Commercial Space — Not Military — Driving Satellite Innovation

By Stew Magnuson
Technicians load the Hellas-Sat-4/SaudiGeoSat-1 communications satellite into its shipping container.

Photo: Lockheed Martin

LITTLETON, Colo. — It was once the military that drove the advancement of satellite technology, but that is no longer the case, a Lockheed Martin executive said April 16 on the eve of the year’s biggest space conference.

“When we look to the future, what we face is a very dynamic and aggressively moving market,” said Gregory Edlund, vice president of the radio frequency payload center of excellence at Lockheed Martin.

The military was the primary driver of new spacecraft technologies for decades, but over the past five years, that has changed. “The commercial market is increasing in pace and in size and importance to the future of space,” he added.

The Space Symposium in Colorado Springs this week will see several senior Air Force officials speak, but they are unlikely to announce any new-start military satellite communication systems. The service has been doing a series of studies since its last big program, the T-Sat, Transformation-Satellite, program was canceled in 2009.

Instead of kicking off a new program, the Air Force will build two more Wideband Global SATCOM satellites for $600 million after appropriators funded the 11th and 12th spacecraft in the 2018 omnibus spending bill. Critics said Congress is investing in 1990s technology and that commercial satellite communications providers can now offer higher throughput satellites. Others point out that WGS has had several upgrades after several block buys.

The commercial communication satellite providers are demanding that companies such as Lockheed Martin offer more innovative products in order to drive their profits, Edlund said.

“In that light, there is increasing pressures to providing much more capability for much less cost,” he said.

At Lockheed's sprawling campus south of Denver, the company is investing $350 million to build a state-of-the-art advanced satellite manufacturing facility called the Gateway Center. The 266,000 square foot building is due to be completed in 2020.

The RF payload center of excellence is three years old and is looking to offer customers — both commercial and military — a range of options such as electronically steered arrays, laser communications and more flexible satellites systems.

Flexibility is the operative word, Edlund said. Satellites can last on orbit more than 15 to 20 years. During that time, technology such as computer processing under Moore’s law can double every 18 to 20 months. The satellites on orbit can become quickly out of date. Their fixed beams also remain trained on a particular part of Earth, and don’t move.

“Now, markets and services are moving so fast that our customers want much more flexible capability. Capability that can move to different orbital slots. Capability that can refocus to address a new service that is coming at them. Capability that has the ability to program on orbit to do different things with different waveforms, provide different missions and services,” he said.

Electronically steered arrays can be used to change beam directions and provide flexibility, but have been too expensive. The center is working to get their price down.

The last generation of satellites introduced the idea of common buses, which featured a standard suite of basic parts of a satellite such as power systems. The payloads were then wedded to these standard satellites in order to save money. The next big trend will be standard payloads, Edlund said.

“If you can start out with a common payload, and you have a common bus behind that, you can have a common satellite,” he said. These common satellites can be programmed on orbit to do different missions such as communications, sensing, or search and rescue.

“If you can move to a common architecture, we can move toward a more common satellite,” he said.

Additive manufacturing is giving the center the ability to reduce schedules and risks for deploying new systems, he noted.

Lockheed Martin is building two commercial satellites with advanced capabilities. Hellas-Sat, for the Saudi Arabian government, will have advanced onboard processors.

It is “probably one of the first big [high throughput satellites] with a very advanced processor on it,” he said. But even as it installed the advanced processors, computing power has increased, and that is why customers might want to rethink launching spacecraft meant to last 20 years, Edlund said. More and smaller satellites intended to last only five years would keep the systems more up to date, he added.

The company is also manufacturing the JC-SAT for the Sky Perfect J-SAT Corp. in Japan with a dynamic antenna and processor.

“Both of these satellites are showing the significant advancement that is happening in processing across commercial satellites,” he said.

The good news is that when it is ready to stop doing analyses of alternatives on its next-generation communications satellites, the Air Force will be able to leverage the investments commercial companies are making.

“All of these things ... are getting more miniaturized and capable and leading us more toward common satellites,” Edlund said. “As all this commercial money comes in, I think there are going to be paradigm changes,” he said. He compared it to the mainframe computer’s evolution to laptops.

“I think [the military] is going to benefit tremendously from it,” Edlund said.


Topics: Space, Defense Department

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