Last month in Colorado Springs, Colorado, space leaders from around the world convened at the 2023 Space Symposium to examine, discuss, and tackle some of the greatest challenges facing the space domain today. Like in past years, SES Space and Defense attended this year’s Symposium and had a front row seat to some of the hottest space conversations surrounding the U.S. government and military, specifically the SATCOM and connectivity challenges that they are turning to the commercial industry to solve.
One topic of discussion that received a considerable amount of buzz throughout the conference was the federal government and military’s need for connectivity at the North and South Poles.
At first glance, it may seem that having SATCOM capabilities at the Poles is unnecessary. But my conversations with government and military leaders at Space Symposium showed that there is – indeed – an undeniable need for COMSATCOM solutions and capabilities at the Poles.
Research and national defense
Even though there are very few people who live and work at the North and South Poles, the mission sets that present U.S. government and military personnel are carrying out in these areas are absolutely critical to not only national security, but to scientific research and development as well.
If we were to take a trip down to the remote South Pole, we would find scientists and researchers from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) making groundbreaking discoveries in the areas of astronomy, astrophysics, seismology, climate change, among many others.
Without reliable connectivity and communications capabilities, government researchers are unable to uplink the critical data back to those that will analyze and learn from it in the continental U.S. As a result, major scientific progress could be halted and left unsupported during a time when rising sea levels and record-breaking natural disasters are threatening American lives every day. It is critical that the federal government be able to provide scientists with the SATCOM capabilities they require to continue producing world-saving research.
And much like in the South Pole, the remote North Pole also supports scientific, government research that requires SATCOM solutions that can power the massive data exchanges coming to and from the area. But, unlike the South Pole, there are additional military requirements for SATCOM services at the North Pole.
Two of our largest, near-peer adversaries are located in the INDOPACOM area of responsibility (AOR). As global climate change continues to open passages on additional travel routes through the North Pole region, the need to protect newly-formed commercial trade routes from those adversaries increases. There is also an increased need to defend the U.S. and its northern allies from threats that leverage these new northern passages.
The threats U.S. adversaries pose to national security is always evolving. To secure U.S. borders from potential, incoming threats the government and military must leverage digital transformation at the North Pole, through the proliferation of military, marine, and aerospace sensors that can detect security threats that may pose risks to the homeland.
With traditional, terrestrial networks unavailable, SATCOM is necessary to get sensor data from these remote locations back to military and civilian support organizations and their decision-makers. By leveraging SATCOM to connect a new generation of advanced Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and devices, our military and civilian organizations can gain better situational awareness at the Poles, understand changing weather patterns, and be better prepared to defend our nation from pacing threats.
But what commercial satellite capabilities are available in the Poles?
Why the Poles are HOT for satellite providers
There are many rural, remote, and geographically isolated places in our country that are without access to terrestrial networks because there simply isn’t a business case for telecoms or other internet service providers (ISP) to invest in the infrastructure. And it’s easy to understand why. Since the number of residents that would pay for the service is limited, these companies simply wouldn’t make their investment back, let alone make a meaningful return on that investment.
Something similar has long hampered the launch of satellite constellations that provide service to the North and South Poles. In places where penguins and polar bears outnumber people, there is very little need for satellite services, and very little revenue to be generated from launching multiple satellites to deliver coverage to these areas.
But that is beginning to change rapidly. Increased demand from government and military users in these remote areas is driving a growing need for satellite services. In partnerships with global governments, there could now be a reasonable business case for commercial satellite service providers to expand coverage to the poles. And this is one of the reasons why so many conversations at Space Symposium focused on this topic – renewed and increased interest in the Poles from both the government and its industry partners.
For example, as a satellite operator with the only HTS satellite constellation in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), SES Space and Defense, strategically designed second generation MEO constellation, O3b mPOWER with capabilities to operate in inclined planes and in the future extend MEO to the poles. As scientific expeditions and military operations continue to expand at the Poles, the future capabilities that MEO will provide will be paramount to mission success.
This was a sentiment shared by Steve Collar, the CEO of SES, during his recent keynote address at the SATELLITE 2023 Conference. “From an SES standpoint, we designed O3b mPOWER to be capable to also operate in inclined planes. That would be the next step for us…That means polar capability and polar coverage that allows us to add more capabilities,” Collar said. “We won’t be limited in the future to just communications. We can add more services and more missions to this incredibly strategic orbit.”