The Space Development Agency (SDA) launched its first two satellite missions on June 30–two Astro Orbital-built Mandrake II cube satellites with an SA Photonics payload, two General Atomics Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System (LINCS) microsatellites to demonstrate space-to-air communications with a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone, and a Loft Orbital satellite carrying the Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed (POET) payload.
The latter is to demonstrate a low-latency “battle management capability” in space.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the rideshare satellites on the Transporter 2 mission. SDA’s first two sets of experimental satellites are “to gather data on optical communication terminal (OCT) performance in low-Earth orbit (LEO),” while the POET payload is to demonstrate “on-orbit data fusion, proving out core capabilities required for SDA’s future development efforts” for the National Defense Space Architecture’s edge processing, SDA said.
“Optical links between space, air, and ground assets offer significantly higher data rates and lower latency when compared to conventional radio frequency links, and demonstrate a pathway of getting real-time data to warfighter,” per the agency.
“SDA is relying on OCTs to get massive amounts of data off of sensors and into warfighters’ hands faster than has ever been possible,” SDA director Derek Tournear said in a statement. “Today’s missions will provide real-world data that we can use to verify our engineering assumptions and space-qualify a significant emerging technology.”
The Astro Digital satellites have been part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Blackjack program, started in 2018 to show how the military could benefit from low Earth orbit satellites and mesh satellite networks.
SpaceX’s Transporter 2 mission launch carried dozens of rideshare satellites in what the company says is its second dedicated rideshare mission.
SDA said that invested “just under $21 million” in Mandrake II, LINCS, and POET (Defense Daily, June 23).
“On Mandrake II, SDA is working with government partners DARPA and Air Force Research Laboratory to evaluate the pointing, acquisition, and tracking algorithms that allow for OCTs to establish and maintain high-speed communication links,” SDA said. “The mission will also characterize data transfer rates and optical link performance between space vehicles in LEO and from space to ground. Immediately after separation from the launch vehicle, the pair of Mandrake II space vehicles will gradually drift apart on orbit, allowing for tests at increasing ranges up to 2,400 kilometers.”
LINCS is to demonstrate space-to-air optical links “between a LINCS space vehicle and a specially developed OCT pod for the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle,” per SDA. “In addition to increasing bandwidth, optical links are also more difficult to detect and disrupt than traditional communication links, enhancing communication in less- and non-permissive environments.”
POET program will provide for an on-orbit NDSA Custody Layer data fusion application that will reside within an overarching Battle Management Command, Control, and Communications software system developed for the DARPA’s Blackjack Pit Boss processor, according to SDA.
“SDA’s work to push the boundaries of OCT capabilities will directly impact warfighter readiness by disrupting and shortening the traditional sensor-to-shooter and sensor-to-weapon kill chain,” the agency said. “With more data traveling faster than ever, leaders will have the tools to react to current and emerging threats with greater speed and assurance.”