Space Technology and Innovation | Satellite Test Device To Simulate Nuclear Effects

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s most robust communications satellites, designed to withstand severe space weather and even nuclear detonations, will be battle tested by engineers at Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee using a newly built device that simulates high-radiation events.

The Military Satellite Communications Atmospheric Scintillation Simulator, or MASS, developed by Welkin Sciences of Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Arnold Engineering Development Complex’s Test Technology Branch at a cost of $2.6 million, is expected to be delivered to the Air Force this summer. Officials have said the simulator provides the most realistic scintillation tests the satellites have faced.

“It’s the most you can do beside set off a nuclear bomb in the ionosphere,” said Bill Sward, Welkin Sciences’ engineering manager.

The goal of the project is to help the Air Force precisely test space systems, such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency super-secure military communications satellites, to ensure they can withstand disturbances, both natural and man-made. 

The U.S. military is heavily dependent on its superior space capabilities, and planners have long feared that a future adversary will try to neutralize that advantage, perhaps by exploding nuclear weapons in space or the upper atmosphere. The electromagnetic pulse from such blasts could disrupt radio frequency communications signals, a phenomenon that scientists call scintillation.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has made the resiliency of the nation’s space assets a top priority in recent years. As a result, scintillation has received more attention from the service. 

For example, the Air Force has included about $7 million for ionospheric research programs in its 2014 budget request. Budget documents call for developing “improved scintillation specification and forecast capability” for space-based communications and navigation systems. 

The MASS simulator could test the effects of scintillation on a variety of space programs, program officials said, because of its modular construction, which allows it to easily fit with several satellites, ground systems or terminals. According to contract award documents, the Air Force wants to be able to use the simulator to test the Secure Mobile Anti-jam Reliable Tactical-Terminal, also known as SMART-T.

MASS is one of the first simulators designed to test terminals, which connect to the satellite, not just the modems, program officials said. Previously, scintillation tests regularly meant testing the modem to withstand an attack, but did not include the satellite itself or the uplink and downlink, said Taylor Swanson, an aerospace engineer at Arnold, who has worked closely on the project.

“We kind of break into the signal paths and introduce scintillation,” Sward said.

The simulator provides a wide range of models to mimic different scenarios, including multiple events, natural radiation or a nuclear detonation in the ionosphere.

The project’s development was funded under the Small Business Innovative Research program, which gives money to small U.S. businesses to work on research and development programs for the federal government.

The market for the product is small, Sward said. But Sward said his company has had an inquiry for a quote from a Defense Department prime contractor that wanted to purchase a simulator to perform its own tests.