The future of satellites: What are the options?

From reusable launch vehicles to high-throughput satellites and hosted payloads, DOD looks to meet rising demand while cutting costs.

XS 1 satellite launcher

DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane program aims to lower launch costs by developing a reusable hypersonic unmanned vehicle.

The Defense Department’s demand for bandwidth is increasing unabated as funding is being trimmed, forcing agencies to cut costs without scaling down communications capabilities. Meanwhile, the price of traditional satellite deployments continues to rise. A Global Positioning System satellite, for example, cost $43 million to build and $55 million to launch in early 1990s. A GPS III satellite, the first of which is now scheduled for delivery in 2016, will cost about $500 million and $300 million to launch.

So DOD is exploring a range of cost-cutting options for satellite communications that includes making technical changes, altering management strategies and using new launch techniques.

The effort to rein in costs was first driven by the sequester, then ratcheted up when lawmakers started talking about trimming military spending and taking troop strengths back to pre-World War II levels. At the same time, every study predicts a substantial increase in demand for bandwidth to support unmanned aerial vehicles, wireless devices and many other applications. That’s prompting strategists to re-examine every aspect of satcom — from launch methods to the terminals used on the ground — to improve efficiency.  

“The challenge for us is to figure out how we deal with a resource-constrained environment and maintain success, and how we measure the risk associated with dialing up or down mission assurance,” Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said at the U.S. Space Mission Assurance Summit in February.

Technical changes are among the many strategies being examined to increase bandwidth at minimal costs. Benefits can come from transceiver designs. More powerful chips let designers cram more into small spaces.

“Recent advances in modem technology allow satellite carriers to be spaced much closer together than possible before,” said Andrew Ruszkowski, XTAR’s chief commercial officer.

Intelsat HTS

High-throughput satellites are vying with conventional technologies.

New satellites leverage digital devices to squeeze more capabilities from transmitters and receivers while providing significant size and cost benefits. High-throughput satellites (HTS) are starting to transform the industry, increasing bandwidth without raising costs.

“HTS let customers take their gains through either increased throughput for a per-bit cost similar to what they pay now, or the same throughput for a lower cost per bit,” said Skot Butler, vice president of Satellite Networks & Space Services at Intelsat General. “For example, each Intelsat EpicNG spot beam can deliver total throughput of 200 [megabits per second] to aeronautical terminals, far more than is currently allowed into very small dishes.”

Northern Sky Research projects that HTS leasing will grow at 8,000 percent over the next 10 years, dwarfing the 70 percent rise of classic fixed satellite service, C/Ku/Ka transponder leasing. FSS satellites currently account for roughly three-fourths of government and military leasing, according to NSR.

While HTS provides lower costs, NSR notes that FSS capacity offers larger coverage areas, better service quality, the ability to fully manage the network from end-to-end, and the flexibility to place hubs and gateways almost anywhere.

While some system designers focus on getting more bandwidth, others zero in on strategies that let them get the capabilities of new technology into orbit in less time. Scientists and engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory have adopted some of the plug-and-play concepts used in commercial markets. They use a modular strategy for different satellite elements, which lets them leverage the rapid advances of semiconductors while still maintaining the ability to snap modules together.

The Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space Office is among the leaders in the military’s efforts to use a modular, open-system architecture to speed up the assembly of small satellites. The office worked with the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop the Modular Space Vehicle that was built by Northrop Grumman. However, the program was canceled before the launch date.

Renting space

As development times shrink, DOD is continuing to rely on commercial satellites for all but its most critical links. One big factor is that commercial operations typically embrace many of these advanced design strategies more readily than do military teams.

“Commercial satellite operators always focus on minimizing costs as well as maximizing their return on investment so their cost-related efforts usually bear fruit rather quickly,” Ruszkowski said. “The government’s procurement and program-related processes make financial considerations difficult to implement and their impact apparent after much more time. Even more, the government’s risk-averse posture often eliminates most all opportunities for cost savings.”

