House Power weighing choices to improve floor antennas for navy satellites

Upgrades include a mix of new phased array antennas, commercial services, and credit capabilities from other US government agencies

WASHINGTON – In a test this summer at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, an electronically controlled phased array antenna from Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace communicated with four military satellites over multiple orbits.

This was a demonstration of a technology the US Space Force could use in the future to replace the aging network of dish dishes around the world that are used to fly military satellites.

“This was the first operational demo of the multi-band, multi-mission program to modernize the Space Force satellite control network,” Col. Rhet Turnbull told SpaceNews.

The multi-band, multi-mission program is one of several that Turnbull oversees as director of the Cross Mission Ground and communications company at the Space and Missile Systems Center.

“We were able to make four simultaneous contacts across multiple orbital regimes at different frequencies,” he said.

The Lockheed Martin / Ball Aerospace antenna, the size of a large conference table, is one of two systems being evaluated as part of the multi-band, multi-mission program. The other is a L3Harris phased array antenna that will be tested in the coming days, Turnbull said. In April 2019, the companies received orders from the Defense Innovation Unit to develop antenna prototypes.

A third demonstration was carried out in September by Atlas Space Operations, a small company that operates a network of ground stations that can be accessed through a cloud-based platform. The company also won a DIU contract to demonstrate phased array technology.

CEO Sean McDaniel told SpaceNews the company held a two-week demonstration for the Space Force that demonstrated four-satellite downlink capability using two phased-array panels.

“The uniqueness of this lies in the software algorithm that does the digital beamforming,” he said. “So we were actually able to show how we can combine beams from the same satellite from two different panels at a distance from each other to increase the power of the signal.”

Turnbull said phased array antennas that can maintain contact with multiple satellites are an option being considered to replace 15 existing antennas that can only communicate with one satellite at a time.

The antennas are located at “remote tracking stations” at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Royal Air Force Station Oakhanger, United Kingdom; Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean; Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; Kaena Point, Hawaii; New Boston Air Force Station, New Hampshire; and Thule Air Base, Greenland.

The Space Force operates around 77 satellites, but more will be deployed in the coming years, so the current antenna network does not have enough capacity. “Phased array technology to control multiple satellites across multiple orbits will be needed in the future,” said Turnbull. “We are introducing a lot of new functions, all of which have to be controlled and controlled from the ground.”

However, the Space Force has not yet decided what type of electronically controlled antennas it will buy for the satellite control network. “We still have a lot of work to do to assess what is affordable,” said Turnbull.

The likely solution, he said, will be a mix of new phased array antennas, commercial services, and sharing agreements to take advantage of the antenna capacity of other US government agencies.

“We’re doing a study of what we’re going to build,” said Turnbull. “The cheapest would be a huge antenna that can communicate with 30 to 40 satellites at the same time, but also becomes a single point of failure.”

Turnbull’s office is reviewing options such as leasing capacity from commercial providers through a program called Commercial Augmentation Services. It’s also working on partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use the agency’s antennas with over-capacity.

“In order to fly the missions that we’re about to launch, we need civil, commercial systems, something like multi-band, multi-mission, in addition to the existing systems we have today,” said Turnbull.

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