Will Lasers Blast Through The Data Bottleneck?

MOBILE PHONES, FAXES, AND teleconferencing are creating a flood of information that threatens to overwhelm the satellites that carry that data to distant locales on radio waves. In the future, though, if Thermo Trax has its way, lasers may help satellites transmit more data. Laser light can carry up to 1 billion bits of information per second, far more than radio waves, say executives at the San Diego-based company. Thermo Trax's "pods," which would be added to satellites to receive and send the laser beams, weigh just 30 pounds and cost under $100,000.

Lasers are also more secure. Radio waves can spread out up to a mile when transmitted, which makes it easier for data to scatter to unintended receivers. But the Thermo Trax system can be focused into a beam as little as 1.5 centimeters wide. Those tiny beams won't get lost in space because the company has developed a device that helps the satellites recognize and focus their laser beams on one another. The company tested a prototype last month for a teleconference and plans a test in space during a 1997 military launch. It's also talking to Motorola Inc. and McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. about putting pods on their proposed satellite networks.

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