TAMPA, Fla. — Kepler Communications, a Canadian small satellite operator, is teaming up with Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space and its independent laser terminal subsidiary Tesat-Spacecom to develop an optical relay network in low Earth orbit (LEO).

The Canadian company is leading the group to help bid for a greater role in the European Space Agency’s High Throughput Optical Network (HydRON) program. 

First presented to Europe’s Ministerial Council in November 2019, HydRON envisages a multi-orbit, terabit-per-second transport network for extending the reach of fiber networks on the ground.

Previously, Kepler was a subcontractor within two competing groups that won early ESA study contracts in 2022 for a multi-orbit HydRON demonstration mission: one led by Airbus and another led by Thales Alenia Space.

These studies ran in parallel to look at the feasibility of laser communication payloads in LEO and geostationary orbit (GEO) that could connect with each other, several optical ground stations and terrestrial fiber networks.

Mina Mitry, Kepler’s CEO, said the new consortium is working on proposals for succeeding phases of the HydRON program that are focused on developing its LEO, ground and networking elements. 

These phases cover next steps for defining and further developing a potential HydRON demonstration mission and are currently out for tender.

ESA spokesperson Christopher Vasko said the agency plans to award contracts for the next phase of HydRON before the end of summer.

Initial satellites are slated to be in orbit between 2026 and 2027.

ESA is also expected to release future tenders to cover additional orbital regimes, which Mitry said would be compatible with the undisclosed number of LEO satellites his group is planning.

In the new consortium, Kepler plans to leverage technology it is already developing for its own LEO optical data relay network. The operator currently has 21 satellites in a sun-synchronous fleet that provide low-data-rate connectivity for devices out of range of terrestrial networks. 

Kepler’s proposed LEO data relay network would be placed along two near-orthogonal planes in sun-synchronous orbits to enable continuous communications with LEO satellites.

According to Kepler, the data relay network would provide real-time connectivity for LEO satellites, which can otherwise only relay information when passing over approved ground stations.

The company launched its first two optical pathfinder satellites in late 2023 and has previously outlined plans for 140 satellites in total. It expects to start providing data relay services to commercial and government customers next year.

“It was found that Kepler’s commercial plans and Agency Objectives were well aligned, so each side is being leveraged to complement the other,” Mitry told SpaceNews via email.

For the consortium, Kepler’s optical communications contribution includes constellation design and operation.

Airbus is providing network systems engineering and a ground segment that would include optical stations. Tesat is responsible for laser communication terminals and spaceborne networking equipment.

Thales Alenia Space is responding to the latest HydRON tender through its Italian subsidiary, according to a spokesperson for the company, which is leading a separate consortium of companies that have yet to be announced.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...