Space Force looking to extend laser communications to satellites in higher orbits

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency (SDA) is in the process of building a mesh network of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which are intended to be used as a data transport layer for the U.S. Military. Each satellite in the large constellation is intended to leverage three to five laser links, enabling them to communicate with other satellites, airplanes, ships, and ground stations.

In a new request for information issued January 4, 2023 the SDA describes possible plans to extend “the military’s information highway in space into much higher orbits”.

The SDA is seeking to expand the reach of their communication network because they see the “optical intersatellite links [as] an essential technology to support [U.S.] warfighter needs”.

The notable investment, which continues to expand, into this extensive space based infrastructure may impact how space based cyber security is approached going forward. Currently, a meaningful way of compromising space based assets is through ground segments. In the case of the SDA’s network, the use of laser-link satellites reduces the dependence on ground stations and extends coverage to remote areas where ground stations are not available. In other words, as the network becomes a more viable and interesting target for cyber based attacks, accessing it though ground stations may be more difficult and easier to heighten control over with sufficient forethought.  

Similarly, the use of laser terminals (i.e. optical technologies) to route data traffic provides much higher transmission data rates than traditional radio-frequency links and are harder to intercept. Again, this may change the nature of cyber attacks on space segments as the SDA’s network comes online in the future.

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