Darpa picks Intel to accelerate inter-satellite communications

  • October 13, 2022
  • Steve Rogerson

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has selected Intel for phase one of the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) programme that aims to improve inter-satellite communications.

The goal is to create a low-cost, reconfigurable optical communications terminal that will translate information between diverse satellite constellations.

A Space-BACN satellite terminal will enable communications between satellite constellations, enabling data to be sent anywhere around the planet at the speed of light.

“Intel’s vision is to create world-changing technology that improves the life of every person on the planet,” said Sergey Shumarayev, Intel senior principal engineer. “This programme 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.”

Darpa is planning for a future where tens of thousands of satellites from multiple private sector organisations deliver broadband services from low Earth orbit (LEO). The goal of Space-BACN is to create an internet of satellites, enabling seamless communication between military/government and commercial/civil satellite constellations.

The programme will facilitate collaboration among partners to ensure the terminal being designed is reconfigurable to provide interoperability among the participating constellation providers.

There are three technical areas in the programme. Darpa selected Intel for Technical Area 2 (TA2) along with II-VI Aerospace & Defense and Arizona State University to design a reconfigurable optical modem that will support both current and new communication standards and protocols to enable interoperability among satellite constellations.

Technical Area 1 (TA1) focuses on the development of an optical aperture or head, which is responsible for pointing acquisition and tracking, as well as the optical transmit and receive functions. Darpa has selected CACI, Mbryonics and Mynaric for this.

TA1 will interface to TA2 using single-mode optical fibre.

In Technical Area 3 (TA3), Darpa selected constellation providers Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat and Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Government Solutions to identify 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.

Intel is developing its optical modem by bringing together experts from its FPGA product group, packaging technologists from its assembly test technology development division and researchers from Intel Labs.

Based on its low-power Agilex FPGA, Intel will also design three chiplets that will be integrated using its embedded multi-die interconnect bridge and advanced interface bus packaging technologies into a single multi-chip package that includes:

  • A DSP/FEC chiplet on Intel 3, a digital node that enables low-power, high-speed digital signal processing.
  • A data converter, TIA and driver chiplet on Intel 16, which provides FinFET RF signal processing for integration of high-speed data converters, TIAs and drivers.
  • A PIC chiplet based on Tower Semiconductor photonic technologies that offers low-loss waveguides and options, such as V-groove, enabling automated high-volume fibre coupling integration and assembly.

Intel has commenced phase one of the programme where it will design each of the above chiplets and work with the other performers to define the interfaces between the system components in each of the other technical areas. Phase one will last 14 months and conclude with a preliminary design review.

At the completion of phase one, selected performers in the first two technical areas will participate in an 18-month phase two to develop engineering design units of the optical terminal components, while performers in the third technical area will continue to evolve the schema to function in more challenging and dynamic scenarios.