In low Earth orbit, a military project demonstrates inter-satellite laser communications

As per CACI International, the provider of the optical terminals, two small satellites deployed by the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) last year managed to establish an optical link on 14th April during a roughly 40-minute test.

The business announced on May 17 that over 200 gigabits of the data were transferred and received across a distance of nearly 100 kilometers. Lasers are used to link satellites in the orbit so that data can be transferred into space.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) jointly supported DARPA’s Mandrake 2 experiment. The demonstration’s performance is significant because space-to-space optical communications is an important technology for DARPA’s Blackjack constellation and SDA’s planned mesh network of tiny satellites in LEO (low Earth orbit) to assist military activities.

According to SDA Director Derek Tournear, the organization set a goal to create a Transport Layer mesh network utilizing available commercially laser terminals and satellite buses. He claims that the accomplishment of the Mandrake 2 trial confirms his technique.

“We demonstrated that we can conduct satellite to satellite communication with commoditized laser communication,” Tournear stated at a Potomac Officers Club virtual event on May 17. SDA aims to deploy 20 satellites for Transport Layer Tranche 0 this fall. It will begin deploying Tranche 1, a considerably larger constellation of 126 satellites, in 2024. “Optical cross-connections aren’t available on any of our Tranche 0 satellites.  On Tranche 1, though, we do,” Tournear added.

According to him, the Tranche 1 satellites are going to possess optical laser communication not just for the satellite-to-satellite crosslinks although also for satellite-to-ground and satellite-to-airborne platforms.

Northrop Grumman, York Space, and Lockheed Martin, the three SDA satellite suppliers, have not revealed their laser terminal suppliers. CACI, Mynaric, Tesat, and other companies have stated that they want to increase output to fulfill SDA’s planned procurements.

“We can definitely buy things nearly off the shelf and incorporate them in the sorts of timeframes and cost levels that we require,” Tournear said as optical terminals become more widely available.

Last year, an experiment involving General Atomics laser and satellite terminals failed in orbit, delaying SDA’s efforts to establish optical crosslinks. Two cubesats with optical communications terminals were sent into space, but they fell out of their intended orbit, and the corporation was unable to communicate with them.

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