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Breaking the Boundaries: DARPA’s Space-BACN Revolutionizes Military Optical Satellite Communications

Introduction:

In the vast expanse of space, where communication is paramount for military operations, traditional methods often fall short. Enter DARPA’s Space-BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communications Node), a groundbreaking initiative that is set to revolutionize military satellite communications through the development of space optical communications. In this article, we delve into the significance of this cutting-edge technology and its implications for military satellite constellations.

The falling costs of space launch and the increasing capabilities of small satellites have enabled the emergence of radically new space architectures—proliferated constellations made up of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of satellites in low orbits.

 

Several commercial companies plan to establish space internet constellations consisting of hundreds to thousands of satellites, each to create global internet services. Starlink and its competitors, such as OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, have embraced a new approach to satellite internet. Rather than placing a couple big satellites in geosynchronous orbit, these companies want to place thousands of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit. These satellites are only a few hundred miles above the Earth so they can cut down delays to around 20 milliseconds, which is hardly noticeable from a user’s perspective.

 

By 2027, SpaceX plans to have as many as 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit beaming high-speed internet to tens of millions of customers around the planet.  In addition to Starlink, OneWeb and Telesat have both announced their intention to create LEO broadband constellations with 650 and 292 satellites, Backed by Virgin Group, OneWeb is building a new global knowledge infrastructure accessible to everyone, particularly in rural areas in just 10 years, according to Greg Wyler, the founder of the company. Iridium company recently completing a two-year upgrade of its global communications network, replacing all of its satellites and upgrading the supporting ground infrastructure. Iridium’s satellite constellation now consists of 66 operational space vehicles and nine on-orbit spares.

 

The U.S.  DOD  plan  to draw from a deepening well of commercially available satellite communications (SATCOM) technology to enhance military internet tactical networking for warfighters on the ground, in the air, and at sea. The idea is to capitalize on commercial communications satellite constellations under development to reduce military SATCOM costs, as well as enhance reliability and data throughput.

 

There’s a problem though. In their haste to get satellites up and running and beat out competitors, few of these satellite companies actually bothered to hammer out a set of standards that would let their satellites communicate with other firms’ satellites.

 

New constellations that are in different stages of acquisition are procuring single-waveform cross-link communication systems that meet their mission’s or business objective’s particular needs to interconnect their own constellation. These single-waveform systems are only capable of talking to other systems that support that particular waveform, almost exclusively consist of custom-made components, and have little to no reconfigurability.

 

While most waveforms operate within the same wavelength band, they differ in wavelengths, polarization, clock rate, spatial acquisition sequence, modulation format, framing, and error correction coding. As each constellation acquires its own proprietary communications links, satellite communications (SATCOM) becomes severely fragmented with only isolated islands of connectivity.

 

Space-BACN aims to overcome today’s lack of on-orbit interoperability among current and future space communications. As part of its Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) program DARPA is bringing together a team of experts to standardize communications between the ever-increasing hoard of satellites. The end goal, according to DARPA, is a type of “internet” of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that lets civil, government, and military satellites easily communicate with each other.

 

Space-BCN Program

Intersatellite links are links between satellites. Intersatellite links (ISL) can be considered as particular beams of multi-beam satellites; the beams, in this case, are directed not towards the earth but towards other satellites. For bidirectional communication between satellites, two beams are necessary—one for transmission and one for the reception.  There is yet no standardization of communications or optical intersatellite links in this domain, researchers point out.

 

Instead, the Space-BACN program seeks to create a reconfigurable space-to-space optical communications terminal that can connect heterogeneous constellations that operate on different optical intersatellite link specifications that otherwise would not be able to communicate with one another.

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a space-based communication node with the goal to create a reconfigurable, multi-protocol intersatellite optical communications terminal that is low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C), easy to integrate, and will have the ability to connect heterogeneous constellations that operate on different optical intersatellite link (OISL) specifications that otherwise would not be able to communicate.

 

Space-BACN seeks to develop an intersatellite optical communications terminal that is low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C); easy to integrate; and operate on platforms in low Earth orbit (LEO). The project involves space-based communications, optical intersatellite links, reconfigurable modems, modular components, and space command and control.

