How Intel will contribute to the development of the future internet of space

After laying the groundwork for the terrestrial Internet, the US agency Darpa is looking to interconnect future megaconstellations of communications satellites. And it is Intel that will develop the modem that will process the data that the satellites will exchange using laser links.

Already at the origin of our terrestrial Internet, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) wants to develop a new, space-based Internet for… future constellations of satellites. Called the Space-Based Adaptive Communication Node or Space-BACN, this laser-based network infrastructure requires a next-generation super-optical modem. And this agency, which depends on the US Department of Defense, entrusted Intel with the first phase of its design.

The Space-Based Adaptive Communication Node (Space-BACN) is a DARPA project to develop a reconfigurable optical space communication system. Credit: DARPA

The optical nature of this future network Mesh, which will allow satellites to exchange data (almost) at the speed of light, requires new developments. And with two specific constraints: these new components must be low-cost (low price) and reprogrammable.

Read also: Why NASA and ESA are betting on RISC V for their future space chips (September 2022)

Undefined low price, it seems clear that Darpa here is referring to chips that are not as complex, expensive and hardened as classic space chips. The new space invasion is increasingly using “terrestrial” chips, both for cost and performance reasons. And since the constellation’s satellites are in low LEO (Low Earth Orbit), their electronics don’t have the same electromagnetic shielding needs as those sent to Mars.

Specialized in networking, Intel Agilex FPGA chips can be configured from the technology brick.
Specialized in networking, Intel Agilex FPGA chips can be configured from the technology brick.

On the programmable side, the chip that Intel will ship is not a Core i7 like in your PC, but an Agilex chip. An FGPA, that is, a type of processor that can be programmed and reprogrammed as technology evolves. An important arrangement in space, where any operation on hundreds, even thousands of satellites is simply impossible. Specializing in communications and networking, Agilex chips can be configured from tech bricks – in short, a kind of super-high-tech Lego.

Intel was tasked with doing what the company is good at: designing and manufacturing chips, classics… and photonics. If the elements of this chip have technologies that sound familiar to our ears – a chip based on the Intel 3 “chip” (3 nm) and FinFET 16 nm assembled with EMIB technology – the optical-photonic elements are perhaps less familiar to the general public. Intel is indeed a major player in optical and photonic technologies – the Thunderbolt standard conceived originally to work with optical fibers (its previous codename was Lightpeak) ! Actively developing photonic processors, the American firm has accelerated in this field the purchase of the Israeli Towerwhose technologies will be integrated into photonic information processing.

At the moment, Intel’s chips will not go into space yet: the Darpa program is in the technical assessment (TA) phase. A phase divided into three segments TA1, TA2 and TA3. Intel is responsible for the modem (TA2), in collaboration with II-VI Aerospace and the University of Arizona. TA1 is about the optical “head” which will be directed towards adjacent satellites and is entrusted to CACI Inc., MBRYONICS and Mynaric. The TA3 part, which deals with the command and control elements needed to ensure inter-constellation data links, is logically entrusted in part to the current players in the field: SpaceX obviously, but also competition from Amazon, Kuiper Government Solutions , too. as traditional players such as Telesat, SpaceLink and Viasat.

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