On June 25, SpaceX is to launch a Falcon 9 rocket that will carry the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) first satellite missions–Mandrake II, the Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System (LINCS), and Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed (POET).
The SDA missions involve two Astro Orbital-built Mandrake II cube satellites with an SA Photonics payload, two General Atomics LINCS microsatellites to demonstrate space-to-air communications with an MQ-9 Reaper drone, and a Loft Orbital satellite carrying the POET payload, which is to demonstrate a low-latency “battle management capability” in space.
“The more processing that we can move into space, the better off we’re going to be,” an SDA official said on June 22. “POET is going to give us the first opportunity to actually do that… so we’re really looking forward to getting some data out of this.”
The Astro Digital satellites have been part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s 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 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. will carry dozens of rideshare satellites in what the company says is its second dedicated rideshare mission. SDA said that its missions will “gather data on optical communication terminal (OCT) performance and processing in low-Earth orbit (LEO), proving out a core capability required for SDA’s future development efforts.”
“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,” the agency said.
SDA said that invested “just under $21 million” in Mandrake II, LINCS, and POET.
“This figure represents a tremendous value to the government for four satellites and a payload,” per SDA. “The invaluable information gathered from these experiments will far outpace the monetary investment made up front as we begin to lay the foundation for the National Defense Space Architecture [NDSA].”
The NDSA is to be an optically-connected Internet in space to provide tactical data–low latency communications and targeting information–to military forces in the field.
The backbone of NDSA, the Transport Layer, is to provide the targeting of ground and maritime targets, while the Tracking Layer–the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Reconnaissance constellation–is to establish effective targeting of advanced missiles. In addition, SDA is working to aid future intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites in the Custody Layer to fuse ISR tracking with the Transport Layer to devise the best targeting solution.
SDA is to field 150 small size, weight and power laser communications satellites in Tranche 1 of the Transport Layer by September 2024 and is to field additional tranches every two years. Such mesh network satellites are to provide the rapid targeting of ground and maritime targets to military forces over Link 16. The optically-connected satellites will also supply position, navigation and timing to U.S. and allied forces in GPS-denied environments.