Intel, Amazon, and SpaceX asked to tuck into DARPA's Space-BACN

Internetwork of satellite networks advances to 'actually building' stuff stage

DARPA's attempt to build an internetwork of communications satellites – which operates under the fabulous name Space-BACN – has tapped Intel, SpaceX and others to build kit that will make its planned "Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node" a reality.

As The Register detailed when Space-BACN was announced in late 2021, DARPA has taken note of the launch of many comms satellites by the likes of SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's planned constellation of 7,774 satellites.

The agency admires those efforts, but worries they are disconnected silos. DARPA would prefer "seamless communication between military/government and commercial/civil satellite constellations that currently are unable to talk with each other."

Which is the same logic DARPA applied when it developed pioneering computer network ARPANET in the 1960s. In case you've forgotten your history, ARPANET gave us many of the technologies that made the internet possible.

DARPA also sees interoperability and internetworking of private and public assets as enhancing the resilience of military comms – another echo of its reasons for funding early computer networks.

DARPA's approach to internetworking satellite comms called for development of three systems:

  • A flexible, low size, weight, power and cost optical aperture that couples into single-mode fiber;
  • A reconfigurable optical modem that supports up to 100Gbit/sec on a single wavelength;
  • Critical command and control elements required to support cross-constellation optical intersatellite link communications and develop the schema necessary to interface between Space-BACN and commercial partner constellations.

Would-be builders of the above items were asked to file proposals. On Wednesday DARPA revealed the companies it's asked to go ahead and actually build something.

Intel made the list for the reconfigurable optical modem, along with an outfit called II-VI Aerospace and Defense, and Arizona State University.

SpaceX and Amazon's satellite subsidiary Kuiper Government Solutions made the list for the control systems, as did Telesat, SpaceLink, and Viasat.

CACI Inc., MBRYONICS, and Mynaric get to build the optical aperture.

Intel and its competitors now move into Phase 1 development – a 14-month period during which they're required to come up with a design and a fully defined interface between system components.

SpaceX and Kuiper are expected to get to the point of demoing connectivity between satellite constellations with a schema for cross-constellation command and control systems.

If Intel succeeds, it may be asked to participate in an 18-month Phase 2 during which it will develop engineering design units of the optical terminal components. Should SpaceX and Kuiper survive Phase 1, their next challenge will be to "evolve the schema to function in more challenging and dynamic scenarios."

All of which could mean that in April 2025 DARPA will have the pieces it needs to build an outer space internet. Just when the tech could be finalized, productized, manufactured and launched is anyone's guess. ®

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