AFWERX to fund development of laser terminal that connects military aircraft with satellites

by
Space Micro will design an optical terminal to provide high-data rate communications between aircraft and geostationary satellites

WASHINGTON — Space Micro, a defense and NASA contractor recently acquired by Voyager Space, won a contract to design a laser communications terminal to connect military aircraft with geostationary satellites in orbit. 

AFWERX, a U.S. Air Force organization that works with commercial tech firms, selected Space Micro for a Small Business Technology Transfer Phase 1 contract to develop an air-to-space laser communications pod that could be deployed on military aircraft or unmanned drones to provide in-flight connectivity. 

Space Micro CEO David Strobel said Jan. 25 the company will look at how to “provide an optical communication chain between airborne assets and geostationary communications satellites.”

This is tough technical challenge, Strobel said. Optical communications between air and space requires “some of the hardest pointing and navigating that you could possibly do, especially if we’re told that they need to maintain this uplink while they’re maneuvering.”

The laser terminal for this project would transmit 10 gigabits per second of data. Strobel said the terminal will be based on an existing Space Micro design but would be enhanced with adaptive optics technology developed by Johns Hopkins University for NASA. Space Micro also teamed with Rhea Space Activity, a startup that is developing a deep-space autonomous navigation and attitude-control system for military spacecraft.

Beau Rideout, aerospace engineer at Rhea Space Activity, said the team plans to design a pod that could sit under the wing of a fighter jet like the F-35 and communicate with spacecraft overhead. The idea is to use satellite-based communications to provide high-speed bandwidth so aircraft can receive and send data to other military users around the world.

He said the key challenge is correcting the turbulence in the atmosphere that interferes with lasers and “having a powerful enough laser to get out of the atmosphere.” 

Strobel said the laser pod would be designed “to give our stealth aircraft the ability to securely communicate during sensitive operations without giving away their positions.”