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Satellite terminal advancements enabling a revolution in space

In our last article on the Government Satellite Report, we sat down with Jason Stephens of GetSat and Mike Blefko of SES Government Solutions (SES GS) to talk about the advanced communication requirements of today’s military, and how a new generation satellite solution and satellite terminal are combining to enable the military’s communication dream – true comms on the move.

Ultimately, Mike and Jason explained how satellites at lower orbits – including LEO and MEO – and a new generation of smaller, more mobile, less power-hungry terminals were combining to make previously unheard-of throughputs and capability available to warfighters, regardless of their location or the availability of terrestrial networks.

In part two of our two-part conversation with Jason and Mike, we explored these new satellite advancements much more closely. During our discussion, we looked at the unique terminal requirements that result from putting satellites in orbit closer to Earth, expanded upon the new antenna technologies that can help reduce downtime and make satellites more dependable and talked about the new O3b mPOWER satellite service being launched by SES, which has the potential to revolutionize military communications across domains.

GSR: In March of last year, GetSat announced that the MICRO SAT and Milli SAT solutions were compatible with the SES O3b MEO satellite service. What makes a MEO satellite constellation desirable for military users? What kinds of capabilities and use cases would benefit from a lower latency solution like O3b?

Mike Blefko: Low-latency connectivity—150 ms roundtrip—enables what you do on your networks – like file transfer, webpage downloading, or video transmission. And it also very nicely enables a realistic and real-time telephone call.

“I remember the many times I was forward deployed trying to have a Zoom or Skype call with family during Christmas, Thanksgiving, or a birthday. The calls were very choppy and I could not make anyone out.” – Jason Stephens

When you talk over GEO at 500 ms, it can sound very much like talking on a walkie-talkie. But 150 ms roundtrip is like talking on a cell phone. You don’t notice that low-latency delay. The transfer of files, and the acknowledgment and re-acknowledgment that occurs over a low-latency link, bogs down files as well as webpages overtop of a GEO network with that high latency.

When you have that low latency, you can load webpages, browse, and provide a morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) network to the forward-deployed troops. You can do that whether you’re on a base, a maritime vessel, or in an airborne environment. All those types of applications are now possible.

Jason Stephens: I think Mike nailed it with the real-time services. Real-time services can include voice over IP calls, telephone conversations, and video ISR. And these are not only for the mission planning and mission approval for the military. But, as Mike said, they’re also applicable as MWR use cases.

I remember the many times I was forward deployed trying to have a Zoom or Skype call with family during Christmas, Thanksgiving, or a birthday. The calls were very choppy and I could not make anyone out.

The increase in performance for real-time services over mPOWER doesn’t just enable the battlefield commanders and things that are happening on the battlefield. With MWR services, you will be able to see your family at the other end without the audio and video being of subpar quality. The reduction of latency and increase in bandwidth will enable those real-time services and provide a much more enjoyable experience for deployed personnel using it as an MWR source.

Also, high latency for some IP solutions is very problematic. We have seen some issues with cloud services, from anything over 500 to 550 ms. It becomes problematic with some use cases. Additionally, in my experience, I have seen virtual private networks (VPN) have issues with latency. And in some instances, U.S. DoD commercial solutions for classified have problems with satellite communications, typically with GEO latency.

What we have seen is a reduction in latency using a MEO satellite service such as mPOWER. It removes those problems, from a cloud-based and encryption-based requirement from the commercial solutions for classified. Most branches and all special operations have moved to it for use in most forward-deployed areas.

“When you have that low latency, you can load webpages, browse, and provide a morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) network to the forward-deployed troops. You can do that whether you’re on a base, a maritime vessel, or in an airborne environment.” – Mike Blefko

We are seeing that by reducing that latency, we are having less downtime on our commercial solution kits. And there is also less downtime and interaction with cloud-based services. We are seeing an increase in performance through the use of MEO satellites.

Mike Blefko: Now, with high-throughput, low-latency connections, all support staff can be deployed to safer and supported environments that are not exposed to front-line peril. Cloud computing, whether it’s support, network infrastructure, or your IT staff, can be deployed in the rear echelon. Previously, it had to be deployed over high-latency, low-throughput links.

GSR: Are there any particular special requirements or technologies that are necessary for a satellite terminal to work effectively with a MEO satellite service like O3b? How do solutions like MICRO SAT and Milli SAT Meet these special requirements?

