Scientists Want to Punch Holes in Clouds With Ultra-Hot Lasers from Space

The satellite laser communication revolution is just around the corner, but it has one especially obstinate foe—overcast weather.

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Oct 17 2018, 3:00pm

Image: UNIGE, Xavier Ravinet

Punching holes in clouds with ultra-hot laser beams from space sounds like an idea that should be filed under “mad science.” But in a new study published Wednesday in Optica, scientists propose that these laser hole-punches will be necessary to usher in the next satellite communications revolution.

For most of spaceflight history, satellites have communicated using radio signals, which can pass through cloud cover. But now, we are on the cusp of a major shift from radio to optical laser systems, which offer several advantages to radio waves—unlimited frequencies, far greater uplink/downlink speeds, and enhanced security, for a start.

The one thing they can’t do? Penetrate clouds. A team led by Jean-Pierre Wolf, a biophotonics expert at the Université de Genève in Switzerland, suggest that this limitation could be overcome with lasers capable of piercing clouds with light-beams at temperatures of 1,500° Celsius (2,700° Fahrenheit).

Read More: Researchers Examined the Feasibility of Cleaning Orbital Junk With a Space-Based Laser Station

These high temperatures blasts are designed to create shockwaves in the cloud’s water vapor that would open holes a few centimeters wide. This small puncture would allow optical laser signals to pass through overcast weather to targeted ground receivers, while the more powerful cloud-piercing lasers would stop at cloud level.

Wolf and his team are currently testing out this technique in laboratory conditions with artificial clouds, but the scientists hope to try out the concept on real clouds within the next few years. "We're talking about possible global implementation by 2025,” Wolf said in a statement. “Our idea is to be ready and to allow countries that are overcast to have this technology.”

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