Space-BACN: DARPA kicks off laser link project

WASHINGTON: DARPA’s project to develop low-cost, high-speed, and, perhaps most importantly, reconfigurable optical data links to connect non-compatible Low Earth Orbit satellite constellations is a go, with 14 firms winning awards for the project’s design phase.

Commercial firms, as well as the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency, are planning to orbit thousands of new high-bandwidth communications satellites in LEO, explained DARPA Program Manager Greg Kuperman in a video on the far-future research agency’s website. “But due to how new these systems are, and the cutting edge technology needed for optical communications and space, there are numerous incompatible standards that prevent satellites from talking to each other,” he said.

Indeed, SDA director Derek Tourneur has repeatedly said that optical satellite interlinks, or OSILs, are the long pole in the tent for his agency’s ambitious effort to develop a resilient constellation for multiple military space missions under the National Defense Space Architecture — especially for SDA’s joint hypersonic missile tracking effort with the Missile Defense Agency.

Space-BACN, for Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node, is DARPA’s project to solve that problem. The initiative consists of three parts, or Technical Areas, for research activities.

The agency has made awards in the first two of the three-month-long “Phase 0” design, Kuperman told Breaking Defense in an email. For both of these Technical Areas, Phase 0 awards each totaled $300,000 over 15 weeks, the DARPA solicitation noted.

Kuperman said the firms winning Phase 0 contracts for this “front end” of the optical terminal system are: CACI, Honeywell, L3 Technologies (L3 Harris), MBRYONICS, Mynaric, SA Photonics, and Boeing.

Under TA2, contractors will design and develop the “back end” or the terminal, that is, a “reconfigurable modem that can support multiple optical waveforms up to 100 Gbps on a single wavelength,” the agency’s solicitation explained.

Kuperman said the winners for Phase 0 in this area were: Analog Photonics, LLC; Arizona State University; CACI; II-VI Aerospace & Defense; Intel Federal, LLC; L3 Harris and Northrop Grumman.

After Phase 0 for both TA1 and TA2, Kuperman said the agency plans “to select the full performers for the program. Subsequent phases include a 14-month Phase 1, and then an 18-month Phase 2. An on-orbit demonstration is scheduled for the eventual transition partner at the end of the program. Here’s a description of each phase:

TA3 is the subject of a different DARPA solicitation, issued on Nov. 2 with a response date on Dec. 3. It will look at “Cross-Constellation Communications Command and Control.” The agency is seeking industry partners to “help DARPA determine how commercial communications constellations will interact with DoD systems in a space-to-space interconnected future.” This will include researching how best to cyber-harden commercial systems.

DARPA anticipates two or three awards, with a total budget of $12 million for TA3, or “approximately $3M to $6M for a total of Phase 1 and 2 per award,” the solicitation said.

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