Mega-constellations in the milsatcom industry

Up until recently, most satellite systems, whether military or civil, have been designed and built as semi-custom entities with a one-time use and high production rates. However, with the introduction of mega-constellations, high volumes of communication satellites can be repeatedly manufactured and sent into space to support ongoing and future military missions

Following on from his previous article that looked into how mega-constellations are revolutionising the satellite industry, hear from Francis Kinsella, Senior Expert at Secure Communications, as he discusses what mega-constellations could mean for the milsatcom industry.

Commercial and military mega-constellations; what is the difference?

There are many ways mega-constellations initially designed for commercial use can be adapted and used to support the military industry, and provide exciting, complimentary opportunities to a military core capability designed with the threat in mind. Firstly, existing commercial mega-constellations, potentially with end to end security overlays, could be used to support military communications needs and provide another layer of resilience to support future Integrated Military Connectivity. . Secondly, dedicated military mega-constellations could be created and there are a number of activities in this area. However, compared to commercial mega-constellations, military developments are focussed on large numbers of satellites with different sensor systems, for instance for missile defence, Earth observation or C4ISR, or even to provide Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT). 

At the core of military mega-constellations however, is the transport layer backbone. This exploits the optical Inter Satellite Links (ISL) to make a network in the sky, just like the commercial mega-constellations, to get data from sensor nodes to the people who need it.  To communicate the last hop between satellites and users, military mega-constellations will be integrated into tactical data link networks via technologies such as Link 16 and the integrated broadcast service. 

Military mega-constellations: the current landscape

The US has two good examples of how mega-constellations might be used for military purposes in development; Blackjack and the Space Development Agency architecture. Both of these include platforms with a variety of sensor types, as well as communications and PNT capabilities to achieve wide ranging military effect from strategic missile defence to tactical operational support.

Within Airbus, we are looking at how military mega-constellation principles and technologies might be applied to future sovereign UK space capability.  For military applications, software defined radio payloads may enable levels of flexibility not required in commercial applications. 

Pioneering the laser communication revolution

Airbus is also pioneering the laser communication revolution with the SpaceDataHighway.  Launched in 2016, the SpaceDataHighway is the world’s first laser communication geostationary constellation and has achieved outstanding success with over 40,000 data relay links to date. It can connect to LEO satellites at a distance of up to 45,000km, intelligence UAVs or to mission aircraft all via laser. From its position in geostationary orbit, the SpaceDataHighway constellation relays up to 40Tbs of data per day in near real-time to Earth, a process that would normally take several hours. Later this year, Pléiades Neo – Airbus’ most advanced optical Earth observation constellation – will be the next satellites to benefit from the SpaceDataHighway’s infrastructure. As an integral part of Pleiades Neo’s full end to end service, SpaceDataHighway will optimise mission reactivity by providing real time tasking capabilities and very high data volume transfer.

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