Government satellite week in review – Thanksgiving edition

Thanksgiving is upon us. Want to know what we’re thankful for here at the Government Satellite Report? Satellites. Without them, we’d be without jobs and probably out on the streets.

But we’re not the only ones thankful for satellites.

The military and United States government owe much to them as well. They carry data and communications into places without terrestrial networks, help deliver actionable intelligence back to senior leaders from the front lines, and even carry morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) content to deployed soldiers.

So, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting government satellite news from the past week, before we trade large metallic “birds” for the more edible kind.

STRATCOM chief Hyten: ‘I will not support buying big satellites that make juicy targets’
It’s no secret in satellite circles that resiliency is a major concern for our military. Space isn’t the uncontested domain that it used to be. There is serious congestion up there, and an increased chance that satellites could collide or interfere with each other. And then there’s the fact that our adversaries are more advanced – capable of denying our satellite capabilities via jamming and even kinetic strikes.

This sentiment was echoed by Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, at the Halifax International Security Forum, who said, “I watch what our adversaries do. I see them moving quickly into the space domain, they are moving very fast, and I see our country not moving fast, and that causes me concern.”

That concern could lead to some drastic action. General Hyten advocated for a complete reevaluation of how the military acquires satellites and builds its space infrastructure.

The military has traditionally invested in “exquisite” satellite systems – large constellations that they developed, financed, launched and controlled themselves. These MILSATCOM satellite constellations require large amounts of time and money to build and launch. That makes them increasingly expensive sitting ducks for our adversaries to attempt to shoot down or disrupt.

But what’s the alternative? The simplest may be a different approach to acquisition that distributes and disaggregates military communications across multiple government and commercial satellites. This could be done by leasing space on commercial satellites, or hosting military payloads aboard commercial satellites. Either way, it would increase resiliency and make it more difficult for even the most advanced adversary to disrupt U.S. military communications.

Satellite on the fritz? Aerospace companies are building a geek squad of space robots
As we just discussed, satellites aren’t cheap. It’s extremely costly to build a satellite, and also extremely pricey to launch it into orbit. When it costs that much to build and operate something, it’s nice to be able to fix it should a problem occur.

There’s a reason why you just don’t junk your car when the battery dies and go buy a new car…you buy a new battery instead.

Unfortunately for satellite communications providers, they don’t have that luxury. There are no service shops in space (at least not in THIS galaxy…hmmm…) and there is no way to fix that major investment floating in orbit should something go terribly wrong. At least…not yet.

As this very thorough article in the Los Angeles Times discusses, a number of satellite companies are currently working on a way to fix satellites in space using robots. These service robots would attach to satellites in space, refuel and repair them.

Unfortunately, even with major steps being made in recent years, many consider the concept to still be about a decade away. Aside from advancements being needed in the technology, itself, there is a cultural issue that needs to be overcome.

Satellite companies are – understandably – somewhat conservative when it comes to their spacecraft. To use the car analogy again – you wouldn’t be too happy if you owned a Ferrari and someone offering to refuel or repair it broke it even more. It’s the same thing with expensive satellites.

However, when the technology has evolved and is completely proven, the ROI of repairing satellites in space could be too great for even the most conservative of COMSATCOM companies to pass up.

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