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Will Telesat Lightspeed prove the capability for optical in missioncritical comms?

Will Telesat Lightspeed prove the capability for optical in missioncritical comms?

Optical inter-satellite links have been discussed optimistically across the NewSpace market for a few years now as one of those emergent makeor-break possibilities that haven’t quite charmed the breadth of the industry but promise enviable results on paper. As one of the few players invested in the rewards of taking the risk on new technology, Telesat and its Lightspeed project has certainly been one to watch. J.J. Shaw, Vice President of Information, Security and Operations for Telesat Government Solutions spoke to us at MilSatCom 2022 to discuss the system’s capability.

Laurence Russell, Associate Editor, Satellite Evolution Group

Question: For those uninformed, could you summarize Telesat Lightspeed for us?

JJ Shaw: Telesat Lightspeed is a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation that’s designed for the commercial aspirations of enterprise with the security standards fit for a government user.

It was designed as a mesh network with on-orbit processing capability which allows it to dynamically and flexibly route traffic to endpoints. Each platform possesses four optical heads which establish laser inter-satellite links. This allows users to skirt potential congestion at a landing station by transmitting the information they’re looking for to an adjacent satellite and fast-tracking it down from a connection that’s being constrained, which makes for a more agile solution for mission-critical requirements where you need plans B through Z.

J.J. Shaw, Vice President of Information, Security and Operations, Telesat Government

J.J. Shaw, Vice President of Information, Security and Operations, Telesat Government

Question: What are the use cases that you see in the polar regions? How will those demands develop?

JJ Shaw:Geostationary (GEO) coverage today only reaches a certain latitude –at best about 70 degrees north and 70 degrees south. At an inclined GEO orbit you can reach a little higher, sometimes even getting to the poles, however, you can usually only reach mid-80 degrees latitude to the poles.

With LEO polar orbit, we can serve that region all the way up to the poles as a matter of course. We can support Canada’s northern communities, which are beyond the range of conventional satellite service. This also serves government users via Arctic and Antarctic coastguard missions and patrols, along with supporting NORAD and the US and Canadian North Warning System (NWS). In addition to creating faster awareness from their more remote nodes, the LEO polar orbit can support the US National Science Foundation, The Department of Energy, and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in their scientific goals. Of course, this also serves maritime across polar shipping routes and aeronautical connections for polar flights, supporting safe operations and broadband connectivity for passengers.

Through the inter-satellite space relay capability, we can also support other nearby satellites, such as those providing sensory data for intelligence or climate monitoring applications which gather information over remote areas and can benefit from getting that data back to their respective processing centers as fast as possible.

Question: Certain true believers swear by optical as the future of satellite connectivity. Why has it not become a mainstream standard? What unique capability does it afford?

JJ Shaw: Optical inter-satellite links are currently systems still being tested in laboratory settings under many DoD programs. For example, in our contract for DARPA’s Blackjack Croupier satellites, we’re working with companies like Mynaric, Tesat, and SA Photonics, who are currently at about technology readiness level (TRL) six, which we want to advance to level nine – the operational environment. The US Government is currently invested in studying the interoperability of these technologies, seeing how Mynaric tech is processed by SA Photonics, and how Tesat systems are handled by Mynaric architecture and so on.

As we deploy nearly 800 Optical Inter-Satellite Link (OISL) terminals in the Telesat Lightspeed network, we’re helping advance and mainstream the technology alongside SpaceX and other tech giants. The bleeding-edge operations we’re financing today could become a very common technology for the DoD in the future.

Telesat Lightspeed Constellation.

Telesat Lightspeed Constellation.

Photo courtesy Telesat

Question: You were keen to assure us of the cybersecurity in the Telesat Lightspeed project from the ground up. To that end, was on-board processing performed in light of the DoD’s JADC2 strategy, which suggested a need to disaggregate and decentralize information centers and processing functions?

JJ Shaw: With onboard processing, you’re not dependent on gateway hops - bringing information down to a teleport or DoD gateway site or such, which means that if there’s a problem with the gateway, such as denied services, you can bypass that compromised architecture by instead going terminal-to-terminal through the space mesh network. That’s another layer of vital robustness.

What we’re trying to do is create pathways that aren’t conventionally messy attack vectors. Hostile agents are looking at fiber rings, switching centers, and undersea cables first because it’s where they can affect the most traffic through disruption. By having another option in orbit that isn’t conventionally understood, you have an ace up your sleeve that most actors won’t be aware of, let alone prepared for.

Question: Could you discuss your involvement in the DoD’s Blackjack program? Do you anticipate it may be transferrable to the ambitions of allied government projects?

JJ Shaw: Telesat Government Solutions was awarded a contract to develop concepts and demonstrate capability in orbit, and, as a result of that, we’re now working with Airbus to put government payloads on board with optical technologies to transmit between satellites and back to the ground. That’s a proof of concept to show what we can do so they can be incorporated for the Space Development Agency and other government users and allied nations.

Telesat will be offering its Telesat Lightspeed satellite bus for government-hosted payloads. We call that a hosted satellite capability. We expect this will be able to help allied nations put sensors in space that can aid situational awareness, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), or whatever suits their needs while making use of our transport layer to get data to its final destination.

Question: What’s the future of Telesat Lightspeed?

JJ Shaw: Looking further ahead, we don’t want to just support enterprise and government, we also want to enable those users to bring applications that require low latency.

Over the last 30 years, we’ve gone from big C-band transponders and broadcast down to Ku-band for regional and even tighter beams like those under Inmarsat Global Express or the ViaSat capability. But now low latency along with greater throughput down to individual users is needed to support cloud applications, 5G, and in the future 6G. We’re aiming to achieve that through the agility of our partners, acting as the hub-spoke, as we collect and transmit data on top of their infrastructure.

We will scale the Telesat Lightspeed network from 198 satellites to 298, then 518, and then 1,672. The timelines for each jump depend on the trigger points in the market, whether it’s commercial or government. We’ll be making deliberate, intentional steps in line with the supply and demand we see, building out bigger and bigger capabilities without overreaching in such an emergent space.