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Space Force looking to extend laser communications to satellites in higher orbits

An RFI issued Jan. 4 asks for industry information on optical communications for MEO orbits and higher
General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems signed an agreement with the Space Development Agency to conduct experiments for optical inter-satellite links using the company’s laser communication terminals. Credit: GA-EMS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is requesting information on laser communications systems to connect satellites in medium and high orbits. 

Optical communications terminals that use lasers to beam data across space are being acquired by the Space Force’s Space Development Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for low Earth orbit constellations. The new request for information (RFI) issued Jan. 4 describes possible plans to expand the military’s information highway in space to much higher orbits.

The U.S. Space Systems Command is pursuing an enterprise laser communications solution for spacecraft crosslinks in the beyond low Earth orbit (bLEO) regimes for a wide variety of future space platforms,” says the RFI. These optical links would connect satellites in orbits ranging from 10,000 to more than 35,000 kilometers above Earth.

The Space Force is researching options for a “future backbone of a resilient mesh network” to support military users of satellites in medium and geostationary Earth orbits. 

The RFI notes that “significant investment in lasercom crosslinks has already been applied by the LEO commercial users, the Space Development Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, and the Air Force Research Laboratory among others.” The Space Systems Command does not want to “initiate another technology development program for lasercom crosslinks but rather capitalize on work previously accomplished or in progress.”

Optical terminals have become key components of commercial and DoD’s low Earth orbit constellations which rely on satellite-to-satellite crosslinks so data collected in space can be securely transported and downlinked to data centers on the ground. 

A likely application for MEO laser terminals are missile-detection satellites the Space Force and the Missile Defense Agency are currently developing as an additional layer to the U.S. missile-defense architecture.  

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...