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DARPA recruits SpaceX, Intel and Amazon for major satellite network project

11 firms in total will compete to design a satellite translation system, to allow seamless military use of existing networks

A faint network of satellites, drawn as light between points around the Earth

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has named 11 teams, including Intel Federal, SpaceX and an Amazon subsidiary, for an inter-satellite ‘translator’ project.

In a press release, the government agency outlined the goal of the programme, known as Space-BACN, as being to create a low-Earth orbit (LEO) 'internet' that allows reliable information transfer between military, government and civilian satellite constellations.

DARPA identified three key areas of development key to creating such a network, including a low weight, size, cost, rigidity and power optical aperture; a reconfigurable optical modem supporting 100Gbits/sec internet; and cross-constellation command and control (C2) parts necessary inter-satellite communications.

The firms chosen to work within the first area of development are CACI Inc, MBRYONICS and Mynaric. The latter is an established name in the sector of wireless data transmission, having created laser communication technology for use between aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger satellite networks.

DARPA is a research and development agency within the US Department of Defense (DoD), tasked with experimenting on and testing emerging technologies.

Intel, Arizona State University and II-VI Aerospace and Defense will all develop designs for the reconfigurable modem. This is not the first time that DARPA has partnered with Intel, with an announcement last year that the microprocessor giant would design custom chips for the DoD, containing novel security protections.

The third area of development has the most participants, comprising SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat and Kuiper Government Solutions LLC (an Amazon subsidiary). Currently, SpaceX could be considered the best-placed to provide the required connectivity, with over 2,200 satellites currently in its constellation and FCC-backing to provide Wi-Fi to moving vehicles.

The companies will submit competing designs within their respective areas of development after 14 months, after which a select few will be chosen to take part in a second phase lasting approximately 18 months. 

The interest of DARPA in the satellite internet sector makes sense, given the agency’s mission statement to “make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security”. Space broadband is a rapidly-growing industry, with companies such as SpaceX and DISH are already competing over the limitations of authorised bands, and due to its highly-utilisable nature is certain to represent a promising sandbox for US government use.

Last month, UK-based communications firm OneWeb announced a merger with French satellite operator Eutelsat, marking a major consolidation of power within the European satellite sector. The former had announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with BT last year, to provide satellite broadband to rural customers across the UK, and as satellite networking technologies develop deals such as this may become the key to global internet access.

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