WASHINGTON — Viasat announced May 22 it received a U.S. Air Force contract to build a small satellite equipped with a Link 16 military communications terminal that will operate in low Earth orbit.

Link 16 is an encrypted radio frequency widely used by the U.S. military and NATO allies to share information across the battlefield. Link 16 terminals are deployed aboard aircraft, land vehicles and ships to facilitate the exchange of data in standard message formats.

The $10 million contract awarded to Viasat is for a pilot program led by the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles directorate to test the use of a Link 16 terminal on a small satellite in low Earth orbit as a network relay, Ken Peterman, president of Viasat Government Systems, told SpaceNews.

Link 16 network concept. Credit: Viasat

Link 16 works as a line-of-sight network; extending it into space would provide beyond line-of-sight connectivity.

The company will build a 12U satellite, about the size of a dorm room refrigerator, and will integrate a Link 16 terminal that is smaller than a shoebox. The spacecraft could launch as early as summer 2020, Peterman said.

Viasat will be the first company to prototype and test space-based Link 16 radios that will communicate with ground vehicles, aircraft, naval vessels and dismounted troops, said Peterman. The company for years has produced Link 16 terminals for the U.S. military.

“The primary goal is to prove the feasibility of Link 16 on a LEO satellite,” said Peterman. Once the satellite reaches orbit and the Link 16 terminal is connected to the network, the next step will be to see if it can operate at the high speed at which a LEO satellite flies. With just one satellite, an area might only get a few minutes of coverage when the satellite is overhead. Many more satellites would be needed to provide persistent coverage but the Air Force for now will start with one and see where the experiment goes, said Peterman.

“We want to demonstrate that Link 16 can operate in the space environment,” he said. “Once it’s a validated concept, it will be the first step in a path to a constellation of tactical data links.”

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Enterprise Consortium manages the contract on behalf of AFRL.

The contract includes options for more satellites and for cross links between satellites in a future constellation, Peterman said. The first development satellite costs $10 million but in production quantities the spacecraft would cost much less, he said. Peterman said the project has huge potential because Link 16 is a widely used system, with more than 100,000 terminals fielded by the U.S. military and allies.

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...