Military experiment demonstrates intersatellite laser communication in low Earth orbit

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 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last summer successfully established an optical link during a nearly 40-minute test on April 14, according to CACI International, the supplier of the optical terminals

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

DARPA’s experiment called Mandrake 2 was funded by the Space Development Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The success of the demonstration is considerable as space-to-space optical communication is a critical technology for Blackjack from DARPA zodiac sign and for SDA’s planned mesh network of small satellites in low Earth orbit that will support military operations.

SDA director Derek Tournear said the agency had set a goal to build a mesh network known as Transport Layer using commercially available satellite buses and laser terminals. The success of the Mandrake 2 experiment confirms that strategy, he said.

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

SDA plans to launch 20 satellites this fall for the Transport Layer Tranche 0. In 2024, it will begin launching Tranche 1, a much larger deployment of 126 satellites. “We do not have optical crosslinks on any of our Tranche 0 satellites. But we’ll do it on Tranche 1,” Tournear said.

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

SDA satellite suppliers – Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and York Space – have not disclosed their laser terminal suppliers. Companies like CACI, Mynarictesat and others said they want to ramp up production to support SDA’s planned purchases.

Since optical terminals are mass-produced, Tournear said, “certainly we can almost buy them off the shelf and integrate them into the kind of timescales and cost points we need.”

SDA’s efforts to demonstrate optical crosslinks suffered a setback last year when an experiment using General Atomics satellites and laser terminals in orbit failed. Two Cubesats equipped with optical communication terminals flew into space, but tumbled out of intended orbit and the company was unable to make contact with the satellites.

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