Will Little (and Responsive?) Satellites Replace Big (and Expensive?) Satellites?

Posted: October 19, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Global Hawk Glamor Shot

When in doubt, study.

Space News reports the Air Force plans to study whether to field a group of small satellites which could be operated by industry for the purpose of having assured communications with unmanned aerial vehicles.

The project, called Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (AISR), would feature satellites with four beams in Ku- and Ka-band to assure that sufficient satellite bandwidth is available for outrider Global Hawk or other unmanned aircraft without depriving satellite links to those in the thick of a conflict zone, officials said.

First question: why is this space project called the “Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance” system?

“Outrider,” in the context of the quote means outside or near the edge of a combat zone.  Consider also that Global Hawk (versus Predator and Reaper) is a whole different class of UAV with regard to price and capability.

Perhaps a bandwidth illustration from cinema would be helpful.  Goose (panicky): “Maverick, I have a 503 error…service unavailable!” Maverick (cool): “Switch to AISR Ka-band, Goose.”

Despite the arrival of the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) X- and Ka-band satellites, whose capacity dwarfs their predecessors in terms of throughput, the U.S. Air Force is concerned that demand on WGS capacity over the years will be greater than what is available on these spacecraft.

AISR would station satellites in geostationary orbit to assure that the unmanned craft would be able to beam their video and other data for relay to ground commanders even if WGS spacecraft were operating at near-saturation levels. The alternative would be to devote a WGS satellite beam to the Global Hawk operating on the periphery of a conflict zone, resulting in a shortage of in-theater capacity.

It would be interesting to know how small and capable the satellites are and how they’ll get to geo.  Going to geo requires a rocket of significance (with an upper stage) which tends to be darn expensive for a small satellite.

I wonder where’s the conventional wisdom on this issue?  Conventional wisdom would call for this mission to be done on commercially leased bandwidth or with an existent-type of military communications satellite.  Since whatever satellite is used has to truck all the way out to geo anyway, why not go with something that’s already proven and/or highly capable?

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Comments
  1. Maj Paul Contoveros says:

    Has there been any research conducted to determine the feasibility of simply skipping the satellites all together? What would prevent the USAF from building an air bridge of purpose-built UAVs dedicated as communications relays?

    • Space Wonk says:

      I’m sure the idea has been studied although I don’t know of any specific studies. If the airspace is uncontested, it might work fine. It the airspace was contested, probably not so fine.

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