Interview: 5 questions with Donald Cornwell, NASA

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For a long time, satellite-based free-space optics was something found mostly on the drawing boards in military labs or spy movies where the villain uses satellite technology to take control of the world.

Scene from Kingsman: The Secret Service where the villain Valentine uses satellites to broadcast a "neurological" signal worldwide and cause mass violence/ / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Scenes from Kingsman: The Secret Service where the villain Valentine uses connected satellites to broadcast a “neurological” signal worldwide and cause mass violence/ / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

While the idea of using satellites to broadcast a “neurological signal” strong enough to control the global population is a tad far-fetched, the concept of using satellite lasers to transmit data through free space (be it air or an actual vacuum) rather than through glass or some other medium has become very real today.

Internet from the heavens

With more than 95% of the world’s data traffic transmitted through submarine cables buried underwater, further developments in free-space optical communications could see the emergence of a space-based Internet, capable of speeds and latency similar to that of today’s submarine cables.

Here to share more with us is Dr Donald Cornwell, Director, Advanced Communications and Navigation Division at NASA, where he oversees all radio, optical, and cognitive communications and navigation technology across the organisation. Donald will be delivering the morning keynote address Internet from the heavens – are laser communications satellites finally ready for takeoff?” on Day Two (27 September) at Submarine Networks World 2017. Below is a sneak peek into what he’ll be sharing with the audience later this September.

Dr Donald Cornwell, NASA

Dr Donald Cornwell, NASA

  1. Hi Donald, tell us a bit more about yourself

Cornwell: I’ve been at NASA since 2011 but before that I developed terrestrial fiber telecommunications systems so I’m fairly familiar with the industry, at least from before 2011!  I believe my prior experience in fiber telecom has allowed me to bring the very successful technology and approaches of that industry to the space community, especially as the space community opens up to new ways of thinking, both in government and commercial space.

  1. Can you give us an overview of what you’ll be sharing with the audience at Submarine Networks World 2017?

C: My primary goal will be to convey the message that free space optical communications systems are real and here today, as demonstrated by recent missions such as NASA’s Lunar Laser Comm Demo (LLCD) in 2013 and ESA’s European Data Relay System (EDRS) since 2015.  Going forward, these systems will be excellent complements to the current submarine networks, especially in providing connectivity to locations that may not be economically-feasible for submarine cables today.  As we move forward with optical crosslinks between satellites of 100 Gbps or greater, these systems will also provide an alternate and resilient path to the current submarine networks.

  1. What do you think are the current challenges facing the further development of laser communication satellite technology and how do you foresee them being overcome?

C: As noted before, I think we’ve demonstrated that the engineering challenges are now manageable and relatively low-risk.  The major challenge now is to make the costs of these systems competitive with Earth-based solutions, by leveraging the vast investments made by the terrestrial and submarine telecomm markets for components at 1550 nm and “upscreening” them for space, noting that the big challenges for components in space are operation in vacuum and radiation.  So far, we’ve had great success with this strategy and hope to continue leveraging the technology advances of the Earth-based industry going forward.

  1. How do you think this compares with other existing initiatives to improve Internet access (e.g. Project Loon, Aquila drones, SpaceX and microsatellites etc)

C: Satellite-based optical networks will be much more predictable and easier to operate with respect to the positions and paths of the satellite “nodes”, but at a cost of longer links which in turn can drive the size, weight, and power of the transceivers.  Satellite-based networks also gain much more coverage over the oceans, which in the context of this conference is a benefit.  I know that at least two of the satellite players, Laser Light Communications and SpaceX, have publicly stated their intent to use laser crosslinks and I’m sure others are considering them as well.

  1. Why are you excited to be at Submarine Networks World 2017?

C: I’m of course excited to discuss our progress and plans at NASA but I’m also excited to get an update on the latest state-of-the-art in submarine telecom networking, and perhaps to meet and catch up with some old friends!

 With the demand for connectivity and greater Internet speeds growing at an relentless pace, we’re in for some exciting times as the way we get online continues to change with the advancement of technology.


Held from September 25 – 27, at Suntec Singapore Convention Centre, this year’s SNW will feature new cable projects, more interactive sessions and thought-provoking discussions on the future of the subsea communications industry.
Can’t wait to be a part of this? Register today and enjoy an early bird discount off our 2-day conference pass (F.P SGD 3,460)!  Sign up in groups of three or more and enjoy a further 10% discount!

If you’d like to find out more, feel free to get in touch with the team:

To sponsor: Hazel Chen | +65 6322 2730
To speak: Regina Koh | +65 6322 2308

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