By Mark Pomerleau
Jun 11, 2015
The military has been working on developing small, inexpensive satellites for short-term, specific uses, but a key to making them work is fitting high data-rate capabilities into small form factors without enough power to do the job.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has begun the solicitation process for lightweight and low-power inter-satellite communications links for nanosatellites, or CubSats. DARPA wants to “provide the highest data-rate between microsatellites, consistent with their small size and limited power consumption.”
More specifically, DARPA wants to go as small as possible with the most output. “[T]his program seeks to develop [inter-satellite communications links] with the highest practical data rates while having a per-link average weight of less than 2 pounds and an orbit-average power dissipation of less than 3 watts,” the solicitation states. “Efforts proposed under this BAA will explore link concepts and demonstrate revolutionary flight hardware that yields ISCLs with high communication data rates (>1 Mbps) within very tight weight and power constraints. Both optical and radio frequency (RF) links will be considered.”
The proposal calls for development in two technical areas. The first, requiring development within 24 months, calls for the links to be able to operate for at least a year. The second, independent of the 24 month schedule, is aiming for more “aggressive enabling technologies and higher performance system[s].”
These microsatellites will be procured with the intention of conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), which means that they should be survivable and require jam-resistant communications. Additionally, they will also serve as communications systems and therefore must require, at the very least, near-real-time data capabilities.
DARPA requires a nominal communications range of between 2,000 and 4,000 kilometers (roughly 1,200 to 2,400 miles).