Late last week, SES announced that its newest geostationary Ka-band satellite, SES-17, is fully operational. Following months of in-orbit raising and successful in-orbit testing, the all-electric propulsion satellite reached orbit and is now ready to deliver high-throughput connectivity to U.S. government and military users from Geosynchronous (GEO) orbit.
SES-17’s coverage area makes it an important satellite for delivering mission-critical connectivity for the military. According to Amit Katti, Director of Systems Engineering at SES Space and Defense, “The satellite will…provide coverage…over the Americas, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean…[as well as] an area that is of incredible importance to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), delivering services to parts of the Arctic Circle.”
But there is more to SES-17 than its important coverage area.
The SES-17 satellite is a significant development in satellite technology, featuring a fully digital payload powered by the most powerful digital transponder processor in orbit, and nearly 200 user beams capable of delivering incredible throughputs and bandwidth to users. But the launch of SES-17 also illustrates how the commercial satellite industry has evolved its solutions to meet the unique challenges facing our modern military.
More resiliency and assuredness through multi-orbit communications
Today’s military no longer has the massive technological advantage that it used to hold in space. Our near-peer adversaries have made significant headways into the space domain and turned what was once a benign domain into an austere, warfighting domain. Some of our adversaries have even actively demonstrated the ability to leverage kinetic attacks against satellites in orbit in an effort to deny or degrade the satellite networks that have long given America’s warfighters an edge on the battlefield.
“Having a diversity of satellites allows for optimizing the best solution set while making the network more robust.” – Rick Lober, Hughes Defense
“Our ability to integrate space assets and our force capabilities at speed is a distinct advantage we have today. China and Russia recognize this and have designed means to deny us these capabilities,” explained General Curtis Michael “Mike” Scaparrotti, a retired United States Army four-star general who last served as the Commander of United States European Command, in a recent interview with the Government Satellite Report. “…we know they have developed abilities to deny operations for periods of time by electronic jamming or cyber-attacks, and that they have tested both terrestrial and space systems to destroy satellites.”
In this new environment, it’s increasingly essential that the military has the means and ability to rapidly and seamlessly transition mission-critical data from a satellite that is being denied to another that is capable of delivering essential communications.
Being able to seamlessly roll communications from a satellite in one orbit to another satellite in a different orbit can help to further complicate an adversary’s targeting calculus and make it even harder to deny or degrade our military’s communications. This is also essential should missions requirements change, and should the military need either the higher throughputs and lower latency of satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO), or the larger coverage area of satellites in GEO.
As Hughes Defense’s Rick Lober recently told the Government Satellite Report, “Having a diversity of satellites allows for optimizing the best solution set while making the network more robust.”
And this isn’t just an idea being pushed by the commercial satellite industry. It’s the current goal of the DoD. As U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, explained to attendees at a recent Mitchell Spacepower Forum, “We have got to shift the space architecture from a handful of exquisite capabilities that are very hard to defend to a more robust, more resilient architecture by design.”
But what does this need for a multi-orbit, resilient, and robust satellite network architecture have to do with SES-17?
“With a managed service model for satellite services, the government would always have the latest commercial technologies and solutions available to them. With systems like ARC in place, they’ll also have the added resiliency and capability of being able to leverage a multi-orbit constellation.” – Rashid Neighbors, SES Space and Defense
SES-17 is the first step in the integration of SES’s multi-orbit network. The spacecraft’s digital payload is supported by the Adaptive Resource Control (ARC) software, making it interoperable with SES’s second-generation O3b mPOWER satellite communications system in MEO, which is set to launch in the coming months.
The ARC software opens the door to more seamlessly transitioning satellite communications from the SES constellation of HTS satellites at GEO – including SES-17 – to the next-generation MEO satellite communications system, O3b mPOWER. This means that – should the bandwidth and latency requirements of the mission change, or in the unlikely event that a satellite service is denied by an adversary – SES could quickly and seamlessly switch between satellite services from GEO and MEO to meet the military’s requirement.
“Ultimately, our intent is to provide the U.S. Government with highly resilient, multi-orbit hybrid satellite solutions,” explained Rashid Neighbors, Vice President, Mobility and Integrated Solutions at SES Space and Defense. “While the spacecraft technology in SES-17 and the O3b mPOWER satellites is fundamentally different, the ground system will be integrated through…ARC. This allows our government customers to focus on their mission and applications and let SES Space and Defense worry about how the transport works.”
SES-17, and its support of the ARC system, make the dream of an integrated, multi-orbit satellite network architecture a reality. But it also enables another important shift – allowing the military to evolve away from the archaic and inefficient way that it has traditionally acquired satellite commercial satellite capacity.
A satellite “built for managed services”
In this new satellite reality, where multi-orbit commercial satellite services join military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) resources to build an integrated architecture, the traditional method of leasing satellite capacity on the spot market is no longer effective.
In this new reality – where military communications may need to be moved from a MILSATCOM satellite in GEO to commercial satellite service from MEO or LEO at a moment’s notice to meet mission requirements or provide mission assurance – the traditional methods of leasing satellite capacity are simply too slow.
The ARC system, and other technologies that make SES-17 more “software-enabled,” have ushered in a new generation of satellite that is, as Katti coined, “Built for managed services.” Meaning that the military and government can acquire satellite communications as a service from commercial providers, who, in turn, deliver an end-to-end solution when and where the military requires it.
“Our ability to integrate space assets and our force capabilities at speed is a distinct advantage we have today. China and Russia recognize this and have designed means to deny us these capabilities.” – General Scaparrotti, U.S. Army
Acquiring commercial satellite as a managed service ensures that the government and military are always leveraging the latest satellite technologies, and always have the requisite hardware and terrestrial infrastructure necessary to utilize it.
“With a managed service model for satellite services, the government would always have the latest commercial technologies and solutions available to them,” explained Neighbors. “With systems like ARC in place, they’ll also have the added resiliency and capability of being able to leverage a multi-orbit constellation.”
While the news of SES-17 becoming fully operational is certainly exciting, it’s not nearly as exciting as what SES-17 and other future satellites signify for our government and military. SES-17, the O3b mPOWER service, and other next-generation satellite solutions illustrate a clear solution to the challenge of a more austere space domain. They also signify a path forward towards a more integrated MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM satellite architecture that will be more assured, robust, and resilient to meet the needs of our future force.
Featured image courtesy of Thales Alenia Space.