Instruments used on spacecraft, such as atmospheric sensors for improving weather forecasting and monitoring climate change, could become smaller and more lightweight following the award of a contract to Qinetiq.
Scientists at Qinetiq’s Optronics Centre will develop its patented hollow waveguide (HWG) optical integration technology for use in optical space instrumentation, with the aim of improving the performance and reliability of space sensors and reducing their costs.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded Qinetiq a €310,000 contract to develop two demonstrator systems in order to assess the potential of the technology for space missions. Optical systems for micro-satellites are an area of initial interest, but hollow waveguide optical integration technology could be used in a wide range of sensors for earth observation, planetary exploration, atmospheric sensing and optical communications.
In Qinetiq’s approach, hollow waveguides are used to guide light through a circuit of optical components located in a common substrate. The hollow waveguide channels and the alignment slots that the components are located in are formed in the surface of the substrate using either milling or etching techniques. In the same way that copper tracks carry electrons around an electronic printed circuit board (PCB), the hollow waveguides guide light between the optical components. The approach has the potential to simplify and speed manufacture, reduce mass and volume and to improve performance, particularly in harsh environmental conditions.
The inventor of the concept, Professor Mike Jenkins of Qinetiq’s Optronics Centre said: ‘I am delighted that ESA is interested in the potential of our hollow waveguide motherboard technology for space sensors and has recognised that our expertise and intellectual property rights mean we are uniquely placed to take their interest forward.’
‘By avoiding the need to mount each optical component in a heavy, bulky and costly mount, the approach can reduce the weight, volume and cost of optical sensors. The optical guidance between components also improves performance and reliability in harsh vibration and thermal environments and eases manufacturing tolerances. This characteristic leads to simple, low-cost mass manufacture and provides a novel optical technology with significant commercial potential in space and in the adjacent markets of telecommunications, defence and security.’
Qinetiq has developed hollow waveguide integrated optical systems using glass-ceramic and silicon substrate materials. The initial aim of the 18-month project will be to assess design concepts and manufacturing processes to meet the challenging environment of space. The project team will then focus on the development, manufacture and testing of two prototypes – an active LIDAR, which can determine wind speed, and a passive spectrometer, a device used to measure the properties of light and often used in astronomy.