Intel Joins DARPA’s Program to Build LEO Satellite Network

October 13, 2022 by Aaron Carman

DARPA has tapped Intel to develop a low-cost link between current and future satellite constellations—effectively creating a "universal translator."

Last year, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a new project to develop a Space-based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN). The goal of Space-BACN (pronounced "space bacon") is to create adaptable optical communication systems that will facilitate future networks in low-earth orbit (LEO). 

Kicking off Phase 1 of this project, DARPA has selected Intel to design a reconfigurable optical modem to link existing and future satellite constellations. The Space-BACN project aims to establish communication between existing and future systems, representing the first step toward an “internet” of LEO satellites. 



Space-BACN doesn't require nodes in the mesh to use the same communication protocol, making Space-BACN advantageous for legacy systems. Image used courtesy of Intel


In this article, we'll examine the Space-BACN project in more detail and discuss how Intel’s expected contributions mesh with the contributions of other members.


Linking the Constellations with Space-BACN

Eyeing the possibility of tens of thousands of satellites in LEO, Space-BACN program manager Dr. Greg Kuperman is leading the effort to provide a link between existing constellation communication protocols. Currently, satellites are designed to interface only with other members of a given constellation. This creates a major missed opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation between commercial and military/government satellites. 

The Space-BACN project is divided into three technical areas (TAs). TA1 is tasked with designing the optical aperture and consists of CACI Inc., MBRYONICS, and Mynaric. TA2 is responsible for designing an optical modem that supports current communication protocols. In addition, the modem should be reconfigurable to include new communication standards. TA2 consists of II-VI Aerospace, Arizona State University, and Intel. TA3, made up of SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat, and Kuiper Government Solutions, is responsible for identifying critical elements required for inter-constellation communications and developing the communication schema.


The Space-BACN system

The Space-BACN system acts as a link between constellations through which data may be exchanged. Screenshot used courtesy of DARPA


There are currently two phases planned for the Space-BACN project. Phase 1 will last 14 months, after which a preliminary design review will be conducted and the interface between TA1 and 2 will be rigorously defined. Following the results of Phase 1, an 18-month-long Phase 2 will consist of selected members from TA1 and TA2 realizing engineering design units. Meanwhile, members of TA3 will continue to modify the communication schema to ensure operation in less-than-ideal situations.


Intel’s Role in the Space-BACN Ecosystem

To get a strong start on optical modem development, Intel is creating a team of experts from its FPGA product group, packaging technologists, and internal researchers. Intel’s proposed solution relies on the Agilex FPGA to deliver three new chiplets that will be integrated into a single package. This subproject will accomplish Space-BACN's “100 Cubed” objectives: supporting 100 Gbps, requiring less than 100 W, and costing less than $100K in a final design.


Intel Agilex FPGA block diagram

Intel Agilex FPGA block diagram used to develop the Space-BACN TA2 chiplets. The 116 Gbps transceiver will play a crucial role in meeting the 100 Cubed objectives. Image used courtesy of Intel


The first chiplet handles the digital signal processing and forward error correction (DSP/FEC). The DSP/FEC chiplet uses the Intel 3 node to accomplish high-performance digital signal processing while using minimal power. For analog circuits such as data converters or trans-impedance amplifiers (TIAs), Intel will develop a second chiplet using the Intel 16 node. Finally, Intel will design a PIC chiplet based on Tower Semiconductor's photonics technologies to accommodate the photonic circuits.

All three chiplets will be integrated into a single package using Intel’s multi-die interconnect bridge and multi-chip package technology.


Broadening Access to Information

If the developments in the next 32 months yield the desired results, Space-BACN may offer a low-cost method of linking together previously unrelated satellite networks. In addition, DARPA's project can ultimately provide a framework for reconfigurable optical communication for future satellites, adding another layer of versatility for future constellations.

The ability to communicate across satellite networks would improve the military's access to information and standardize communication among municipal, domestic, or private organizations. By breaking down the barriers between constellations and increasing access to shared information, Space-BACN would be the first step toward a cohesive internet beyond the confines of the earth.