WASHINGTON — Two satellites designed to bring mobile broadband coverage to the Arctic region for civilian and military users have completed key tests ahead of their planned launch next summer. 

Space Norway announced Nov. 21 that the second satellite of the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) cleared a significant milestone after completing thermal vacuum testing at Northrop Grumman’s factory in Dulles, Virginia. 

ASBM, a mission led by Space Norway’s subsidiary Heosat, will see two satellites deployed in a highly elliptical orbit. If successful, ASBM would help close the Arctic’s connectivity gap. Operating in an oval-shaped orbit around the poles, the satellites will speed up when over the South Pole and slow down above the North Pole, tagging each other to deliver persistent coverage of the northernmost region of Earth.

The Northrop Grumman-built satellites – ASBM-1 and ASBM-2 – will host civilian and military payloads, including two Viasat Ka-band payloads that will extend the company’s satellite-based communications network across the Arctic region.

The ASBM mission has been in the works since 2019. It is now targeted for launch in mid-2024 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Multiple hosted payloads

In addition to Viasat’s Ka-band payloads, the spacecraft will host payloads for the Norwegian Armed Forces and the U.S. Space Force — including an X-Band payload for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, the Norwegian Radiation Monitor payload ordered by the European Commission and two Extremely High Frequency Extended Data Rate payloads for U.S. military communications. 

“With both satellites through the thermal vacuum test we are really closing in on making this strategically important capability real,” said Space Norway program director Kjell-Ove Skare. “We have seen an unprecedented collaborative effort with Viasat, the U.S. Space Force, our Norwegian Armed Forces and Northrop Grumman.”

Skare said the ASBM-1 and ASBM-2 spacecraft “will now undergo their final testing and readiness activities. Once complete, they will be transferred to Vandenberg Space Force Base.”

The ground station for ASBM will be established in North Norway. The U.S. Space Force is building a gateway site at Clear Space Force Station, Alaska, where it will operate both military payloads.

Need for commercial, military connectivity

The high latitude of the Arctic means most satellites do not pass directly overhead, making communications difficult. A growing number of satellite operators are venturing into the Arctic to improve connectivity, including Iridium, OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink. SES also is looking to provide Arctic coverage with its next-generation medium Earth orbit network.

The ASBM mission is of critical importance to the U.S. military. To fill gaps in coverage over the Arctic, the U.S. Air Force worked out a deal with Space Norway to launch two U.S. military communications payloads on ASBM satellites. The payloads were developed by Northrop Grumman.

The Arctic is seen as a potential flashpoint for geopolitical tensions. The region provides a path for air and missile threats to North America and Europe, U.S. officials have warned. The Space Force needs better satellite connectivity to support radar systems being deployed in the region as part of early warning networks.

The U.S. Arctic strategy released in October 2022 by the Biden administration said satellite communications over the region are critical for “presidential and DoD command and control over strategic forces.”

The administration said DoD should “partner with the growing commercial space industry, allies and partners to achieve broadband communications to increase reliability of communications for U.S. military personnel operating in Arctic regions.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...