Editorial: An Experiment Worth Funding

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It appears that the U.S. Defense Department is seeking to resume its push in satellite communications technology following the cancellation early this year of the futuristic Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system.

According to a U.S. Air Force request for information originally issued Aug. 18, the service hopes to demonstrate starting in 2015 a space-based laser communications payload that, if successful, might also be used to support military operations. Industry officials who attended an Air Force briefing on the effort Aug. 31 said the payload will be used primarily to demonstrate data relay to and from unmanned aerial vehicles, bandwidth hogs that have become ubiquitous in U.S. military operations.

Laser-optical systems can handle far more communications traffic than radio frequency transponders and were among the advanced capabilities to be featured on T-Sat, which also was to employ Internet router technology to use bandwidth more efficiently. But by the time T-Sat was canceled on affordability and feasibility grounds, its planned capabilities had been watered down substantially and its first launch had been pushed out to 2019.

The Air Force’s Lasercom Technical Demonstration (LTD) would pick up where T-Sat left off in laser-optical communications technology development. As they deliberate which projects to fund in this and subsequent years, Pentagon brass and congressional appropriators should view the LTD favorably, and not just because it offers an opportunity to capitalize on at least part of the Air Force’s $2.5 billion T-Sat investment.

Laser-optical communications is not some far-fetched idea; the concept has been successfully demonstrated in space by Europe via the Artemis satellite, and probably by the U.S. government in classified programs. Not only is this technology almost ready for operational use, it will help solve a serious problem — insatiable demand for communications bandwidth — that if history is any indication will only get bigger in the years ahead.

In LTD, the Air Force has devised a sensible strategy for moving technology from the test-bed to the battle space. The service has been burned badly trying to introduce multiple new technologies on large, operational platforms. The five-year LTD mission, by contrast, aims to prove a single technology and concept of operations aboard a dedicated experimental platform. Once proven, the technology can be designed into operational platforms with minimal risk.

Also appealing is the Air Force’s flexible approach to getting the demonstration in orbit. According to the LTD solicitation, the service will consider alternatives including a dedicated satellite or a hosting arrangement involving either a commercial or military spacecraft. Commercial satellite operators are always eager to host dedicated military payloads — such as the Internet Router in Space experiment to be launched aboard an Intelsat satellite later this year — and the Pentagon should take advantage wherever it makes sense.

Finally, T-Sat’s cancellation, while certainly justified given the program’s risk, cost and meandering development path, has implications for the U.S. space technology industrial base. The Air Force’s 2008 award of the last prime contract in its legacy satellite fleet replacement program left T-Sat as the only big-ticket development project on the horizon, at least in the unclassified realm. The LTD and projects like it will be needed to keep the industrial base — most prominently the engineering talent pool — warm during what could be lean years ahead for research and development.

The LTD might not be cheap and probably entails some risk, but it is precisely the type of space program the Pentagon should be undertaking to keep itself on the cutting edge of technology in the current budgetary environment. If the experiment is able to yield a residual communications capability for bandwidth-hungry U.S. forces, so much the better.