Magazine article National Defense

Multibillion-Dollar 'Internet in the Sky' Could Help Ease Bandwidth Crunch

Magazine article National Defense

Multibillion-Dollar 'Internet in the Sky' Could Help Ease Bandwidth Crunch

Article excerpt

The Pentagon's bold plan to deploy a constellation of satellites that beam data via lasers is showing signs of progress, but delays and funding cuts also are in the cards, contend industry and military experts.

Dubbed the "Transformational Satellite Communications" system, TSAT is regarded by Defense Department leaders and program advocates as a technological panacea that could help resolve the spectrum crunch by making the military services less dependent on radio communications links.

The Air Force, which oversees the TSAT program, requested $836 million this year to continue research and development work on the laser technology, the satellites and the ground-based network that would process the information.

As envisioned, TSAT would include five geostationary spacecraft-tied together by laser communications-that would function as "routers in the sky." The first satellite is scheduled to be launched in 2013.

The Defense Department regards TSAT as the means to provide military forces virtually unlimited capacity to send and receive massive amounts of data, explained Trip Carter, manager of advanced communications programs at the Raytheon Company. "TSAT is intended to take the 'global information grid' worldwide," he said.

Although laser communications systems do not exist today in the Defense Department, program officials are optimistic that the technology will mature over time. NASA already is showing the promise of laser links under the Mars Laser Communication Demonstration that is currently under way.

"We've done some experiments that give us some confidence that we can do this," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Brian Arnold, who recently retired as commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, in Los Angeles.

He described TSAT as "laser communications in space that work like the Internet [and] ... will empower all users and reduce communications bottlenecks."

Arnold declined to provide cost figures for the program, but agreed that, of all the communications satellite systems now in development, TSAT will be the most expensive. Pentagon budget documents show estimates of $19 billion for six satellites.

Carter, whose company is one of three contractors working on TSAT ground equipment, said he is not worried about the technology failing to perform as advertised. "We'll deploy the [ground] network early on, in advance of the spacecraft" to iron out any problems before the satellites are launched, he said.

"Another problem TSAT is trying to solve is interoperability ... The military services want seamless connections between systems," Carter said. …

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