 

The Space-BACN program aims to revolutionize the way space-based communications work by developing low-cost, high-speed reconfigurable optical datalinks to connect various low-earth orbit (LEO) constellations…and we’re looking for the best minds out there to help us make this a reality.

The core of Space-BACN is a reconfigurable, multi-protocol low SWaP-C optical communications terminal that can support most current and future single wavelength waveforms in space up to 100 Gbps, uses less than 100 W of power, costs less than $100k (in production), and can be easily integrated into most satellites. From a networking perspective, the terminal is a physical and link layer device (layer 1 & 2 of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) stack). Such a terminal could be reconfigured on-orbit to talk across different standards, presenting a revolutionary leap in technology from the current state-of-the-art.

 

The Space-BACN program consists of three technical areas — two of which are part of this solicitation: A modular, low SWaP-C optical aperture to separate the front end of the optical intersatellite link from the signal processing via single-mode fiber; and a reconfigurable modem able to support several optical waveforms as fast as 100 gigabits per second on one wavelength.

 

Technical Area 1 (TA1): A modular, low SWaP-C optical aperture that will separate the front end of the OISL from the signal processing via single mode fiber (SMF). The optical aperture will include an overall terminal controller, responsible for pointing, acquisition, and tracking (PAT) functions, and terminal command and telemetry, as well as transmit (TX) optical amplification and optional receive (RX) low-noise optical amplification.

 

To achieve the coherent processing needed for flexible high-rate optical communications, an optical aperture must couple light into an SMF. Key challenges include focusing and stabilizing light over highly-variable thermal, shock, and vibration environments; operating on any pair of TX and RX wavelengths within the specified optical bandwidth; and accommodating any of multiple PAT sequences.

 

Traditional diffraction-limited optical apertures for space are highly engineered, tuned, and hardened, which results in them being incredibly expensive and only producible in small quantities. To reduce cost, Space-BACN aims to simplify the design and automate assembly and tuning of the optical components. The TA1 subsystem may consist of one or more distinct components. Ease of integration is valued, but multi-component implementations are acceptable if there are performance and/or SWAP-C benefits.

 

Technical Area Two (TA2): A reconfigurable modem that can support multiple optical waveforms up to 100 Gbps on a single wavelength. To date, highly reconfigurable communications systems have only been demonstrated in the radio frequency (RF) domain where bandwidths and data rates are an order of magnitude lower than the optical regime. Recent advances in optical communications and digital signal processing technologies have made a 100 Gbps reconfigurable space terminal within reach. In the fiber datacom/telecom world, the convergence to volume-manufacturable integrated photonic circuits has resulted in ubiquitous, low SWaP-C, high data rate transceivers.

 

Space-BACN will leverage advanced integrated technologies such as analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog converters capable of sampling at 50+ GSps, narrow linewidth tunable lasers, optical in-phase and quadrature (IQ) modulators, and equalizers. The reconfigurable modem is envisioned to support multiple waveforms within the limits of sampling rate, where a specific single-wavelength waveform includes the details of symbol amplitude and phase, modulation, framing, and forward error correction. The focus is on current and near-future industry-supported waveforms; development of custom waveforms specific to this effort is excluded.

 

Awards

DARPA has selected 11 teams for Phase 1 of the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node program, known as Space-BACN. Space-BACN aims to create a low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that adapts to most optical intersatellite link standards, translating between diverse satellite constellations. 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 agency selected teams from academia and large and small commercial companies, including multiple performers awarded first-time contracts with the Department of Defense.

“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,” said Greg Kuperman, Space-BACN program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office. “We used other transactions and were very pleased with diversity of organizations that responded and quality of proposals. After a successful Phase 0 where we got to see the teams sprint to put together an initial architecture design for Space-BACN, I’m excited to get to work in Phase 1 building the actual system.”

In the first technical area, the following performers aim to develop a flexible, low size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) optical aperture that couples into single-mode fiber:

  • CACI, Inc.
  • MBRYONICS
  • Mynaric

The following teams selected in the second technical area aim to develop a reconfigurable optical modem that supports up to 100 Gbps on a single wavelength:

  • II-VI Aerospace and Defense
  • Arizona State University
  • Intel Federal, LLC

The performer teams listed above will also participate in a collaborative working group to define the interface between their respective system components.

