Military experiment demonstrates inter-satellite laser communications in low Earth orbit

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The success of the Mandrake 2 experiment is good news for the Space Development Agency’s efforts 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 April 14 in a nearly 40-minute test, according to CACI International, the optical terminal 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 orbiting satellites so they can transfer data in space.

The DARPA experience called Mandrake 2 was funded by the Space Development Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The success of the demonstration is significant given that space-to-space optical communications is an essential technology for DARPA Blackjack constellation and for The mesh network planned by SDA small satellites in low Earth orbit that will support military operations.

SDA director Derek Tournear said the agency set out to build a mesh network known as the transport layer using commercially available satellite buses and laser terminals. The success of the Mandrake 2 experiment validates this strategy, he said.

“We demonstrated with commoditized laser communication that we could do satellite-to-satellite communication, and really demonstrated that it’s not very high-end anymore, that we can actually do it with platforms and communication technologies unmarked lasers,” Tournear said May 17 at a Potomac Officers Club online event.

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

The Tier 1 satellites will have optical laser communication not only for satellite-to-satellite crosslinks, 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 – did not disclose their laser terminal suppliers. Companies like CACI, mynaric, Test and others said they were looking to ramp up production to support SDA’s planned purchases.

As optical terminals become mass-produced, Tournear said, “we can certainly buy them almost off the shelf and fit them into the kinds of time and cost scales we need.”

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

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