WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency awarded a $14.2 million contract to General Atomics to produce two optical communications terminals hosted on two small satellites for an in-space demonstration. 

The contract, announced Sept. 27, is for a demonstration of satellite-to-satellite laser communications under adverse conditions that can degrade the communication link. 

General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, based in San Diego, will deliver the integrated spacecraft for a demonstration planned for December 2024, according to a DoD contract announcement.

The company designed these new terminals, called Manhattan, to “provide communications in degraded environments and provide a capability to establish and maintain a link that meets the SDA standards,” a General Atomics spokesperson told SpaceNews in a statement. 

Satellite-based laser communication is a method of transmitting data using laser beams instead of traditional radio waves. Although satellites operate above the atmosphere, they can still experience environmental challenges such as radiation and orbital debris. 

SDA, an agency under the U.S. Space Force, plans to deploy a mesh network of interconnected satellites. Each spacecraft is equipped with multiple laser communications terminals that connect satellites in orbit so they can transfer data in space. 

Two ‘half ESPA’ satellites

General Atomics is one of several suppliers of optical terminals competing for SDA contracts. All optical terminals installed on SDA satellites have to comply with technical specifications and standards issued by the agency.

For the demonstration, General Atomics will host the terminals on two 75-kilogram satellite buses known as half-ESPA GA-75.

An ESPA bus is a ring-shaped satellite carrier used to deploy small spacecraft from large rockets.

General Atomics said two GA-75s with an adapter occupy a single ESPA port.

The contract for the laser communications demonstration was a competitive award under the Space Development Agency’s Systems, Technologies, and Emerging Capabilities (STEC) Broad Agency Announcement.

Under a previous SDA contract in 2021, General Atomics launched a two-cubesat experiment to demonstrate optical communications in space. But the experiment failed after the satellites were unable to reach the intended orbit.

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...