The agency is bringing together experts to build tools that seek to standardize communication between tens of thousands of satellites.

By Mack DeGeurin

If you’ve taken a good look at the night sky in recent years you may have noticed a few more twinkling lights. That’s largely due to a surge in low Earth orbit satellites, an increasing number of which are being deployed to offer satellite internet service. SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon, the latter through its yet-to-launch  Project Kuiper, together reportedly plan to launch over 46,000 more satellites into space in the coming years. 

There’s a problem though. In their haste to get satellites up and running and beat out competitors, few of these satellite companies actually bothered to hammer out a set of standards that would let their satellites communicate with other firms’ satellites. Enter DARPA, the Pentagon’s gonzo research and development arm. As part of its Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) program DARPA is bringing together a team of experts to standardize communications between the ever-increasing hoard of satellites. The end goal, according to DARPA, is a type of “internet” of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that lets civil, government, and military satellites easily communicate with each other.

Space-BACN took a step forward this week with the agency announcing it had selected 11 teams for phase 1 of its program. Those experts, pulled from academia and commercial companies, are specifically tasked with creating a “low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that adapts to most optical intersatellite link standards,” according to the DARPA statement.“Today we’re witnessing the birth of a new domain called proliferated space.” 

The groups are divided across several technical areas. Groups in the first technical area are attempting to build a low-cost optical aperture capable of coupling into a single-mode fiber that’s both powerful, flexible, and small. The second cohort of teams will attempt to create a reconfigurable optical mode capable of supporting 100 Gbps via a single wavelength. Five other teams are tasked with identifying critical command and control elements, key to supporting cross-satellite communication and “develop the schema necessary to interface between Space-BACN and commercial partner constellation.” This first phase of the program will last 14 months.

“The primary drivers for Space-BACN are low cost and ease of use,” Space-BACN Program Manager Greg Kuperman said in a video. “We want this to be an easy decision for someone to put on their system.” 

DARPA believes streamlined communication between satellites can maximize the potential of satellite-enabled internet. Kuperman said it could be huge win for search and rescue operations across the globe.

“Today we’re witnessing the birth of a new domain called proliferated space,” Kuperman said. “This new space domain will usher in a new era of low-cost communications, sensing, and space exploration.”

This isn’t DARPA’s first attempt to have satellites communicate with one another. Earlier this year, two DARPA-launched satellites were able to successfully exchange more than 200 gigabits of data over a distance of around 60 miles (100 kilometers) via laser communication. In that case, the laser transmitted the data by encoding messages into an optical signal which were then carried to a receiver.