ENG Prof Wins NASA Early Career Faculty Award

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Given for developing deep space communication technology

By Amy Laskowski

Jonathan Klamkin, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, says photonic integrated circuits will soon fly into deep space and send large amounts of data back to Earth. Photos by Cydney Scott
Jonathan Klamkin, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, says photonic integrated circuits will “soon fly into deep space and send large amounts of data back to Earth.” Photos by Cydney Scott

Ready to view deep space in high-def?

Jonathan Klamkin is working to make it possible. A College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and a member of the ENG Division of Materials Science & Engineering, Klamkin was recently awarded a NASA Early Career Faculty Space Tech Research Grant for his work developing new and faster ways to send data using integrated laser transmitter technology, which could aid NASA in sending high-definition video of space back to Earth. The grant is given to “outstanding researchers early in their careers” engaged in the development of space technology that has been deemed of high priority for NASA.

Last October, NASA completed the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration, the first mission to demonstrate two-way, high-rate laser communication from lunar orbit aboard the Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). Using traditional methods, it would take the NASA spacecraft 639 hours to download an average-length high-definition movie. But using this new technology, downloading takes fewer than eight minutes. As NASA prepares future trips to Mars, it has granted Klamkin up to $600,000 over three years to develop technologies that can be used in future space missions.

“Technology drives exploration, and these researchers will provide fuel for NASA’s innovation engine,” says Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, of this year’s NASA early career grant winners. “Sustained investments must be made to mature the capabilities required to reach the challenging destinations that await exploration, such as an asteroid, Mars, and outer planets. These investments help to assure a robust university research community dedicated to advanced space technology development.”

Klamkin leads BUs Integrated Photonics Laboratory, where he and his team research how to consolidate several photonic functions onto a single chip.
Klamkin leads BU’s Integrated Photonics Laboratory, where he and his team research how to consolidate several photonic functions onto a single chip.

Klamkin says he was thrilled to learn he had been selected for the honor, which was awarded to only seven university-based researchers nationwide. “This grant not only allows my research group to interact with NASA and develop technologies for future space missions,” he says, “but will also assist us in developing relationships with leading research institutions conducting optical communications research for NASA, including the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

“These NASA early career awards are incredibly competitive,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of ENG. “Professor Klamkin is advancing highly creative photonic principles and technologies that can transform our ability to communicate efficiently into deep space. It is wonderful to have such a creative young faculty member impacting these challenging problems.”

Klamkin came to BU last year from the Scuola Superiore Sant’ Anna in Pisa, Italy, where he was an assistant professor and director of the Integrated Photonic Technologies Center. Prior to that, he was a member of the technical staff at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. In 2013 he received an ENG Dean’s Catalyst Award, granted to faculty to support promising early-stage projects, and he was recently named a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

At BU, Klamkin heads up the Integrated Photonics Laboratory, where his team researches optical communications, microwave photonics, and sensing. Photonic integration consolidates several photonic functions onto a single chip. Klamkin’s research focuses specifically on specialized data delivery that relies on laser transmitters.

Thinking of new and faster ways to transmit data is critical, he says, because existing radio frequency systems have low data rates. Laser transmitters are able to send data to Earth through space, similar to how internet traffic is sent over fiber-optic cables.

“Deep space communication requires very high performance, but there is less space and power available on spacecraft,” and thus traditional lasers aren’t practical, he says. “Photonic integration, therefore, could be an enabler for reducing the size, weight, and power of laser transmitters for future missions.” The hope is that the photonic integrated circuits will “soon fly into deep space and send large amounts of data back to Earth.”