WASHINGTON — A U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory cubesat equipped with a Link 16 tactical communications radio will launch to low Earth orbit as early as June on the SpaceX Transporter 8 rideshare. 

The long-delayed experiment, named XVI, will demonstrate “improved communication with the allied Link-16 community,” a spokesperson for AFRL told SpaceNews. “The knowledge gained from the XVI experiment will inform future U.S. space architectures and acquisitions.”

Viasat built the satellite for AFRL under a $10 million contract awarded in 2019. The company used a 12U cubesat bus made by Blue Canyon Technologies, a Link 16 payload made by Viasat and an L-band antenna made by Redwire.

Viasat recently sold its Link 16 business to L3Harris Technologies.

The U.S. military is interested in deploying Link 16 nodes in space to extend the network’s reach. Link 16 is an encrypted tactical data protocol used in military radios to connect aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles so they can exchange data, including text, voice messages and imagery.

Link 16 is a line-of-sight network, and extending it into space would provide beyond line-of-sight connectivity.

The XVI cubesat was projected to launch in 2020 but was delayed by supply chain problems. 

The experiment will support the Space Force’s Space Development Agency’s low Earth constellation which is deploying data transport satellites equipped with Link 16 communications payloads. This will allow SDA’s data-relay satellites to talk to platforms in the air, ground and sea via a the Link 16 network.

Illustration of the Link 16 tactical data network.

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...