WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory has ordered a Viasat-3 space terminal that will be used to demonstrate communications services for low-Earth orbit spacecraft.

Viasat will deliver a space-qualified Ka-band terminal that will be launched to orbit on a LEO satellite and serve as a data communications relay to the ViaSat-3 network.

AFRL will use the terminal for high data rate LEO-to-GEO communications, said Lt. Col. David Johnson, head of the lab’s Integrated Experiments and Evaluations Division.

Viasat received a $10 million task order from AFRL for the Viasat-3 space terminal,  Johnson said in a statement to SpaceNews.

The task order is part of a seven-year contract worth up to $50 million that AFRL awarded Viasat in 2020 for satellite communications technologies and services. 

Satellite operator Viasat on April 30 launched the first of three planned Viasat-3 Ka-band broadband satellites

Data transfer via Viasat-3

LEO satellites that collect Earth observation data, for example, would use Viasat’s space relay service to send data through the Viasat-3 high-throughput satellite.

“Having the persistent capability to communicate to LEO spacecraft by relaying through a constellation of spacecraft in geosynchronous Earth orbit can enable the ability to maintain almost near constant communication with those LEO spacecraft,” Johnson said. 

The relay service using the Viasat-3 satellite, “once proven, would enable reduced response time for mission-tasking or spacecraft anomalies and frees up bandwidth on government ground communications assets,” he said. 

AFRL’s project, Johnson said, is “focused on providing 24-7 persistent command and control capabilities to LEO spacecraft by utilizing GEO constellations that are always in view of ground stations.”

Viasat in a June 7 news release said the AFRL mission will be the first pathfinder demonstration of the company’s space relay service expected to become available in late 2025.

In addition to a Ka-band space relay payload, Viasat will provide engineering analysis, integration and test support for the on-orbit demonstration. 

Craig Miller, president of Viasat Government Systems, said this “real-time space relay capability will offer an efficient method of moving LEO satellite data to the ground for operations.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...