Brussels, 28 Nov 2002
The European Space Agency (ESA) is assessing the possibility of developing a new technology that could lead to Internet connection speeds 1000 times faster than today's technology allows.
The agency is looking into the use of integrated optics in two upcoming projects to try and find Earth-like planets. The GENIE (ground-based European nulling interferometer experiment) and Darwin projects will both use multiple telescopes to combine the light emitted from planets like our own and analyse their atmospheres for chemical signs of life.
Traditionally, light beams are combined and redirected using moving mirrors and lenses, but moving parts are prone to damage which can cause real problems if the telescopes are orbiting the Earth, as will be the case with Darwin. An alternative solution is integrated optics, which use miniaturised optical systems that fit on to a microchip to redirect the light beams.
Despite the fact that this area of technology is still in the early days of development, its wider applications are immediately apparent. Global communications networks, such as the Internet, use beams of light to transfer data along fibre optic cables. Currently these cables are able to transmit data at more than half the speed of light, but 'jams' occur when the light beams arrive at a server or computer and need to be converted into electrical currents, which travel thousands of times slower than light.
Integrated optics would enable packets of data to remain as light and simply channel it through the chip to its final destination. This could speed up the Internet by up to 1000 times, and the consequences for web users would be significant.
ESA has called for proposals from companies working in the field of integrated optics to develop the technology for GENIE, and a decision will be made on whether to use integrated optics or traditional techniques next year.
Malcolm Fridlund, ESA's project scientist for Darwin and GENIE, says: 'What I'm reading in those proposals is making me highly optimistic. I don't yet know whether mid-infrared integrated optics will have any commercial application, but until we develop them, we'll never know.'
For further information, please consult the following web address: http://www.esa.int/export/esaCP/ESACNG77 08D_index_0.html