Earlier this month, SES, Hughes, and ThinKom announced that the three companies successfully demonstrated multi-orbit satellite communications capabilities for airborne missions. Leveraging ThinKom’s ThinAir® Ka2517 airborne SATCOM terminal with the Hughes HM400 modem, the companies demonstrated the ability to effectively roam between SES’s Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary (GEO) satellite networks.
The need for multi-band and multi-orbit satellite communications solutions is a requirement that has largely resulted from changes in the kind of adversaries that the U.S. military and its coalition partners are facing. After two decades of fighting an asynchronous war against less advanced adversaries, today’s military find’s itself facing a near-peer, pacing threat that not only recognizes the advantage that satellite delivers, but has the means to deny that advantage.
Being able to rapidly and seamlessly transition between satellite services in different bands and different orbits gives the military assurance for its mission-critical communications. Should an adversary deny one satellite solution, the military could seamlessly transition to another with little or no impact on mission success.
This is why demonstrations like those conducted by SES, Hughes, and ThinKom are so important – they’re effectively demonstrating a capability that will deliver resiliency and assuredness in the communications backbone that powers so many of the advanced battlefield technologies of tomorrow.
To learn more about this exciting demonstration, the technologies that were used, and why the military needs multi-orbit, multi-band satellite solutions, we sat down with the CTO and Co-Founder of ThinKom, Bill Milroy.
Bill Milroy: SES, ThinKom, and Hughes demonstrated high-performance multi-orbit, multi-constellation service capable of supporting Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) requirements for government missions.
The open architecture ThinKom ThinAir® Ka2517 airborne satcom terminal was demonstrated on SES’s MEO and GEO satellite networks. The testing also validated the latest ThinAir software release, which integrates the Hughes HM400 modem for MEO and GEO operations.
GSR: Why is this ability to roam between satellites in different orbits revolutionary? Is this not a capability that the military has had before? Or were military satellite users previously limited to roaming within a single orbit?
Bill Milroy: Many SATCOM systems are proprietary and optimized to work on a specific network. In fact, some prefer this so that their equipment cannot be used on competing networks. This makes it hard to roam between satellite networks, unless controlled by one satellite operator.
“Airborne platforms are unique in that the system quickly moves in and out of coverage areas, so the antenna needs to be able to quickly transition from beam to beam.” – Bill Milroy
The military is pushing for multi-orbit, multi-constellation capability much stronger now to provide added network resiliency to the warfighter, and the integrators – and ThinKom – are making the accommodation to support the multi-constellation capability.
GSR: Why is this capability exciting for the military? What trends are we seeing in military requirements and the threats that we’re facing that make multi-orbit operations essential?
Bill Milroy: There is growing concern that LEO networks can be more easily denied through kinetic attack by adversaries given their closer proximity and related cyber-access vulnerabilities. Having the ability to dynamically roam to other orbital constellations and networks mitigates the threat.
GSR: This particular test was designed to demonstrate airborne capabilities. What restrictions or challenges does the air domain place on satellite services and solutions? What special considerations in regard to terminals and hardware are unique to the air domain?
Bill Milroy: Airborne platforms are unique in that the system quickly moves in and out of coverage areas, so the antenna needs to be able to quickly transition from beam to beam.
Aircraft also travel to very high latitudes. This means that antennas for airborne platforms need to be able to handle aircraft dynamics – such as buffeting and banking away from the satellite.
“The military is pushing for multi-orbit, multi-constellation capability much stronger now to provide added network resiliency to the warfighter…” – Bill Milroy
This also means that the antenna needs to operate very efficiently, down to very low elevation angles – such as 10 degrees above the horizon.
GSR: What technologies and hardware were used in this demonstration? Are these solutions that are currently in use across the military? Why are these solutions a good fit for military airborne missions?
Bill Milroy: ThinKom’s Ka2517 is a phased array antenna based on the Variable Inclination Continuous Transverse Stub (VICTS) technology. It has a low profile, which helps reduce drag and extended time on station. It’s highly efficient, even down to low elevation angles. It offers high throughput, low prime power / thermal dissipation and has proven to be extremely reliable, highly agile, and multi-orbit compatible.
The Ka2517 antenna is an upgraded variant of the those that have been flying on the U.S. Air Force’s E-4B mobile command post aircraft fleet since 2018.
GSR: We recently saw the launch of the first few O3b mPOWER MEO satellites by SES – one of the three companies involved in this demonstration. Will this hardware and this ability to roam across satellites at different orbits also work with mPOWER?
Bill Milroy: Absolutely. The software is compatible with SES and other GEO constellations (including WGS) and with both the O3b CLASSIC and O3b mPOWER MEO as well as other NGSO services.
“Many SATCOM systems are proprietary and optimized to work on a specific network. In fact, some prefer this so that their equipment cannot be used on competing networks. This makes it hard to roam between satellite networks, unless controlled by one satellite operator.” – Bill Milroy
GSR: Why would the military want to utilize O3b mPOWER for airborne missions? What capabilities and benefits does it enable in contrast to other satellite services?
Bill Milroy: O3b mPOWER is extremely capable and delivers ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity services up to multiple gigabits per second to a single location, with less than 150 milliseconds of roundtrip latency.
The initial constellation is comprised of 11 satellites, each equipped with more than 5,000 digitally formed reconfigurable beams that enable government users to carry out their critical missions, securely.
GSR: Are these technologies – the hardware and terminals – that were involved in the demonstration available to the military today?
Bill Milroy: Absolutely. ThinKom is delivering this hardware today and our customers have equipped ISR aircraft, such as Bombardier’s Challenger 650 and Global 6000 Series aircraft. We also have a smaller, lighter-weight variant called the Ka1717 intended for even smaller business jet class platforms.