In a third technical area, the agency selected five teams to identify critical command and control elements required to support cross-constellation optical intersatellite link communications and develop the schema necessary to interface between Space-BACN and commercial partner constellations:

  • Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)
  • Telesat
  • SpaceLink
  • Viasat
  • Kuiper Government Solutions (KGS) LLC, an Amazon subsidiary

Phase 1 of Space- BACN spans 14 months and will conclude with a preliminary design review for the first two technical areas, as well as a fully defined interface between system components. The third technical area will develop the schema for cross-constellation command and control, and will conduct a connectivity demo in a simulated environment to test the schema for a baseline scenario.

EOS subsidiary SpaceLink wins DARPA contract, reported in August 2022

SpaceLink, a subsidiary of EOS, has secured a contract with DARPA for its Space-BACN program, aligning with its mission to provide continuous, high-capacity, real-time links for data delivery from space to the warfighter.

As part of the program, SpaceLink will contribute to the development of protocols for the interaction between commercial communications constellations and Department of Defense systems. SpaceLink is building a constellation of relay satellites in MEO that use optical intersatellite links to speed communications between spacecraft on orbit and users on the ground.

Specifically, SpaceLink will offer technical insights for the development of application program interfaces (APIs) and algorithms in Space-BACN Technical Area 3 (TA3), and collaborate with Parsons Corporation to integrate enterprise scheduling and tasking software with the SpaceLink optical relay network. The goal is to enable space-to-space optical communications terminals that can adapt dynamically and communicate across various optical standards used by different satellite systems. DARPA emphasizes the importance of streamlined satellite communication to maximize the potential of satellite-enabled internet and foresees significant benefits for global search and rescue operations with the birth of a new era in low-cost communications and space exploration.

 

Intel to Supply Optical Tech, reported in Oct 2022

Intel has been chosen by DARPA for Phase 1 of the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) program, joining nine other teams including Arizona State University and II-VI Aerospace and Defense. Leveraging its expertise in field programmable gate arrays (FPGA), packaging technology, and research capabilities, Intel will develop an optical modem solution. The solution will utilize Intel’s low-power Agilex FPGA and feature three new chiplets integrated into a single multi-chip package using advanced packaging technologies. These chiplets include a DSP/FEC chiplet, a data converter/TIA/driver chiplet, and a PIC chiplet based on Tower Semiconductor photonic technologies. There is also a PIC chiplet based on Tower Semiconductor photonic technologies offers low-loss waveguides and options, such as V-groove, enabling automated high-volume fiber coupling integration and assembly.

Following Phase 1, selected performers will advance to Phase 2 to develop engineering design units of the optical terminal components, while others will continue refining the technology to address more challenging scenarios.

 

Mynaric is designing an optical communications terminal for DARPA’s  Space-BACN

Mynaric is collaborating with DARPA’s Space Based Adaptive Communications Node program, Space-BACN, to design an optical communications terminal aimed at facilitating seamless communications between government and commercial networks in low Earth orbit. DARPA’s objective is to develop a cost-effective laser communications terminal compatible with both government and private-sector standards.

Concurrently, Redwire and BigBear.ai have partnered to create Space Cyber Resiliency through Evaluation and Security Testing (SpaceCREST), a cybersecurity technology leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to proactively identify and mitigate threats to space architectures, ensuring the resilience of government and commercial space operations.

Hawthorne, California – January 17, 2024 – Mynaric, a leading developer of laser communication technology, has secured a significant contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to propel the future of space-based communications. This partnership marks a major leap forward in establishing seamless connectivity between constellations orbiting Earth.

Phase 2

DARPA, has moved its Space-BACN project to develop low cost, reconfigurable optical intersatellite links into its second phase, down-selecting seven contractors from 11 in the first phase to move ahead with development, according to a DARPA spokesperson.

The work is broken down into three Technical Areas (TAs):

TA1 contractors are developing the telescope on what DARPA hopes will be a standardized terminal for sending and receiving laser links, with the agency looking for a “modular, low -size,-weight, -power and -cost (SWaP-C) optical aperture,” including “an overall terminal controller, responsible for pointing, acquisition and tracking,” and terminal command and telemetry. Mbryonics was tapped to move into Phase 2 of TA1, a DARPA spokesperson told Breaking Defense today, but another company is expected to be selected shortly.

