A joint venture between SES and the Luxembourg government providing satellite communications services primarily to military customers is already eyeing new satellites, frequencies and orbits following the launch early this year of its first satellite, the company’s top official said.
The GovSat-1 satellite, launched in January, began operations in March serving customers including the NATO alliance and European Union members, said Patrick Biewer, Chief Executive of the LuxGovSat S.A. venture, commonly referred to as GovSat. The company expects the satellite’s transponders to be about 20 percent full by the end of the year, he said.
Built by Orbital ATK and launched aboard a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., GovSat-1 features 68 transponders providing services in the X- and military Ka-bands. The satellite is located in geostationary orbit at 21.5 degrees east longitude, where it supports operations in Africa and the Middle East.
Speaking June 28 at the Milsatcom USA conference organized by the SMi Group of London, Biewer said the satellite’s current users include NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Belgian Navy off the coast of Africa. GovSat-1 boasts a single fixed X-band beam covering the Europe, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, and multiple X- and Ka-band spot beams that can be redirected within 15 minutes of a customer request, Biewer said.
“What we did was lever the efficiencies and innovation available from the commercial satellite industry while levering the essential security features that are available on military satellites,” Biewer said.
The 225 million-euro satellite system, funded equally by SES and the Luxembourg government, includes an encrypted telemetry system approved by the U.S. National Security Agency as well as anti-jam capabilities, Biewer said. The ground segment facilities are secure and capable of hosting classified materials, he said.
In another indication of the advantages of using partnerships to meet certain government requirements, GovSat-1 was conceived, built and launched in less than three-and-a-half years, Biewer said. Traditional government space programs often take a decade or more to reach fruition.
GovSat-1 might be just the beginning for the joint venture.
“GovSat-2 is certainly in our plans,” Biewer said, as are additional frequency bands including UHF, which typically supports mobile users. He added that GovSat also is considering other orbits, including medium-Earth orbit (MEO), where SES already operates the O3b constellation of 16 satellites providing Ka-band services to commercial and military customers.
One benefit of MEO satellites is that they do not have the signal lag, known as latency, associated with satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator. As such, MEO satellites are better suited to some modern enterprise applications that cannot tolerate latency.
Any expansion of GovSat’s offerings to MEO could dovetail with U.S. military plans to utilize that orbit more heavily.
In a separate presentation at the conference, Deanna Ryals, Chief of the International Military Satellite Communications Division at U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, specifically cited the potential to partner with Luxembourg. She did not offer additional details, but Luxembourg is headquarters to both SES and GovSat.
“We’ve been talking with our colleagues in Luxembourg about MEO capabilities, Ryals said. “We know they’re very interested in building out their capabilities in that area as well.”
Dave Banks, theater communications portfolio manager at U.S. Northern Command, said the combination of MEO and low-orbiting satellites can be a boon to applications including communications on the move, which is in high demand by U.S. forces. These orbits also can better serve forces operating in Arctic, the northern reaches of which are difficult to reach using geostationary satellites.
Although the current O3b satellites operate above the equator and thus cannot serve the Arctic, SES recently won U.S. regulatory approval to augment the constellation with satellites in inclined orbits. These satellites, operating in concert with the equatorial satellites, will provide full global coverage.
Allan Ballenger, Corporate Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at SES Government Solutions, the SES subsidiary that serves U.S. Government customers, said access to satellites in multiple orbits reduces vulnerabilities at a time when space systems face an array of threats. A distributed architecture that leverages the strengths of each of the orbits is what we should be planning for.
GovSat is just one example of the partnerships that allied militaries are pursuing to meet their ever-expanding communications needs. Another partnership that was discussed was Space Norway, a state-owned but commercially run company planning to deploy two X-band satellites in highly elliptical orbit to serve government customers in the far north, including NATO. The company is in negotiations with the U.S. Air Force to host extremely high frequency payloads for highly secure links to U.S. forces operating in the region, said Col. Stig Nilsson, head of space programs with the Norwegian Ministry of Defense. Space Norway is also in negotiation with commercial partners to include a Ka-band capability on the system, he said.