WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is asking for ideas on how to make optical inter-satellite links that can connect government and commercial space communications systems in low Earth orbit.

DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office announced Sept. 13 it will pursue this technology under a new program called Space-BACN, short for space-based adaptive communications node.

“As government and commercial small-satellite constellations continue to proliferate in low Earth orbit, DARPA has unveiled a new effort to create a novel optical communications terminal to interconnect diverse constellations into a resilient space layer,” the agency said. 

Greg Kuperman, manager of the Space-BACN program, said the goal is “seamless communication between various constellations that currently cannot talk to each other.” 

To discuss the project DARPA is hosting a virtual conference with potential bidders Sept. 22. Proposals are due Oct. 4.

Kuperman said the industry is deploying thousands of broadband satellites to beam internet signals to users on Earth but “the problem with this growth is that optical communications links are currently engineered to only connect satellites within a given constellation — they can’t dynamically adapt waveforms to communicate with satellites in other constellations.”

The lack of standards “results in a fragmented, stove-piped ‘wild west’ space domain with new constellations that can’t interoperate, government satellites that can’t communicate between one another, and government satellites unable to take advantage of emerging commercial communications capabilities.”

DARPA is starting this project as another DoD organization, the Space Development Agency, prepares to start launching its own space communications layer in LEO next year. The SDA has made it a requirement for satellite vendors to have interoperable optical inter-satellite links. The Space-BACN program takes the SDA’s vision even further by calling for government and commercial systems to be interoperable.

The desired optical terminals, DARPA said, should support 100 gigabits per second data rates, should require no more than 100 watts of power and should cost no more than $100,000 per unit.

Kuperman said DARPA does not plan to acquire large numbers of terminals but wants to advance the technology so it can be commercialized. He said DARPA is hoping to attract nontraditional companies to work on the program so it is intentionally trying to make it easy for vendors that have never worked on government contracts to send ideas.  

“Traditional government optical terminals can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars due to the many precision designed and manufactured components that are hand assembled by highly skilled experts,” Kuperman said. 

“Commercial space companies, on the other hand, are developing ultra-optimized, single-mode coherent systems designed to achieve high-rate communications while lowering cost,” he added. “These lower-cost systems, however, are not reconfigurable nor compatible with any other standard.”

DARPA plans to select multiple hardware and software vendors for the first phase of the program. 

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...