China and Russia have been doggedly pursuing technologies capable of disrupting or destroying U.S. military and commercial satellites. Last year a pair of Russian satellites were spotted tailing a multibillion-dollar U.S. spy satellite and in July of 2020 Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon.
To combat the threat of satellite disruption by near-peer enemies, the U.S. is working on a program called Blackjack that aims to reduce the cost, size, and vulnerability of America’s satellites, while simultaneously increasing their capabilities using distributed sensors. The program looks to use commercial buses to deliver hundreds of smaller cube satellites (CubeSats) to low Earth orbit (LEO) to lower risk and cost associated with each satellite. CubeSats have shown a rapid development timeline, as they moved from contract award to delivery of space vehicles in less than 9 months, and at a fraction of the cost of conventional spy satellites.
On June 30th, DARPA successfully launched the Mandrake 2 spacecraft, Able and Baker, and reported that they are functioning well. The satellites will communicate with one another using a network of lasers through optical communications terminals or OTC’s. The Space Development Agency (SDA) writes (abridged):
The Falcon 9 mission will include five SDA satellites. These include a pair of “Mandrake II” satellites; two “Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System,” or LINCS, satellites; and a satellite carrying the SDA’s Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed, or POET, experiment.
The SDA is working now on delivering the National Defense Space Architecture, which includes hundreds of satellites delivered in “tranches” every two years; each tranche will provide more capability.
The NDSA’s network of hundreds of satellites will provide beyond line-of-sight targeting for ground and maritime time-sensitive targets and the same for enemy missiles already in flight. The system will provide the ability to detect those targets, track them, calculate a fire control solution and then deliver that solution down to a weapons platform so the target can be destroyed.
It’s expected that the NDSA’s hundreds of satellites will communicate with one another using a network of lasers through optical communication terminals, or OCTs. For this initial mission, Mandrake II will carry an OCT from SA Photonics while LINCS will carry an OCT from General Atomics.
Two of each type of satellite will go into orbit, and the SDA will evaluate the ability of each OCT to operate in space.
“We’re trying to figure out the acquisition, the pointing and the tracking,” said a senior SDA official. “Can we make the connection; can we hold that connection; and can we exchange data between two terminals in space with that connection?”
The official said the tests will put the satellites as far as 2,400 kilometers apart in order to test their ability to communicate via laser with an OCT.
“We’re going to try to send data essentially from D.C. to Denver at the speed of light,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to bring to the warfighter over the next several years.”
The POET experiment will also go into space on June 25. While Mandrake II and LINCS will evaluate optical communication terminals, POET will be an experiment on how to process information in space so that time isn’t wasted sending it down to Earth to be processed.
The SDA official said POET is a “battle management capability” that will be in space.
“We’re going to actually load data and algorithms into that on orbit, and we’re going to test out data fusion in orbit for the warfighter,” the official said.
Having processing capacity on the ground means unnecessary latency in the process, which is unacceptable.
“The more processing that we can move into space, the better off we’re going to be,” he said. “POET is going to give us the first opportunity to actually do that, … so we’re really looking forward to getting some data out of this.”
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