US military aircraft will be equipped with laser communications

US military aircraft will be equipped with laser communications
US military aircraft will be equipped with laser communications
1 February, 18:51Technology
Space Micro, a small San Diego-based company, received a very significant contract from the AFWERX program, which promotes innovative projects in the interests of the US Air Force, to develop an air-to-space laser communication module for aircraft

Alexander Sychev

We are talking about the introduction of a new type of communication into military aviation, which will allow real-time integration of reconnaissance, destruction and control of troops and weapons into a single system. In this case, we are still talking about Air Force aircraft, which can also act as high-altitude repeaters.

Modern radio communication, as you know, can no longer be considered reliable. Electronic warfare equipment can easily interrupt data transmission and even disable important elements of a military communications network. The US military sees a solution to the problem of vulnerability in laser technologies combined with satellites.

Space Micro will design a laser capsule that can easily fit under the wing of various manned and unmanned aircraft and transmit up to 10 gigabits of data per second.

The format of the suspended capsule was not chosen by chance. The US Air Force plans to install this system on all existing aircraft and even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Therefore, the company's engineers will have to develop a universal capsule, which, firstly, should not be obscured by the structural elements of the aircraft hulls, and secondly, it should not worsen the stealth parameters, in particular, of the F-35 fighter.

At the same time, in addition to the equipment for converting and modulating signals, it is necessary to place a sufficiently powerful laser capable of finishing off satellites in orbit. Of course, modern laser technologies have made it possible to significantly miniaturize devices, but still fighters, and even more so drones, retain certain limitations in terms of size, weight and aerodynamics.

In addition to structural difficulties, developers face many tasks of a purely scientific nature. Thus, the movement of the aircraft and the turbulence that occurs under the influence of aerodynamic forces interfere with the laser beam. The resulting jitter affects the integrity and continuity of the optical connection. The atmosphere of the Earth also does not contribute to the simplification of tasks due to interference arising from the ionization of air by a laser beam.

It is supposed to overcome these difficulties with the help of adaptive optics. It first appeared in the 80s and was created to track Soviet satellites. The main elements of tracking devices then became special adaptive mirrors and software that took into account the parameters of atmospheric interference.

Space Micro already has its own Deformo system, built using Johns Hopkins University's "dual adaptive mirror" technology for NASA. This technology, according to American scientists, effectively eliminates the emerging uncertainties in the physics of the earth's atmosphere when applied to high-speed optical communications.

The idea of using lasers as a secure optical communication channel in space is not new. In the early 1990s, Lockheed Martin was researching laser data transmission. In 2001, the first laser link was made between two European satellites. In 2020, General Atomics demonstrated its Airborne Laser Communications System (ALCoS). It was developed for UAVs such as the MQ-9 Reaper. Tests showed that the laser made it possible to increase the throughput, in comparison with radio-frequency satellite communication channels, by 300 times.

The successes achieved have so encouraged the US Department of Defense that the Pentagon Space Development Agency has already been ordered to deploy a constellation of 150 laser communications satellites by 2024.

The optical method of data transmission, unlike the radio, indeed, has many advantages. The laser is almost impossible to jam or intercept. To effectively interrupt communication, you need to install a barrier between the aircraft and the satellite, but this is impossible. In the case of land and sea forces, dense clouds can prevent the establishment of stable laser communications, but in this case aviation can play the role of a high-altitude repeater. By the way, Space Micro has been dealing with the problem of converting radio-frequency signals into optical signals and vice versa for a year, and has some developments.

Another advantage of laser communication channels is their immunity to electromagnetic interference and impulses. In addition, the enemy cannot intercept messages in any way in order to try to be aware of other people's affairs.

The only thing that can harm the enemy is to shoot down a satellite or several. But this harm is supposed to be stopped by the creation of a dense network of satellites, military and commercial, which will take over the functions of the lost link. By the way, Elon Musk's Starlink satellites are already using laser channels to communicate with each other in space, and his company SpaceX is actively cooperating with the US Air Force.

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