Optical Communication in Space? DARPA Program Aims to Change the Future of Satellite Networks


In the past decade, the space domain has been experiencing a boom. In particular, the growth of the civilian space industry has vastly changed the orbital landscape. However, despite the large number of vehicles now in low earth orbit (LEO), modern satellites are unequipped to communicate with each other. However, this could soon change.

On September 13th, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a new effort to provide a centralized terminal for LEO communications network. Referred to as the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN), the agency aims to revolutionize orbital networks by prioritizing an optical communications architecture. This means that Satellites would relay information through lasers fired through space rather than the current radio protocols.

DARPA has laid out a set of guidelines called “100 Cubed”. This means that the module must 1) support 100 Gbps data transfer 2) consume no more than 100W of power, 3) cost no more than $100,000. These limitations serve to increase Space-BACN’s ability to act as a universal terminal and join together a currently divided network. Additionally, DARPA wants the program to be designed to last. This means that the core components of the device (optical relay, modem, and software protocol) should be interchangeable with future upgrades to the platform.

This initiative presents an exciting new frontier for LEO networks. Hopefully, program participants will use past lessons to design a truly modern space system that addresses security concerns at its core.

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