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Professor Awarded $500,000 NASA Grant to Develop High-Tech Solution for U.S. Space Program

December 11, 2015

NASA GRANT Paul Leisher

Paul Leisher

NASA has selected physics and optical engineering professor Paul Leisher for a $500,000 grant to develop an innovative, early-stage solution to a high-priority need within America's space program.

For the next two years, Leisher will work with several Rose-Hulman undergraduate- and graduate-level students to design and test semiconductor lasers which will enable high speed free-space optical communication systems. The project’s goal is to develop a high-efficiency photonic integrated circuit (PIC) transmitter platform based on the InGaAsP material system. The tapered active amplifier design that will be developed is expected to enable Watt-class laser transmitter PICs capable of operating at data rates greater than 100 Gbps, about 10,000 times faster than a typical 10 Mbps broadband internet connection speed.

“Modern satellites must have efficient systems with the ability to transfer large amounts of data at very high speeds,” says Leisher, who has spent eight years developing high-efficiency, high-power semiconductor lasers. “Future laser transmitters must also be compact, lightweight, power efficient, reliable, and hardened against the harsh environment of space.”

Rose-Hulman has formed a strong partnership on this project with Freedom Photonics, a Santa Barbara, California-based startup company specializing in high-speed photonic integrated circuit technology. The firm will be responsible for fabricating the devices designed at Rose-Hulman. Milan Mashanovitch, general manager of Freedom Photonics, has worked with Leisher on many similar innovative projects for NASA and other major clients.

“Our students will be fortunate to work with a leading manufacturer in producing photonic devices that need to be able to work without failure in the harsh environment in space. This will be a great learning experience,” Leisher states.

Rose-Hulman’s project is one of 15 university-led proposals to be selected by NASA under the Early Stage Innovations 2015 program. These projects address unique, disruptive, or transformational technologies, including: payload technologies for assistive free-flyers; robotic mobility technologies for the surfaces of icy moons; integrated photonics for space optical communication; computationally guided structural nanomaterials design; and atmospheric entry modeling development.

Other universities joining Rose-Hulman in the Early Stage Innovations 2015 program are Stanford University, Northwestern University, Columbia University, University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of Virginia, University of Minnesota, University of Maryland, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of California-San Diego, and University of California-Santa Barbara.