancing high-data-rate communications between satellites and Earth, particularly for deep-space missions.

Morgan Ware, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Arkansas (U of A), serves as the lead scientific investigator for the project. With co-investigator Robert ‘Drew’ Fleming at Arkansas State University, the project is administered through the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium by the principal investigator Constance Meadors. In addition, Paul Minor joins the team as an industrial adviser from Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc.

The project’s lead scientific investigator Morgan Ware, associate professor in the University of Arkansas’ Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Picture: The project’s lead scientific investigator Morgan Ware, associate professor in the University of Arkansas’ Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“The primary goal of the project is to facilitate the transformation of space-based information transfer from radio to optical wavelengths, while looking towards future deep-space relays using ultraviolet light,” Ware says. “There is an effort at NASA to move from very traditional radio-based communications to communications based on the modulation of light. 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.”

“To achieve this, we will make semiconductor laser diodes using various alloys of the nitride family of semiconductors including aluminium nitride, gallium nitride and indium nitride. This amazing group of materials spans from the so-called ultra-wide-bandgap aluminium nitride providing structural rigidity, optical transparency and harsh-environment tolerance to the so-called narrow-bandgap indium nitride providing optical wavelength tunability and electrical conductivity. Using different combinations of these materials we will monolithically build each component of a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL),” Ware adds.

While the long-term focus is on advancing communications technology, the project is rooted in semiconductor research that spans multiple scientific disciplines and industries, underscoring the potential growth and importance of wide- and ultra-wide-bandgap materials in technological development, U of A says.

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

The next steps for the project involve simulating and testing the semiconductor alloys and nanostructures to ensure that they can emit the desired wavelength of light, while remaining unstrained to prevent cracking and future degradation. In addition: “We want to ensure the lasers and other optical components can operate effectively in the harsh environments of space,” Ware says.

It is reckoned that the results of this and similar research efforts have the potential to fundamentally change space exploration as satellites and other space probes travel further from Earth. The development of semiconductor-based UV lasers will not only significantly increase data transmission rates, enabling faster communication between Earth, satellites and distant space missions, they also provide a platform for satellite-based remote sensing using laser excitation, to probe the more complicated chemistries of other planets’ atmospheres, the  U of A concludes.

Ware is a member of the Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering at the U of A, which houses the graduate program in materials science and engineering, and is where most of the research will be performed. He is also a member of the Arkansas Power Group, which is currently deeply invested in wide- and ultra-wide-bandgap semiconductor research.

See related items:

University of Arkansas tops out Multi-User Silicon Carbide Research and Fabrication Facility

NASA awards Ozark $754,000 to create SiC-based UV imager on a chip

Tags: University of Arkansas



Book This Space