Private industry also learns from Air Force Pathfinder

The United States Air Force is currently conducting a series of programs called the Commercial Satellite Communication (COMSATCOM) Pathfinders.  The COMSATCOM Pathfinders are a five-phase project to enable DoD to acquire COMSATCOM using innovative, longer-term approaches that should yield increased efficiency and effectiveness.

The COMSATCOM Pathfinder Initiative explores multiple facets of flexible, long-term investment-based acquisition models for access to commercial SATCOM capabilities and infrastructure from a diverse supplier base, including identifying any legal, policy, regulatory, management, cultural, or other barriers to government adoption of such business models at scale. Each Pathfinder is an independent program and builds off previous efforts. Ultimately, the COMSATCOM Pathfinders will be referenced as the DoD completes its Wideband Communication Systems Analysis of Alternatives (AoA).

<To listen to a two-part podcast series on the Pathfinder Programs, click HERE.>

The first Pathfinder Program, coined Pathfinder One, involved the purchase of transponders and capacity aboard a SES Space and Defense-owned satellite. This marked a departure in how the military paid for and acquired COMSATCOM services. It also involved the use of traditionally cheaper satellite alternatives – inclined satellites.

“Pathfinder One changed the way the DoD purchased COMSATCOM capabilities by procuring transponders on a commercial satellite versus the traditional model of leasing bandwidth on the spot market,” said Pete Hoene, the CEO of SES Space and Defense. “This solution included the utilization of inclined satellite capacity which allowed the government to pay significantly less than traditional station-kept bandwidth.”

Inclined satellite capacity is often cheaper than geostationary (GEO) satellite capacity because of the nuances required to take advantage of it.

Inclined satellites are effectively older GEO satellites that in the later stages of their operational lives.  To maximize their remaining fuel – operators reduce station-keeping adjustments and extend the life by allowing the spacecraft to drift in the north/south direction. The square box that GEO satellites usually sit in becomes a rectangle, and the satellite drifts in an elongated figure eight pattern within it.

This north/south movement around the Equator is what makes inclined satellite capacity unique. The movement of these satellites requires a tracking antenna that can follow them as they move in their rectangular box. As you might imagine, there are many satellite use cases that call for tracking antennas – such as USAF planes.

According to Mr. Hoene, “Since remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have antennas capable of tracking inclined satellites, AFRICOM can use Pathfinder One capacity to support MQ-1 (Predator), MQ-9 (Reaper), and RQ-4 (Global Hawk) operations. In fact, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) approved the use of inclined capacity on these platforms and is currently using the available Pathfinder One bandwidth to command and control their critical RQ-4 Global Hawk Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance missions…”

Pathfinder One was a success for the Air Force, and it’s clear that the military took notice of the program’s accomplishments. But the military may not have been the only organization to observe the lessons learned from Pathfinder One. Private industry recognized the innovative use of inclined orbit bandwidth as well.

Just a few weeks ago, Space News published an article disclosing that Global Eagle Entertainment, one of the world’s leaders in in-flight entertainment, “…had purchased all the capacity on an undisclosed satellite to support aeronautical customers, in particular Southwest Airlines, the company’s largest customer.”

That satellite was later revealed to be SES satellite AMC-3, which Space News says, “…carries 24 Ku-band transponders and launched in September 1997 on an Atlas 2A rocket.” SES will operate the satellite and provide support for Global Eagle.

What does that have to do with Pathfinder One? Well, it’s pretty much the same situation. Global Eagle Entertainment is effectively purchasing the capacity onboard an inclined satellite. Also, much like Pathfinder One, the satellite in question will be used for a purpose that is a perfect fit for inclined capacity – in-flight entertainment onboard airplanes already fitted with tracking antennas.

The Global Eagle announcement illustrates the benefits that inclined satellites could have for both private enterprise and the federal government. It could become a best practice to utilize this less-expensive capacity in any implementation or use case where tracking antennas are already being utilized. Whether it’s on Navy ships, RPAs or airplanes, inclined bandwidth could be an economical, effective way to deliver connectivity and communications on the move.

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