General Atomics to Send Satellites in Space to Communicate With an MQ-9 Drone

On June 2nd, defense contractor General Atomics announced that it will send two satellites built for the Space Development Agency into low Earth orbit to demonstrate in and from space optical communication using an MQ-9 Reaper drone.
General Atomics plans to send two cubesats equipped with optical communication terminals to "talk" from low Earth orbit to an MQ-9 Reaper drone 1 photo
Photo: General Atomics
Before starting to work with the Space Development Agency last year, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) conducted various free-space demonstrations of its optical communication at various stages of development since 2017. Now, four years later, on June 1st, GA-EMS stated that it has completed ground testing of two 12U cubesats with optical communication terminals.

For its next experiment, GA-EMS will send the two cubesats into low Earth orbit. The satellites will host a C-band dual-wavelength and an infrared payload to ”talk” with an MQ-9 unmanned aircraft that will also be equipped with an optical communication terminal. To achieve communication, the drone will climb up to an altitude of approximately 25,000 ft (7,620 meters).

According to Scott Forney, president of GA-EMS, this space-to-air operation is one of the first steps toward establishing the use of optical communication to send low-latency, secure data directly to weapons and warfighters.

But providing information from the orbit is not an easy task. The space environment is different from the air, ground, or sea. Nick Bucci, vice president of Missile Defense and Space Systems at GA-EMS, explains that weather, clouds, dust, and even wind could distort the optical beam.

“GA-EMS has invested significantly in enabling technologies, including adaptive optics that compensate for such distortions, to allow our optical communication terminals to provide two-way, low latency, high-bandwidth, secure communication to warfighters in whatever domain they operate.”

This recent exercise is related to a series of experiments in which GA-EMS and the Space Development Agency will collaborate to demonstrate space-based optical communication beginning later this summer.

The demonstrations could also help pave the way for the Space Development Agency’s Transport Layer – a constellation of around 500 satellites that will orbit the Earth and will provide military data and communications connectivity worldwide.
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About the author: Florina Spînu
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Florina taught herself how to drive in a Daewoo Tico (a rebadged Suzuki Alto kei car) but her first "real car" was a VW Golf. When she’s not writing about cars, drones or aircraft, Florina likes to read anything related to space exploration and take pictures in the middle of nature.
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