The Space Development Agency (SDA) has awarded a $14.2 million contract to General Atomics for the production of two optical communications terminals. These terminals will be hosted on two small satellites, and the contract is for an in-space demonstration of satellite-to-satellite laser communications under adverse conditions that can degrade the communication link.
General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, based in San Diego, will deliver the integrated spacecraft by December 2024, according to a Department of Defense (DoD) contract announcement. The company has designed these new terminals, called Manhattan, to provide communications in degraded environments and establish and maintain a link that meets the SDA standards.
Satellite-based laser communication is a method of transmitting data using laser beams instead of radio waves. Despite operating above the atmosphere, satellites can still face environmental challenges such as radiation and orbital debris. The SDA, as part of the U.S. Space Force, plans to deploy a mesh network of interconnected satellites equipped with multiple laser communications terminals for data transfer in space.
General Atomics is one of several suppliers of optical terminals competing for SDA contracts. All optical terminals installed on SDA satellites must comply with the agency’s technical specifications and standards.
For the demonstration, General Atomics will be hosting the terminals on two 75-kilogram satellite buses known as half-ESPA GA-75. The ESPA bus is a ring-shaped satellite carrier used to deploy small spacecraft from large rockets. General Atomics states that two GA-75s with an adapter occupy a single ESPA port.
This contract for the laser communications demonstration was awarded through the SDA’s Systems, Technologies, and Emerging Capabilities Broad Agency Announcement. In a previous SDA contract in 2021, General Atomics launched a two-cubesat experiment to demonstrate optical communications in space. However, the experiment failed when the satellites were unable to reach their intended orbit.