Mobile user satellite launch heralds shift to comms-on-the-move

The launch of the first Mobile User Objective System satellite in February marks a major step forward for the military’s communications-on-the-move projects.

The Defense Department is beginning a new era in its satellite communications capabilities this spring. The launch of the first Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite in February marks a major step forward for the military’s communications-on-the-move projects.

Although the program has been criticized for being late and over budget, military spokesmen are extolling the benefits of a planned constellation of five geostationary MUOS satellites. Each of the MUOS satellites will carry two segments, one that will communicate using legacy UHF technology and a second that uses 3G cellular technology, wideband code division multiple access. UHF is already in widespread use because signals penetrate all types of weather and jungle foliage while also providing good coverage in urban areas. Cellular links will bring dramatic speed increases.

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“When we bring MUOS on line, warfighters will be able to maintain communications while they’re moving,” said Navy CAPT Paul Ghyzel, program manager for the Navy Communications Satellite Program Office. “They’ll also have the ability to make phone calls and send data at 10 times the speed they have now. We’ll have worldwide coverage for all branches of our military and some allies, with point-to-point and networked capabilities that don’t exist today.”

He said the MUOS network will give users the ability to do everything from making phone calls and holding video conferences to sending high resolution imagery.

“We’re utilizing 3G cellular technology, W-CDMA, so the spacecraft are effectively cell towers in orbit,” Ghyzel said.

Critics say the program is overdue and over budget. For example, even though the first satellite was launched in February, there won’t be any communications capability until the second satellite is launched next summer. The critics also contend that it will be some time before the terminals are ready.

Those involved in the program say many factors extended the timetable. For one factor, the satellite is huge. At 15,000 pounds, it’s one of the heaviest ever launched. Putting conventional UHF and W-CDMA technology in close proximity on this first satellite of its type made it necessary to isolate signals while also making it more difficult to isolate thermal masses, said Mark Pasquale, vice president and MUOS program manager at Lockheed Martin.

Ghyzel said the cost estimate for the entire MUOS program is $5.3 billion. That includes launching the five satellites, building ground stations and supporting the Navy’s share of the Joint Tactical Radio System-developed waveform.

Ghyzel noted that the last three satellites are all fixed price programs with ceilings of about $330 million per launch. Pasquale added that Lockheed has purchased hardware in advance of Navy requests so it could keep production lines running and maintain its trained personnel base working without the breaks that often occur in similar programs.

Although warfighters must wait for the startup until after the second satellite is launched, there will be plenty of continuing development.

“In the interim, we’ll be doing engineering tests,” Ghyzel said. “Between the launches, we’ll complete our ground station and in parallel we’ll complete the MUOS waveforms. The individual services are responsible for the terminals carried by soldiers or used on ships and aircraft.”

Ghyzel said the final three satellites will be sent into orbit annually after the successful launch of the second satellite. Satellite control will be handled in Point Mugu, Calif. The other ground stations, which will each be tightly connected to one of the MUOS satellites, are located in Western Australia; Niscemi, Italy; Norfolk, Va., and Hawaii. Once traffic is received in these stations, it will be routed through other elements of the Global Information Grid.

At present, the military has not decided which region the first satellite will support. “The first slot it will go to is the middle of the Pacific where it will be in clear view from the Hawaii ground station. After that, it’s still to be determined,” Ghyzel said.

Although MUOS will be a major component in the mobile communications infrastructure, it’s not the only system that combines satellites and comms-on- the-move. The Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) program also lets warfighters access satellites while they’re moving.

Belying an overall trend in satellite and terminal design, both satellites and terminals are being designed in conjunction so terminals and antennas can be smaller.

“Things like WIN-T provide a real opportunity to bring the size and cost of antennas down,” said Rick Lober, general manager of Hughes Defense and Intelligence Systems Division.