Mike Blefko: MEO and LEO satellites—unlike GEO—are moving overhead. Now as the comms on-the-move terminal on the ground wants to connect to that overhead link, it has to be able to track the satellites as they move across the sky, and it also has to compensate for any movement of the vehicle, airframe, or maritime vessel on the ground.

A lot of software design goes back and forth between both organizations to ensure that the satellite company communicates to the terminal company the correct data, so they ingest it and point it in the right direction. And when we get ready to switch from one satellite to the next, we make sure that it occurs as efficiently as possible.

Jason Stephens: As Mike mentioned, in a MEO architecture the satellites are moving overhead at a really rapid clip. When you develop a terminal, the terminal has to be able to track very fast. We want to reduce the time. If it is a mechanical steering antenna, it has to have very fast tracking, because you want to reduce that time to reacquisition on the next satellite.

Not only does that terminal have to track extremely fast—which the MICRO SAT and the Milli SAT do—you also need a software-based application inside the terminal that is going to cross that telemetry and ephemerous data that is provided by SES. Because when that terminal is told it is time to hand over to that next satellite, that terminal knows where that next satellite is.

“MEO and LEO satellites—unlike GEO—are moving overhead. Now as the comms on-the-move terminal on the ground wants to connect to that overhead link, it has to be able to track the satellites as they move across the sky…” Mike Blefko

From a mechanical and antenna design, and a software-based application, you have to have something inside the terminal that can process all of this information and tell the terminal what it needs to do. And this all has to happen in a very short period of time, so you are not interrupting services to the end-user.

The MICRO SAT and the Milli SAT terminals are mechanically-steered antennas that have this capability built-in. The next generation of antennas that we have just introduced—our Sling Blade Ka electronically steerable array antennas—will have electronic scanning which will allow the handover from satellite to satellite in a much faster timeline. We will reduce the handover timeline from a mechanical steering antenna to an electronically-steered antenna, from approximately 1.8 -2 seconds down to less than 100 msec.

Not only is there a hardware requirement, but also a software application inside the terminal to ensure success. There is a lot of information that needs to be processed in a very short amount of time.

GSR: Later this year, SES will be launching the first satellites in their next-generation MEO satellite service – O3b mPOWER. Will GetSat terminals work with the O3b mPOWER service?

Mike Blefko: The short answer is yes. All the work we’ve done with GetSat to implement the MICRO, Milli, and Nano models overtop the O3b MEO today will be leveraged. And when we launch mPOWER in September and it goes online, eventually 11 satellites at the equatorial plane will go up.

“The next generation of antennas that we have just introduced—our Sling Blade Ka electronically steerable array antennas—will have electronic scanning which will allow the handover from satellite to satellite in a much faster timeline.” – Jason Stephens

Each of those satellites will be able to point approximately 5,000 beams down to the planet. And each one of those beams coming off that satellite electronically-steered antenna will easily be able to point to a group of GetSat terminals on the ground that are spaced within a 250 km diameter beam. Or it will be able to point many beams at individual terminals. Both the current constellation as well as our future mPOWER constellation will work very efficiently over GetSat terminals.

Jason Stephens: Mike mentioned our Nano Hi, MICRO SAT, and Milli SAT terminals that are currently operating on O3b Classic. And yes, they will transition to operate on mPOWER. Those discussions, testing, and approvals are already in the works with SES GS and SES Networks.

Additionally, all of the electronically steerable array antennas in our Sling Blade Ka family, such as our Nano, MICRO, and Milli Sling Blade, will also transition to be operational on the mPOWER constellation. And those discussions and approvals are already currently in the works with SES Networks.

GSR: What about this service should be exciting for military users? How could you see this service – coupled with GetSat terminals – impacting the way the military operates? 

Mike Blefko: When we implemented one of the first contracts for U.S. government users in 2016, we took high throughput and low latency and pushed it to the tactical edge of the network for any number of applications. O3b today continues to deliver on that capability.

As mPOWER comes online, higher throughput at that same low latency will be delivered to the large, fixed enterprise terminals and the small tactical comms on-the-move terminals. And now it will take that connectivity to the next layer of the soldier’s network. It essentially pushes applications out to the edge, making connectivity—all the way from the edge and back to the command center—another order of magnitude better than it is today.

For additional information on mPOWER, click HERE to download, “O3b mPOWER for U.S. Government Missions.”

Featured image by Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Paige Hause

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