DARPA Wants to Build an ‘Internet’ of Connected Satellites in Low Earth Orbit

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If you’ve taken a good look at the night sky in recent years you may have noticed a few more twinkling lights. That’s largely due to a surge in low Earth orbit satellites, an increasing number of which are being to offer satellite internet service. SpaceX, OneWeband Amazon, the latter through its yet-to-launch Project Kuiper, together reportedly plan to launch over 46,000 more satellites into space in the coming years.

There’s a problem though. In their haste to get satellites up and running and beat out competitors, a few of these satellite companies actually bothered to hammer out a set of standards that would let their satellites communicate with other firms’ satellites. Enter DARPA, the Pentagon’s gonzo research and development arm. 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-BACN took a step forward this week with the agency announcing it had selected 11 teams for phase 1 of its program. Those experts, pulled from academia and commercial companies, are specifically tasked with creating a “low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that adapts to most optical intersatellite link standards statement,” according to the DARPA.

The groups are divided across several technical areas. Groups in the first technical area are attempting to build a low-cost optical aperture capable of coupling into a single-mode fiber that’s both powerful, flexible, and small. The second cohort of teams will attempt to create a reconfigurable optical mode capable of supporting 100 Gbps via a single wavelength. Five other teams are tasked with identifying critical command and control elements, key to supporting cross-satellite communication and “develop the schema necessary to interface between Space-BACN and commercial partner constellation.” This first phase of the program will last 14 months.

“The primary drivers for Space-BACN are low cost and ease of use,” Space-BACN Program Manager Greg Kuperman said in a video. “We want this to be an easy decision for someone to put on their system.”

DARPA believes streamlined communication between satellites can maximize the potential of satellite-enabled internet. Kuperman said it could be a huge win for search and rescue operations across the globe.

“Today we’re witnessing the birth of a new domain called proliferated space,” Kuperman said. “This new space domain will usher in a new era of low-cost communications, sensing, and space exploration.”

This isn’t DARPA’s first attempt to have satellites communicate with one another. Earlier this year, two DARPA-launched satellites were able to successfully exchange more than 200 gigabits of data over a distance of around 60 miles (100 kilometers) via laser communication. In that case, the laser transmitted the data by encoding messages into an optical signal which were then carried to a receiver.

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