Military experiment demonstrates laser communications between satellites in low Earth orbit

The success of the Mandrake 2 experiment is good news for the Space Development Agency’s effort to build a mesh network in space.

WASHINGTON – Two small satellites launched last summer by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency successfully established an optical link on April 14 during a nearly 40-minute test, according to CACI International, the optical terminals supplier.

More than 200 gigabits of data were transmitted and received over a distance of about 100 kilometers, the company said on May 17. Optical terminals use lasers to connect satellites in orbit so they can transfer data in space.

darpa experiment called mandrake 2 it was funded by the Space Development Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The success of the demonstration is significant. as space-to-space optical communications are a critical technology for DARPA Blackjack constellation and for SDA Planned Mesh Network of small satellites in low Earth orbit that will support military operations.

SDA Director Derek Tournear said the agency has set a goal of building a mesh network known as a transport layer using commercially available laser terminals and satellite buses. The success of the Mandrake 2 experiment validates that strategy, he said.

“We showed with commodified laser communications that we could do satellite-to-satellite communications, and we really showed that this is no longer at the high end, that we can actually do this with commodified laser communications platforms and technologies,” Tournear said May 17. at a Potomac Officers Club online event.

SDA plans to launch 20 transport layer 0 satellites this fall. In 2024, it will begin launching Tranche 1, a much larger deployment of 126 satellites. “We don’t have optical cross-links on each of our Tranche 0 satellites. But we do on Tranche 1,” Tournear said.

The Tranche 1 satellites will have optical laser communication not only for satellite-to-satellite cross-links, but also for satellite-to-ground communications, as well as satellite-to-airborne platforms, he said.

SDA satellite providers Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and York Space have not disclosed their laser terminal suppliers. Companies like CACI, Minaric, Test and others said they are looking to ramp up production to support planned SDA acquisitions.

As optical terminals become mass-produced, Tournear said, “we can definitely buy them almost off-the-shelf and integrate them at the kinds of timescales and cost points that we need.”

SDA’s efforts to demonstrate optical cross-links suffered a setback last year when an experiment using laser terminals and General Atomics satellites failed in orbit. Two cubesats equipped with optical communications terminals flew into space but fell out of their intended orbit and the company was unable to establish contact with the satellites.

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