DARPA wants Space-BACN so satellite communication sizzles

The program is pronounced "space bacon" and is focused on building resiliency in case satellites ever get fried.
a rocket launching at night

A Falcon 9 Starlink rocket launch. Joshua Conti

In the space between satellites, DARPA wants there to be a shared language. The Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) is a program designed to place satellites that can talk to other satellites in orbit, overcoming existing design barriers and adapting to the future. It’s the promise of robust infrastructure in space, capable of routing signals around damaged satellites.

And yes, the name is pronounced “Space-bacon.”

Like an outlet adapter for international travelers, Space-BACN is a sort of infrastructural add-on that can allow familiar devices to work with unfamiliar systems. It’s a way to take the existing standards of communication already in space and then smooth them over.

“The goal of the Space-BACN program is to create a low-cost reconfigurable intersatellite optical communications terminal that can communicate using multiple protocols and connect constellations that otherwise would not be able to communicate,” is how a DARPA document on Space-BACN describes it in a contract posted November 2, 2021. “In simpler terms, the goal of this program is to eliminate stovepipes and ‘connect space,’ which will in turn enable the joint all-domain fight.”

“Joint all-domain fight” is Pentagon-speak for across all branches, and in land, air, space, and anywhere else the military might fight. Getting there means first breaking communications free of stovepiping. 

Stove-piping is how the military describes it when communications are stuck in one channel, usually only going from the sensor to a commander and then out again. While this can be an efficient way to maintain chain of command, and keep communications secure, it also makes it hard for information to be shared as soon as it is collected. Most especially, ending “stovepipes” is a way to move data from internal structures and have it travel more freely.

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With stovepiping in effect, a soldier could see something in the field, but would then have to send it up to an Army commander, who would then have to relay it to a Navy commander, before it could be shared with the sailors nearby who need the information. Without stovepiping, the soldiers could share it more widely, giving it to pilots or sailors as needed.

In the case of satellite communications, the stovepipes are not just military, but also can describe how satellite constellations of one company cannot directly communicate to satellites made by another company. Here, the hurdle is as much technical as it is bureaucratic. Without a shared protocol to communicate between proprietary systems, satellites are mutually unintelligible formations. 

To explain the harm this can cause for people on the ground, in a September 2021 video, Greg Kuperman, the Space-BACN program manager, set up an example of two search and rescue parties, using devices that connect to different networks.

“[With] the search and rescue example, imagery collected on one satellite system will not be immediately available to responders that are using a different one for communications,” said Kuperman. “If two teams of rescuers are using communications from two different satellite constellations then they’ll have limited ability to communicate.”

Put Space-BACN nodes on one or more satellites in between, and suddenly the constellations can communicate with each other, and people on the ground.

Or at least, that’s the promise. Space-BACN being a DARPA project means there’s a host of ambitious goals to achieve first before the project is ready to field in space. Chief among these hurdles is getting the cost of the platform down to about $100,000 for each node, or terminal, that can be incorporated into a satellite. A main telescope sensor will take in optical signals, reading and interpreting a range of existing standards. Converting and sharing the relayed information will come from a new modem, flexible enough to interpret many standards of data and powerful enough to transmit useful volumes to earth below.

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While Kuperman used that search-and-rescue analogy to explain the utility of this type of translation system, another clear purpose for connecting satellites is military resilience in the face of the loss of some satellites in orbit. Commercial satellite constellations could be commandeered and brought into use by the military to share and transmit data, so long as there’s a military node that can talk to them. Space-BACN would make that kind of orbital deputization possible, and it would give the military the ability to maintain communication through compatible nodes.

In December, 14 companies were awarded contracts to design concepts for Space-BACN. Seven companies were selected to design the telescope that will send and receive data, and seven companies were selected to build the modem that will convert and send signals at up to 100 gigabytes per second.

If successful, Space-BACN will prove to be an after-launch solution for currently fragmented and proprietary networks in orbit. It will allow those satellites to communicate across companies and designs and models, with the promise of reconfigurability ideally ensuring that BACN nodes are somewhat future-proof. In the event of tragedy in orbit or down below, routing existing communication through military-commissioned intermediaries could mean the difference between satellites remaining silent in orbit and vital information saving people’s bacon on the ground.

Correction January 6, 2022: This article has been updated to fix the spelling of Greg Kuperman’s name.