The Air Force Research Laboratory plans to demonstrate a new space-based communications transponder in low-Earth orbit by next spring, the lab’s space vehicles director said June 4.

The “XVI” program is one of several efforts that AFRL is pursuing that could eventually bring the U.S. military and commercial space companies together to enable new capabilities in a proliferated LEO architecture, said Col. Eric Felt in a Thursday webinar hosted by Space News.

“The PLEO constellations – or proliferated LEO – commercial innovation that’s happening is super exciting, because that opens up all kinds of new things that we as the Space Force and as AFRL can demonstrate in space,” he said.

XVI is named as such because its intent is to build a Link 16-enabled space-based transponder, Felt said. Link 16 is an encrypted, jam-resistant military tactical data link used by NATO member nations and other coalition forces to transmit data and information in real time.

Felt said in the webinar that there are 30,000 Link 16 radios currently in use, and to have such a space-based transponder would enable more expansive coverage “Signals can’t go through mountains, so it’s a great capability to do from space.”

“This is something we have never been able to do before because the place where we have our traditional communications satellites, up in [Geostationary Orbit], is too far away,” he added. “But if we have a proliferated LEO constellation, then what we could do is put one of these Link 16 transponders onto each of these LEO satellites, and you would basically have a Link 16 capability, everywhere, all the time, all over the world.”

AFRL plans to fly an XVI transponder prototype in March 2021, Felt noted. “If that works out, then that’s a great opportunity for us to partner with these commercial companies that are putting up some of the proliferated LEO constellations, to provide that new military capability for our nation.”