Satellites drive steady stream of new business

Air Force expands Wideband Global Satellite-Communications program to meet growing demand for additional bandwidth

The most talked-about technology in recent weeks is not new technologically speaking, its name doesn't begin with a lowercase “i,” and relatively few people have actually seen it.

But all things satellite could hardly be hotter — for predicting the weather, surfing the Web, running defense and intelligence applications, furthering scientific research, and providing data for making life-or-death decisions. Here are some of the recent developments.

  • NASA announced four winners under its $15 billion NASA Launch Services II. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Orbital Sciences Corp., Space Exploration Technologies and United Launch Services LLC will provide launch services for the agency’s planetary, Earth-observing, exploration and scientific satellites.
  • On behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA also awarded a $98.6 million sole-source contract to ITT Corp. for the company's Cross-track Infrared Sounder to be standard issue aboard National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System satellites. The high-spectral resolution infrared instrument will measure atmospheric temperatures, water vapor and trace gases.
  • Satellite transponded capacity provider Artel Inc. made news when it became the first winner on the $5 billion Future Commercial Satellite Services Acquisition. The vehicle, a joint venture by the General Services Administration and Defense Information Services Agency, will take over from the expiring Defense Information System Network Satellite Transmission Service-Global and Inmarsat from the Defense Department, as well as GSA’s SatCom II.
  • Award winners under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included local satellite providers Echostar XI Operating LLC ($14 million), Spacenet Inc. ($8 million) and Wildblue Communications Inc. ($20 million). Hughes Network Systems LLC, the only nationwide provider selected, took the lion’s share ($59 million) to offer satellite broadband service to rural residential and commercial subscribers.
  • The Army exercised a $4.3 million option on a contract, now worth a total $22.8 million, with Globecomm Systems Inc. to let the company continue supplying the Joint IP Modem for satellite communications.

Battle-Ready Birds

When U.S. warfighters are on missions in hostile territory, the right information at the right time can mean the difference between success and failure. Delivering that information is the mission of the Wideband Global Satellite-Communications systems. The Air Force awarded awarded Boeing Co. a $182 million contract to expand and support WGS.

The initial WGS award, to Boeing in 2001, was for Block I: three satellites, that now operate over the Atlantic, Middle East and Pacific. The WGS design supports both X-band and Ka-band communications over 19 independent coverage areas.

“This feature lies at the heart of the advantage WGS offers,” said Mark Spiwak, WGS program director at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in Seal Beach, Calif. “Boeing’s X-band phased array antennas let you electronically shape individual uplink or downlink beams to change the coverage, whereas on most satellites, that is fixed,” he said. And Ka-band gimbaled reflector antennas can be pointed anywhere in the satellite’s field of view and moved as needed.

An on board digital channelizer adds flexibility, dividing uplink bandwidth into nearly 1,900 independently routable subchannels. “Think of it as a switchboard,” Spiwak explained. The source, whether X-band or Ka-band, of the communications doesn’t matter; the two communicate seamlessly.

“You can use it to respond to changing circumstances, so you can use X-band or Ka-band, whichever you need, wherever you need it,” Spiwak said. More importantly, he added, “it means you can get that situational awareness to warfighters no matter where they are.”

Under Block II, ordered in 2007, Boeing is building another three WGS satellites, set to launch in fiscal 2012 and 2013.

Block II satellites include a radio frequency bypass to support high data rate airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. “The channelizer is letting Ka-band and X-band users talk to each other, while ensuring that the unmanned aerial vehicle communications are not limited in bandwidth,” Spiwak said. “So you can be streaming real-time, full-motion video to warfighters in the field and simultaneously be supporting communications for UAVs or airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The WGS satellites are the first and only satellites on orbit to do that with multiple frequencies.”

The latest contract, a follow-on to Block II, is for three scheduled satellites and as many as three additional functional clones; “we’re still negotiating the details,” Spiwak said.

His team also is still grappling with other problems, including one familiar to anyone who’s ever had an old car: the difficulty of replacing obsolete parts. The length of time between the design/build phase and the launch, exacerbated by the length of time a satellite or any other similarly complex piece of equipment is in operation, contributes to the problem, Spiwak said.

Replacing obsolete parts is expensive and time-consuming. “We’re working closely with the government to make sure the satellite options are ordered on one-year centers,” Spiwak said, “so that we really eliminate some of the parts and units obsolescence issues from occurring.”

The Air Force is funding independent research on new ways to deal with obsolete parts. Advanced Science and Novel Technology, based in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., is researching rapid radiation-hardened prototyping of obsolescent military satellite microelectronics, funded in March by an Air Force award. Replacement parts must not only be “pin to pin and functionally compatible with the obsolete components,” said researcher Vladimir Bratov, but also meet other stringent requirements, such as “supporting data rates up to 1 gigabit/sec within the temperature range of -40 degrees Celsius to +125 degrees Celsius.”

Another possible challenge for Boeing is less technological than logistical. The cancellation of the Defense Department's  Transformational Communications Satellite program will likely cause a bulge in other satcom contracts.

“From a TSAT technology standpoint, I think we’re in a good place for this,” Spiwak said. The company is doing studies with the Air Force to determine which missions and capabilities are most cost-effective on WGS satellites, which are based on Boeing’s 702HP satellites.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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