Mbryonics, based in Ireland, participated in Phase 1 of the program, awarded in August of 2022. The company said on Tuesday that it delivered on Phase 1 within 14 months. The company has a product line of optical inter-satellite links and Earth links called StarCom. In Phase 2, Mbryonics will design and deliver an optical terminal. The company will coordinate with modem and satellite constellation operators over a 21-month performance period to accelerate the development of inter-satellite communications capable of connecting LEO constellations using different communications protocols.

TA2 contractors are designing the back end of the terminal; that is, a “reconfigurable modem that can support multiple optical waveforms up to 100 Gbps on a single wavelength.” Intel Federal and Arizona State University are the Phase 2 winners for this area, the DARPA spokesperson said.

TA3 contractors are helping DARPA design the cross-communications command and control system, including development of standards, common application programming interfaces, and concepts of operations to enable cross-constellation interoperability. It also includes working on cybersecurity solutions. Telesat Government Solutions, SpaceX and Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Government Solutions have been chosen to continue their TA3 Phase 1 work into Phase 2, the spokesperson said.

SpaceX already is using its own, proprietary laser links in its Starlink mega-constellation providing internet services in LEO; Kuiper recently launched the first two prototype satellites for its rival mega-constellation that also will use optical comms.

Mynaric Selected for Phase 2 of Space-BACN; Mynaric will serve as a key development partner in the second phase of DARPA’s Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) program. This program aims to revolutionize communication within the burgeoning network of satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). This Phase 2 award follows the successful completion of the 14-month Phase 1, which focused on the development of a next-generation optical communications terminal prototype. Mynaric’s expertise in laser communication solutions positions them perfectly to contribute to this critical program.

Phase 2 work is expected to last about 20 months, and while DARPA did not reveal the value of the contracts, the agency budged $31.9 million in fiscal 2023 for Space-BACN, and asked for $32.1 million in FY24.

Implications for Future Military Operations:

“Future space systems will require reliable, high-throughput intra- and inter-constellation communications with the flexibility to form the future backbone of a resilient mesh network ensuring C2 [command and control] and information path diversity,” the service explained in a January request for information to vendors on development of a new laser comms modem for “Beyond Low Earth Obit (bLEO).” The modem should be able to crosslink satellites orbiting between 10,000 kilometers and 70,000 kilometers apart from each other, the request added.

Long-range, high-speed optical communications will be critical for the service’s plans for a “hybrid architecture” that would see networks of old and new military satellites, as well as commercial and allied networks, all communicating seamlessly to shift vast quantities of data around the world in near real-time. Further, optical communications will help the Space Force and US Space Command bring to life its vision of “dynamic space operations” using highly mobile, long-lived spacecraft

The successful implementation of space optical communications technology holds significant implications for future military operations. With faster, more secure communication capabilities, military satellite constellations can support a wide range of mission-critical activities, including intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, and tactical command and control. By enhancing connectivity and situational awareness, Space-BACN has the potential to revolutionize the way military forces operate in space and on the ground, ensuring a decisive advantage in the modern battlefield.

Conclusion:

As DARPA’s Space-BACN initiative continues to push the boundaries of technology, the future of military satellite communications looks brighter than ever before. By pioneering the development of space optical communications, Space-BACN is paving the way for a new era of connectivity, resilience, and security in space-based operations. With optical communications poised to become the cornerstone of next-generation satellite constellations, the possibilities for enhancing military capabilities are virtually limitless. As we look ahead, one thing is clear: the future of space-based communications has arrived, and DARPA’s Space-BACN is leading the way.

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://gizmodo.com/darpa-wants-to-build-an-internet-of-connected-satellite-1849402673

https://www.designnews.com/semiconductors-and-chips/intel-supply-optical-tech-darpa-satellite-communications

https://spacenews.com/mynaric-redwire-bigbear-ai-partner-for-darpas-laser-communications-program/

https://breakingdefense.com/2023/12/space-bacn-sizzling-along-as-darpa-awards-phase-2-contracts-in-laser-link-project/

 

 

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