DARPA solicits proposals for space-based laser comms system

By Courtney Albon / September 14, 2021 at 9:42 AM

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Monday revealed a new effort to develop a space-based laser communication system to connect proliferated low-Earth-orbit architectures.

The Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) terminals will play a key role in the Pentagon’s vision for mosaic warfare, according to the new DARPA solicitation. The capability would operate on platforms in LEO, connecting systems that can’t communicate today because they use different optical intersatellite links (OISLs).

“In simpler terms,” the notice states, “the goal of this program is to bridge stovepipes and ‘connect space,’ which will in turn enable the joint all-domain fight.”

Because today’s LEO constellations don’t have standardized crosslinks, satellites can only communicate with other satellites operating on the same waveform. As the Defense Department and commercial space market eye increasing proliferation in LEO, the challenge of connecting systems through these crosslinks has become more apparent.

“With each constellation acquiring its own single-waveform OISL, the space domain has become severely fragmented with isolated islands of connectivity,” the notice states.

The Space-BACN terminal would be reconfigurable, easy to integrate, small in size and low-cost, which the solicitation defines as less than $100,000 for a production unit.

The agency plans to make multiple other transaction awards as part of the first phase of the program, Phase 0, which is focused on architectural design for two key technical priorities: a modular, low size, weight and power optical aperture; and a reconfigurable modem that supports multiple waveforms. The notice indicates DARPA will select up to six vendors for each of the two technical areas.

Phase 0 will last approximately four months, at the end of which companies will submit refined proposals and updated cost estimates for Phase 1. During Phase 1, participants will conduct a “bench top” demonstration that addresses any high-risk elements of their design. Phase 2 will follow, culminating in an engine design unit prototype that is hardened against cyber threats.

DARPA expects to award Phase 1 agreements to three performers from each technical area and will select “only the most promising approaches” for Phase 2.