The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), best known for creating the Internet, has advanced its plan to revolutionize communications between low-orbit satellite networks by selecting 11 teams to work on its space-based adaptive communications node program .
Known as Space-BACN, the project aims to create a low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that will adapt to most standards for inter-satellite optical links and translate between different satellite constellations.
According to DARPA, Space-BACN would create an “Internet” of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, enabling seamless communications between military/government and commercial/civilian satellite constellations that are currently unable to communicate with each other.
The goal of the teams working on Phase 1 of the project, which will take 14 months to complete, will be to produce a preliminary design for a small-size, light-weight, low-power, low-cost (SWaP-C) flexible optical aperture. that couples single-mode fiber and a reconfigurable optical modem supporting up to 100 Gbps on a single wavelength, and a fully defined interface between system components.
Also to be developed in Phase 1 is the scheme for cross-constellation command and control, which will be demonstrated in a simulated environment.
The team focused on the SWaP-C optical aperture includes CACI, MBRYONICS and Mynaric. The team working on the optical modem includes II-VI Aerospace and Defense, Arizona State University and Intel Federal. The command and control team consists of five members: SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat and Amazon’s Kuiper Government Solutions.
Upon completion of Phase 1, six of the teams will spend 18 months developing engineering design units of the optical terminal components, while the remaining five teams will refine the scheme to function in more demanding and dynamic scenarios.
Many commercial and social beneficiaries
Jim Dunstan, general counsel of TechFreedom, a technology advocacy group in Washington, DC, explained that satellite-to-satellite optical links are a new technology with no established link standards.
“I see the satellite industry as a whole as the big winner here, even more so than the end users, as the power – 100 watts – and price – $100,000 – for a user terminal will preclude widespread use of the technologies that will emerge from this program.” ‘ he told TechNewsWorld.
“What Space-BACN does, however, is bring all stakeholders into the same virtual space to work on much-needed standards and allows them to both receive government support for their research and leverage the work of other companies.” he continued.
“While a DARPA video appears to attempt to position space BACN similarly to what FirstNet has done with first responder communications – replacing a myriad of individual proprietary systems operating on different frequencies – I don’t think the analogy here is priceworthy and reasons of power,” he added.
However, DARPA projects have the opportunity to have a broader impact than might first appear. “There are many commercial and social beneficiaries that fall outside the formal focus of the program,” noted Arizona State University Professor Daniel Bliss, director of the Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures.
“The technologies that we’re going to develop are widely used for processing and communication,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Regarding the specific objectives of the program, we are demonstrating flexible, efficient and relatively low-cost optical communication technologies for the rapid deployment of various low-cost satellite systems.”
Reduce LEO costs
Existing operators of satellite constellations in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO), like Elon Musk’s Starlink network, could eventually benefit from Space-BACN, Dunstan noted.
“Optical connections are still one of the big price drivers of NGSO systems,” he said. “The radio side of things has pretty much been commodified. You can buy very sophisticated software defined radios [SDRs] very cheap.”
“Optical systems are still very expensive,” he continued, “so Space-BACN has an opportunity to reduce some of that cost, which will benefit all NGSO operators.”
“For existing and new LEO [Low Eart Orbit] We are enabling networks to connect legacy and yet to be defined optical communications links,” added Bliss. “We can translate between optical standards and implement new standards as they are being developed, possibly post-market.”
In assembling the teams for Space-BACN, DARPA attempted to ease tensions for many of the companies wanting to participate in the project.
“We intentionally made it as easy as possible to propose for our Space BACN requests because we wanted to tap into both established defense companies and the large pool of innovative small technology companies, many of whom do not have the time or resources to do so to figure out complicated government contracting processes,” Greg Kuperman, Space-BACN’s program manager, said in a statement.
“We have used other transactions and have been very happy with them [the] Diversity of organizations that responded and quality of proposals,” he added.
democratization of space
Dunston claimed that DARPA hit a “sweet spot” with the Space BACN program. “It cast a wide net and brought both very established and relatively new players to the table,” he said.
“It uses DARPA’s Other Transaction Authority [OTA] to avoid the high overhead of most government funding mechanisms,” he continued, “and 11 Phase I winners mean DARPA can take more risks and allow for some errors in the process without compromising the overall goal of the program.”
The ability of smaller companies to get involved in a project like Space-BACN reflects how the satellite industry is today. “In the past, it cost a fortune to build a satellite,” explains John Strand of Strand Consulting in Denmark. “Now we’re seeing small companies with limited funding developing satellites for narrow applications.”
“You can build satellites with off-the-shelf components just like you would build a custom computer,” he told TechNewsWorld. “So if you look at the number of companies in the satellite industry, it’s booming.”
“Space has historically been centralized by government,” he added. “What’s happening now with the space industry is that it’s been democratized because the cost of getting things into space has been dramatically reduced thanks to public-private partnerships.”
In its kickoff announcement for Space-BACN, DARPA said it hopes to establish seamless communications between military/government and commercial/civilian satellite constellations. That could be a future friction in the future of the program.
“That’s going to be the ultimate question — can you secure the military-civilian interface,” Dunstan said.
“Optical systems are less susceptible to interference due to their narrow beams. They may also be less prone to hacking, but that remains to be seen,” he continued. “I suspect that one of the reasons DARPA is so interested in this project is that it gives them insight into the security capabilities of these types of networks.”
“Certainly, DoD will not sign up for an interface between defense and civilian satellite systems that they cannot secure,” he added. “Given how much space communications traffic is currently flowing through civilian systems, I’d guess they’re pretty confident they can secure their side of the interface.”
Bliss acknowledged that direct application of commercial communications technology is not always a good idea. However, he noted, “Because of the flexibility we are developing, we are able to maximize the benefits of using commercial technologies while minimizing security risks.”