Of major interest to the military are inter-satellite optical connections that enable satellites to transmit huge amounts of data to other satellites and to earth stations.
WASHINGTON – Among the 143 satellites that flew into orbit on January 24 on SpaceX’s record-breaking rideshare were technology demonstrations and payloads of interest to the U.S. military, including satellite components, laser communications in space and remote sensing.
Blue Canyon Technologies implemented new satellite components that they plan to integrate into Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency satellites. Now owned by Raytheon, Blue Canyon produces spacecraft for DARPA̵
Other small batches flying on SpaceX’s Transporter-1 were laser communications payloads – known as optical inter-satellite connections – that allow satellites to transmit huge amounts of data to other satellites and to earth stations. Germany’s Tesat-Spacecom sent into orbit around a laser communications terminal, which the company claims is the smallest in the industry, weighing less than a pound.
Tesat-Spacecom spokesman Matthias Motzigemba told SpaceNews the company plans to test the optical communication payload for up to two years and conduct experiments with the aim of building a global network of space and earth nodes.
Motzigemba said he could not disclose customers to these terminals, but said Tesat currently provides optical inter-satellite connections to U.S. companies building ground-based constellations.
The Pentagon’s space development agency is particularly interested in lightweight laser communications terminals for the fleet of LEO satellites it plans to deploy over the next few years. DARPA and SDA were hoping to launch two optical cube sets between the satellites on Transporter-1, but the satellites were accidentally damaged at the payload processing facility.
SDA Director Derek Tournear commented in a social media post that it was “painful” to lose these two satellites and that Transporter-1 would have had 145 satellites on board if the two laser command payloads had reached it.
In this mission, SpaceX flew 10 of its own Starlink Internet satellites equipped with laser connections. The U.S. military plans to use Starlink to connect aircraft and other platforms, and inter-satellite optical connections are preferred because they are more cybersecure than traditional radio frequency communications.
The largest share of small rates in Transporter-1 were Planet imaging satellites as well as Capella Space and Iceye radar imaging satellites and HawkEye 360 radio frequency mapping satellites. These and other companies are expanding their fleets like the Pentagon and the intelligence service. community plan to increase the use of commercial remote sensing services.
Better technology is needed for satellite tracking
The U.S. military is currently operating as a space controller. The Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron monitors satellites and space debris for dense approaches and places them on space-track.org.
The unprecedented number of small satellites launched by SpaceX in a single flight draws attention to the challenges of controlling space travel as orbits become more congested.
Satellite tracker and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said the Transporter-1 included satellites from 24 different owners and operators, most from the United States and a handful from 10 other countries.
Concerns about aerospace safety create opportunities for start-ups like Kayhan Space Corp., which developed cloud-based software to help military and commercial satellite operators plan maneuvers to avoid collisions.
The company has received two Small Business Innovation Research contracts from the U.S. Air Force to support satellite tracking efforts.
“There is a lot of room for improvement in space object tracking,” said Kayhan Space CEO and co-founder Siamak Hesar SpaceNews. Today, it is difficult to accurately position the location of small objects as cubesats, he said. As rideshares become more frequent, Hesar said, the 18th Space Control Squadron and civilian organizations will need better tools to deal with congestion and avoid costly accidents.