'Translators' Developed to Link Optical Satellite Terminals

By Josh Luckenbaugh

Mynaric image

ARLINGTON, Virginia — A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s program developing optical communications terminals that can link non-standardized systems has entered its next phase, according to one of the companies helping to build a model for the terminal technology.

Many government and commercial satellites that will be launched over the next decade will feature optical communication links, which use laser beams to transmit data. While they must transmit in a straight line, they are also hard to intercept and jam and have a higher throughput than traditional radio-frequency communication systems.

However, the new generation of optical systems lack standards, so many of these satellites and constellations cannot communicate with one another.

The aim of DARPA’s Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node program, or Space-BACN, is to “create a low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that adapts to most optical intersatellite link standards” and can translate between them, according to a DARPA statement. A common terminal that can be reconfigured easily would allow for fast communications between a greater range of constellations.

Laser communications company Mynaric has been chosen as a “key development partner” — along with 10 other teams — to create the benchtop model of the terminal as part of Phase 1 of the program.

“The No. 1 goal really is to make an interoperable terminal that’s reconfigurable on orbit, so it can act almost like a translator set,” since satellites are not going to be tied to a single standard, said Tim Deaver, Mynaric’s vice president of strategic solutions.

To achieve the needed level of flexibility at minimal cost, DARPA has given developers a set of three requirements, nicknamed “100 Cubed,” for the terminal, said Tina Ghataore, chief commercial officer at Mynaric. The conditions require the terminal to support optical waveforms up to 100 gigabits per second to be compatible with most optical standards, use only 100 watts of power, and cost $100,000 or less.

The 100 Cubed prerequisites will allow for increased interoperability between satellites, facilitating communication between government and commercial networks, Ghataore said.

Giving a larger network of satellites the ability to communicate with one another would benefit national defense, she added.

“If you can think of some of the use cases and the security that optical communication offers, you’re not going to be able to jam this signal, you’re able to deploy this capability a lot faster,” she said.

“Instead of having this whole coordination effort and approval effort in the [radio frequency] domain, optical communication networks can be deployed faster, [with] higher throughput and can really enable … communication across different platforms.”

DARPA selected Mynaric at the end of 2021 to work on Phase 0 of the program, which focused on the architectural design of the terminal, Deaver said.

He pointed Mynaric’s progress on its CONDOR Mk3 terminal as a key to the company’s selection for the next phase of Space-BACN.

“We were already — just with our standard CONDOR Mk3 — able to do the 100 gigabits per second,” he said. “So it was really very minor … adjustments that we [needed] to make to be compatible for the program.”

Phase 1 of the Space-BACN program will span 14 months, after which DARPA will select teams to participate in an 18-month Phase 2 to develop a prototype of the terminal, the DARPA release said.


Topics: Space, DARPA

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