DARPA Moves Forward With Project To Revolutionize Satellite Communication

Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node
Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node / Image Credit: DARPA

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), best known for creating the internet, advanced its plan to revolutionize communication among low orbiting satellite networks by selecting 11 teams to work on its Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node program.

Known as Space-BACN, the project seeks to create a low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that adapts to most optical intersatellite link standards, translating between diverse satellite constellations.

According to DARPA, Space-BACN would create an “internet” of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, enabling seamless communication between military/government and commercial/civil satellite constellations that currently are unable to talk with each other.

The goal of the teams working on Phase 1 of the project, which will take 14 months to complete, will be to create a preliminary design for a flexible, low size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) optical aperture that couples into single-mode fiber and a reconfigurable optical modem that supports up to 100 Gbps on a single wavelength, as well as a fully defined interface between system components.

Also to be developed during Phase 1 will be the schema for cross-constellation command and control, which will be demo’d in a simulated environment.

The team focusing the SWaP-C optical aperture includes CACI, MBRYONICS and Mynaric. The team working on the optical modem includes II-VI Aerospace and Defense, Arizona State University and Intel Federal. The command and control team has five members: SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat and Amazon’s Kuiper Government Solutions.

After completion of Phase 1, six of the teams will spend 18 months developing engineering design units of the optical terminal components, while the remaining five teams will continue to evolve the schema to function in more challenging and dynamic scenarios.

Many Commercial and Social Beneficiaries

Jim Dunstan, general counsel for TechFreedom, a technology advocacy group in Washington, D.C. explained that optical intersatellite links are a new technology without established interconnection standards.

“I see the satellite industry as a whole as the big winner here, more so than end-users, given that the power—100 watts—and price—$100K—for a user terminal are going to preclude broad use of the technologies that emerge from this program,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“What Space-BACN does, however, is get all the players into the same virtual room to work on standards, which are much needed, and allows them to both get federal support for their research, and leverage the work of other companies,” he continued.

“While a DARPA video seems to try and position Space-BACN similar to what FirstNet has done with first responder communications — replace a myriad of individual proprietary systems operating on disparate frequencies — I don’t think the analogy is apt here, for the price and power reasons,” he added.

DARPA projects, though, have a way of having a broader impact than may appear to be initially evident. “There are many commercial and social beneficiaries that are outside the formal focus of the program,” observed Arizona State University Professor Daniel Bliss, director of the Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures.

“The technologies that we will develop are widely applicable for processing and communications,” he told TechNewsWorld. “In terms of the specific goals of the program, we are proving flexible, efficient, and relatively low-cost optical communications technologies for quickly expanding diverse low-cost satellite systems.”

Lowering LEO Costs

Existing operators of satellite constellations in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO), such as Elon Musk’s Starlink network, could eventually benefit from Space-BACN, Dunstan noted.

“Optical interconnections are still one of the large price drivers of NGSO systems,” he said. “The radio side of things has pretty much been commoditized. You can buy very sophisticated software-defined radios [SDRs] very cheap.”

“Optical systems are still very expensive,” he continued, “so Space-BACN has the opportunity to drive down some of that cost, benefiting all the NGSO operators.”

“For existing and new LEO [Low Eart Orbit] networks, we enable the ability to connect legacy and yet-to-be-defined optical communications links,” Bliss added. “We can translate between optical standards and implement new standards as they are developed, potentially after launch.”

When putting together the teams for Space-BACN, DARPA tried to remove the friction for many of the firms wanting to participate in the project.

“We intentionally made making a proposal to our Space-BACN solicitations as easy as possible, because we wanted to tap into both established defense companies and the large pool of innovative small tech companies, many of which don’t have the time or resources to figure out complicated government contracting processes,” Space-BACN Program Manager Greg Kuperman said in a statement.

“We used other transactions and were very pleased with [the] diversity of organizations that responded and quality of proposals,” he added.

Democratization of Space

Dunstan asserted that DARPA hit a “sweet spot” with the Space-BACN program. “It cast a wide net, bringing in both very established, and relative newcomers to the table,” he said.

“It uses DARPA’s Other Transaction Authority [OTA] to avoid the high overhead of most government funding mechanisms,” he continued, “and 11 winners in Phase I means DARPA can take more risks and allow some failure in the process without jeopardizing the overall goal of the program.”

The ability of smaller firms to participate in a project like Space-BACN reflects what the satellite industry is like today. “In the past, it cost a fortune to build a satellite,” explained John Strand, of Strand Consulting in Denmark. “Now we’re seeing small companies with limited funding creating satellites for narrow applications.”

“They can build satellites using standard components, the same way you’d build a custom computer,” he told TechNewsWorld. “So if you look at the number of companies in the satellite industry, it’s booming.”

“Space, historically, has been government centralized,” he added. “What’s happening with the space industry now is that it has become democratized because the cost of putting things into space has been reduced dramatically thanks to private-public partnerships.”

Security Questions

In its kickoff announcement for Space-BACN, DARPA said it hopes to establish seamless communication between military/government and commercial/civil satellite constellations. That could be a future rub in the program’s future.

“That will be the ultimate question — whether you can secure the military/civilian interface,” Dunstan said.

“Optical systems are less prone to jamming because of their tight beams. They also may be less prone to hacking, but that remains to be seen,” he continued. “My guess is that one of the reasons DARPA is so interested in this project is so that they can get a window into the security capabilities of these types of networks.”

“Certainly DoD is not going to sign up for an interface between defense and civilian satellite systems that they can’t secure,” he added. “Given how much space comm traffic currently travels over civilian systems, my guess is that they feel pretty confident that they can secure their side of the interface.”

Bliss acknowledged that directly applying commercial communications technologies is not always a good idea. But, he noted, “Because of the flexibility we are developing, we can maximize the benefits of leveraging commercial technologies while minimizing security risks.”

John P. Mello Jr.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

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