WASHINGTON — Amazon’s Project Kuiper is in discussions with DoD about the possibility of installing laser communications terminals on some of the company’s internet satellites so they can transfer data from remote-sensing satellites directly into the military’s mesh network in low Earth orbit.

Derek Tournear, director of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency, said the plan is for some Kuiper or other commercial satellites to serve as “translators” so they can support high-speed data transfer, for example, from commercial imaging satellites to military users on the ground.

Speaking Oct. 13 at the MilSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, Tournear said such an agreement with Amazon or other commercial companies would be significant because it will help move data more quickly and securely.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) is building a mesh network — called Transport Layer — of hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit to relay time-sensitive data to military forces around the world. To make its satellites interoperable, the agency requires vendors to use optical terminals that comply with SDA’s specifications. 

SDA also plans to establish agreements with commercial remote-sensing companies so they can send imagery from their satellites directly to the Transport Layer. But not every imagery provider will have compatible optical links, Tournear noted, so having a commercial data-relay partner like Amazon to serve as a translator would be important. 

“Amazon Kuiper will have their own optical terminals that they’re planning on using for their mesh network,” Tournear said. “But they’re going to put some SDA-compatible optical terminals on some of their satellites so that those satellites act as translators. That way we can move data on and off the Kuiper network onto the Transport Layer.” 

Project Kuiper is planning a network of 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide high-speed internet globally. The Federal Communications Commission authorized the system in 2020. The first two prototype satellites are projected to launch in 2023

SDA trying to prove naysayers wrong

Tournear in a presentation at MilSat noted that the Space Development Agency’s business model of buying smaller, lower cost satellites was initially criticized inside the Pentagon but has now become the preferred approach for modernizing space systems. 

Tournear noted a top critic of SDA was former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson who argued that SDA’s approach would not work and the agency was not needed. 

SDA now has to show it can deliver on the proliferated low Earth orbit vision and prove naysayers wrong, he said. “We’ve got to deliver to make sure that all those people [who wanted SDA to go away] don’t come back and say ‘I told you so’ because that’s a fear I have.”

The next immediate challenge for the agency is to launch its first batch of satellites. The first launch had been scheduled for late September but slipped to mid-December due to supply chain problems.

Tournear said if he had to choose one “problem area that will require industry investment to solve” it would be the supply chain. “I get nervous anytime the tier-two and tier-three providers on our satellite systems are down to single vendors,” he said. “That’s good for those vendors but it just makes me nervous because we may be able to work with different primes but if they’re all relying on single vendors, somewhere along that chain, that becomes an issue.”

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...