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Space Vehicles XVI programme a ‘small part to a larger solution’

5th September 2019 - 12:00 GMT | by The Shephard News Team in London

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The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is investigating the use of low Earth orbit satellites to extend the range of the Link 16 tactical datalink, with a critical design review scheduled for October.

The Space Vehicles XVI programme is currently at the proof of concept stage, which involves integrating a payload within a commercial satellite for a low-cost technology demonstration.

'XVI is a commercially-provided cube sat that we'll be hosting Link 16 from space,' 2nd Lt Shawn Hamel, the mission manager for the XVI programme, told Shephard.

'And what we are looking to do is show how a commercially-provided bus can be integrated with the Department of Defense payload for a low cost technology demonstration. And specifically we're looking to demonstrate the use of Link 16 from low earth orbit.'

Hamel said that one of the main goals of the project was ‘to show that there are no changes needed to the terrestrial terminals’, and that the AFRL was looking to ‘see what the uses are for Link 16 from space’. 

With Link 16 migrating towards infantry use, technologies that overcome Link 16’s limitation of needing line of sight to communicate are proving attractive to the US and its allies.

The programme is currently aiming to test at low Earth orbit, as this is where radiation levels from the sun are lowest. This will help to prevent damage to some of the technology within the payload.

With the Pentagon looking at technologies that enable multi-domain operations, the Space Vehicles XVI programme is a ‘small part to a larger solution’.

However Hamel noted: ‘I really wouldn’t be able to speak to what that larger solution is. That’s a matter of our operational users and how they want to interpret the technology that we explore.’

Having awarded a 22 month contract to Viasat in February, AFRL carried out the preliminary design review in July, with critical design review coming up in October. After this AFRL will start testing on integration of the payload, before finally moving on to working on the spacecraft themselves.

In a press release in May, Viasat announced that the company's Link 16-capable LEO satellite was designed to fit the Viasat Hybrid Adaptive Network (HAN) satellite communications (SATCOM) concept.

'The HAN architecture will allow users to operate across commercial and government SATCOM networks and multiple orbital regimes, creating an end-to-end multi-layered solution resilient to network congestion, intentional and unintentional interference and cyber threats – even in highly-contested environments,' the company said.

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