CACI International, a defense contractor based in Reston, Virginia, has announced that its optical communication terminal has successfully completed initial ground tests, bringing it closer to meeting the technical requirements set by the Space Development Agency (SDA) for its military satellite constellation in low Earth orbit.
The SDA, an agency under the U.S. Space Force, plans to deploy a network of satellites that includes a Transport Layer of interconnected communications satellites and a Tracking Layer of missile-detection sensor satellites. Each satellite in the constellation will have multiple optical communications terminals to enable communication with other satellites, airplanes, ships, and ground stations.
CACI is one of several companies competing for SDA contracts, along with Mynaric, Tesat, and Skyloom. All optical terminals on SDA satellites must adhere to a common standard to ensure data transmission across the entire network.
In the recent test, CACI’s terminal established a data communication link with a reference modem provided by the Naval Research Laboratory for the SDA program. CACI conducted the test as a supplier of Lockheed Martin, which was chosen to build 42 Tranche 1 Transport Layer satellites for SDA’s launch in late 2024.
To be included on the Tranche 1 satellites, CACI’s optical terminal will need to undergo a more challenging interoperability test to demonstrate its ability to exchange data with terminals from other vendors. None of SDA’s current suppliers have yet passed this test.
CACI has previously demonstrated the capabilities of its terminals, with two of its terminals successfully exchanging data in orbit during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Mandrake experiment. CACI terminals were also used on four Blackjack satellites launched by DARPA to low Earth orbit.
According to Todd Probert, president of national security and innovative solutions at CACI, the company is increasing terminal production at a new facility in Orlando, Florida.
The SDA has invested in an optical communications testing facility at the Naval Research Laboratory to ensure interoperability of laser terminals before they are launched into orbit. This is crucial for SDA’s goal of creating a diverse pool of suppliers rather than relying on a single company.
Challenges for the SDA include ensuring that vendors understand and correctly implement optical communications standards. Validation conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory on the ground is helpful, but the true test will be when terminals on high-speed satellites in space attempt to communicate.