Leasing bandwidth and hosting payloads are more attractive now than ever. Comsat leasing accounted for 40 percent of DOD’s $1.6 billion comsat expenditures in 2010, according to a 2013 Defense Business Board study. That survey predicted that the cost of commercial services purchased by the Defense Information Systems Agency — DOD’s only authorized provider for commercial fixed and mobile satellite services — could grow to between $3 billion and $5 billion over the next 15 years. Many observers expect to see a solid portion of that growth going to hosted payloads.

“Hosted payloads will provide investors and users creative ways to cost-efficiently operate their satellite resources,” Ruszkowski said. “Commercial entities generally will implement the hosted payload model quickly to take advantage of these efficiencies. The U.S. and other governments usually act conservatively so they will probably take longer to transition to hosted payloads, after they see strong proof of concept from industry use.”

There’s already a fair amount of proof that this concept works. The Air Force's Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload and the Coast Guard's Nationwide Automatic Identification System both utilized the technique. Other countries are also trying out the concept.

“The launch in 2012 of a UHF hosted payload for the Australian Defence Force on the Intelsat 22 satellite is an example of significant cost savings resulting from a commercially hosted payload by a government entity,” Intelsat’s Butler said.

Launch strategies

The trend toward using commercial suppliers isn’t limited to satellite designs. Military agencies are exploring the rapidly growing business of commercial launches under the auspices of DISA’s Future Commercial Satellite Communications Services Acquisition (FCSA), which was formed in 2009.

Orbital Sciences Corp. paved the way in this field, and the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has launched nearly all of the military’s spy satellites. They’ll likely soon be joined by Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX. The companies’ strategies for reusing some equipment in launches highlight the drive to reduce costs.

SpaceX, which is making progress toward Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle certification from the Air Force, is using conventional rockets to launch its fully reusable Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon last year carried materials to the International Space Station and returned to Earth.

Orbital has taken a different strategy, one that’s also being examined by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Orbital’s Pegasus platform uses a plane to lift rockets aloft, trimming the cost of launches. Last fall, DARPA announced plans for an Experimental Spaceplane project that will employ a reusable first stage that could be used to launch medium-sized satellites for as little as $5 million each.

While there’s a solid case for the viability of reusable launch vehicles, many note that usage is still limited. For the time being, it’s likely that conventional rocket technologies will hold a dominant share of the overall launch market.

“Significant reuse of launch and space systems, initially with the best intentions, have not been fully realized – the costs of retrofit, recertification and additional risks involved make the business case questionable,” Butler said.

Extending the lifetime of satellites is yet another way to cut costs, partially by reducing the number of launches. Reducing the need for fuel required to make flight corrections is one way to keep satellites in orbit. Another is to further ruggedize components on satellites.

“The development of all-electric spacecraft suggests that propellant depletion could soon become a secondary life-limiting concern,” Butler said. “Spacecraft parts degrade with temperature and radiation – more robust or more-efficient electronics could provide additional resiliency. On-orbit robotic repair/replacement of life limiting or damaged hardware might be a major next step.”

Ground stations

Satellite costs must also address earthbound control management strategies. Last year, a Government Accountability Office report criticized DOD's satellite control networks as "fragmented and potentially duplicative,” noting that a five-year, $400 million modernization effort won't actually increase the network's capabilities.

DOD leaders have begun implementing some ideas from that report. One is to explore the business case for either a shared or dedicated satellite control operations network, which could eliminate redundancies that drive up costs. Another is to develop a comprehensive plan for modernizing the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), DOD's largest shared satellite control network.

Commercial satellite suppliers note that savings on the ground are an important factor that can’t be overlooked. Newer communications bands may offer improvements from the satellite side, but the cost of moving to new terrestrial equipment can drive overall implementation costs far higher.

“The continued use of Ku-band for many types of mobility requirements means cost savings on the ground as well; not transitioning networks to newer bands such as Ka-band, which entail new ground infrastructure, will result in substantial cost savings overall,” Butler said.