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Vendor Plans to Launch Commercial Laser Satellite System 


By Valerie Insinna 

Two of the U.S. military’s long-standing communications problems could be solved if a new company manages to get its proposed laser-based satellite system off the ground.
Laser Light Communications (LLC), based in Reston, Va., is aiming to send the first free-space optical communication system into orbit by 2017.

“Lasercoms,” as they are known in the industry, have the potential to revolutionize the way the military communicates. They do not rely on radio spectrum bands, which have become increasingly crowded, leading to interference problems. The Defense Department has also had to lease capacity on commercial satellites because its own fleet of secured spacecraft can’t keep pace with demands.

These satellites — which send digital communications by pulses of light — have the potential to transmit at capacities hundreds of times faster than conventional space-based systems.

“We’re in the process of negotiating with spacecraft manufacturers, payload manufacturers, launchers and subsystems suppliers,” said Bob Brumley, the firm’s senior managing director. It plans to begin building the spacecraft and payloads as early as next year, and it will also start negotiating where to pre-position its 48 ground nodes, he added.

The complete constellation will consist of eight primary satellites in medium-earth orbit positioned over highly populated areas. The system is not planned to provide global coverage, he said.

Brumley declined to detail how much funding the company still needs, but said he was confident it would be able to stay on schedule. It is “raising money every step of the way,” he said.

The system would leverage Raytheon’s Star Beam optical wave satellite technology, which can send data at 4.8 terabits a second. The Air Force’s newest satellite, the Wideband Global SATCOM System, transmits at 2.1 gigabits per second, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Potential customers — including government agencies, large commercial enterprises and wireless service providers — would be able to purchase a percentage of that that capacity, Brumley said.

Because optical signals in air and space, unlike radio frequencies, cannot be intercepted, the technology would give government agencies more security, he said.

For instance, a U.S. embassy might have to encrypt data before sending it through a  fiber-optic cable to the State Department.

“If they used us ... they could go from that same embassy directly to the State Department” without having to worry about jamming or interference, Brumley said.

Another major advantage for the government is that it wouldn’t have to use taxpayer money to build the infrastructure, he said.

Defense contractors are also working on various laser communications for ground troops and for use with unmanned aerial vehicles.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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