Northrop Grumman to Provide Optical Comm-Capable Satellites to the US Space Force

Northrop Grumman is providing 36 data transport satellites to the US Space Force Space Development Agency (SDA). Designs for these satellites have now passed the Critical Design Review (CDR) only 13 months after receiving the contract. These satellites will add to the Space Force’s Transport and Tracking layers for early missile warning and tracking and they contain a variety of sensors including infrared, Ka-band and even optical communication terminals.

When asked about laser communications and encryption hardware, the Vice President of Communications Systems at NG says “Laser or optical communication is an exciting technology that’s been in the works on both commercial and government sides for many years. We’re getting to an inflection point where we’re seeing satellites that would normally be talking to each other through radio frequencies, or RF, now able to talk in the optical frequencies, or lasers.” He goes on to say that optical communication between complex systems has been demonstrated in a lab environment.

While the demonstration of this technology truly is exciting, there is still the question of how secure optical communication is over traditional RF transmissions. According to Baker, C. et. al. ( optical communication actually has many inherent security advantages over RF namely, a “lower beam spread and the ability to incorporate quantum key distribution [QKD] into the communications channel.” It also has the added benefit of allowing for more bandwidth for communication channels. Consequently, this means that the satellites require more precise acquisition, tracking, and pointing (ATP) to achieve a successful link between two objects.