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Intel chips in on optical modem for DARPA's 'internet of satellites'

Mmmmm... smells like Space-BACN

Intel has revealed more about its involvement in DARPA's project to build an "internet of satellites" in which the chipmaker will help develop the optical communications subsystem to enable links between satellites.

The Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) program may sound like a pork barrel project, but it is a serious effort to create orbital nodes that can translate information between different satellite networks, with the goal of allowing the various constellations to communicate with each other.

Recently, DARPA announced that it was tapping Intel, SpaceX, and other specialist companies to help deliver on its vision of enabling seamless communication between military/government and commercial/civil satellite constellations.

Intel was selected for Phase 1 of the program, which appears to comprise three technical areas. Intel's involvement is within Technical Area 2 (TA2), along with Arizona State University and II-VI Aerospace and Defense, and covers the design work for a reconfigurable optical modem. This is intended to be capable of support for both current and new communication standards and protocols to deliver the required level of interoperability among satellite constellations.

The optical modem design will comprise three chiplets based on Intel's Agilex FPGA technology, the chipmaker said. These will be integrated using the embedded multi-die interconnect bridge (EMIB) and advanced interface bus (AIB) packaging technologies into a single multi-chip package (MCP), similar to the way Intel intends to deliver its Meteor Lake PC chips.

Of the three chiplets, the main one appears to be a digital signal processor/forward error correction (DSP/FEC) chiplet for low-power, high-speed signal processing. This will be manufactured using the Intel 3 process node, which the chipmaker has previously indicated it intends to start production with sometime in 2023.

The other chiplets are described as a data converter/transimpedance amplifier/driver that will be produced with the Intel 16 process node, also due for volume production in 2023, and a photonic integrated circuit (PIC) based on technology from Tower Semiconductor, an Israel-based chip company that Intel is in the process of acquiring. This will provide low-loss waveguides and enable automated high-volume fiber coupling integration and assembly, the company said.

Meanwhile, Technical Area 1 (TA1) of Space-BACN focuses on the development of an optical aperture or "head," which is responsible for pointing acquisition and tracking. This will interface to the TA2 optical modem using single-mode optical fiber.

This work will be undertaken by CACI Inc, an IT services outfit, plus satellite photonics specialist MBRYONICS and Mynaric, a laser communication equipment vendor.

Technical Area 3 (TA3) covers critical command and control elements required to support the cross-constellation optical inter-satellite link communications. DARPA has chosen SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat, and Kuiper Government Solutions (an Amazon subsidiary) for this work, and to develop the schema necessary to interface between Space-BACN and other partner constellations.

Intel said it has commenced Phase 1 of the program, which will see it design each of the chiplets and work with the other parties to define the interfaces between each of the other technical areas. This phase is expected to last 14 months followed by a preliminary design review.

After this, selected parties from TA1 and TA2 will embark on an 18-month Phase 2 to develop engineering design units of the optical terminal components, Intel said. The companies involved in TA3 will "continue to evolve the schema to function in more challenging and dynamic scenarios."

According to Intel, Space-BACN is set to allow data to be sent anywhere around the planet by enabling communications between satellite constellations.

"This program helps us to deliver on that vision by enabling global connectivity from space to anywhere across the planet, enabling broadband services and the IoT where not just every person but everything is connected," said Sergey Shumarayev, Intel's senior principal engineer and principal investigator in the Programmable Solutions CTO Group. ®

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