WASHINGTON — By requiring suppliers of laser terminals to comply with a common set of standards, the U.S. Space Development Agency has helped propel the industry forward, executives said Feb. 8 at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California.  

The Space Development Agency (SDA), an arm of the U.S. Space Force, is building a mesh network of satellites in low Earth orbit to serve as a data transport layer for the U.S. military. Each satellite will have anywhere from three to five laser links so they can talk to other satellites, airplanes, ships and ground stations. 

The agency in 2021 issued a set of technical specifications that optical terminal manufacturers have to comply with in order to compete for SDA contracts. SDA is buying satellites from multiple manufacturers and all their satellites have to be interoperable. 

SDA’s move to set standards and force suppliers to coalesce around them has been game changing for the industry, said Sven Rettig, chief commercial officer of Tesat Spacecom, a Germany-based manufacturer of optical terminals that is expanding its U.S. operations to support SDA satellite suppliers.

Laser terminals use optical technologies to route data traffic. They provide much higher transmission data rates than traditional radio-frequency links and are harder to intercept. A network of laser-link satellites also reduces the dependence on ground stations and extends coverage to remote areas where ground stations are not available. 

Before SDA entered the picture, the optical communications industry was waiting for commercial constellations to set standards but “that never happened,” said Rettig. “To be very honest, we wouldn’t be where we are if SDA hadn’t had this initiative.”

As soon as the agency started planning its constellation and buying satellites in 2020, it identified laser intersatellite links as one of the most critical technologies to enable the desired proliferated LEO network.

More competitors emerging

Besides Tesat, other manufacturers jumped into the SDA market for optical intersatellite links, including Mynaric, Skyloom, CACI and others. For SDA’s constellations, laser terminals must be able to communicate at speeds of 2.5 gigabits per second, although vendors say their newest terminals can achieve 10 gigabits per second, and some up to 100.

Tina Ghataore, chief commercial officer of Mynaric, agreed that SDA has played a central role shaping the market. The company, headquartered in Germany, has established U.S. operations and signed a strategic supplier agreement with Northorp Grumman.

“SDA went out there and said optical intersatellite links are an essential technology to support our warfighter needs,” she said. “And they went a step further, developing a standard by which all of us have to communicate, so this way you can really get to a scalable product and the government isn’t tied to just one entity.”

Campbell Marshall, chief operating officer of California-based Skyloom, said the commercial industry needs to follow suit with regard to standards. “There’s going to have to be some thought leadership and coming to terms amongst the commercial producers and operators in terms of what our standards are gonna look like.”

The market today is still trying to decide if it’s going to be “VHS or Beta,” he said .

For the SDA terminals, Skyloom partnered with Honeywell. 

“If you want to avoid vendor lock, which I think most customers do, there’s going to have to be standards for interoperability,” Marshall said. “SDA is demanding it.”

Dave Pechner, vice president of SA Photonics, a Florida-based company owned by CACI International, said optical communications is not just important for communications but to deliver positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) data.

SDA’s transport satellites will use optical links to be able to calculate position and time across the constellation and pass that down to ground users, Pechner said. “From a government point of view that seems almost as important as the communications link.”

Separately from the SDA program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working with the private sector on an effort to develop a standard, low-cost laser terminal to connect government and commercial constellations in low Earth orbit. The project is called Space-BACN, short for space-based adaptive communications node.

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...