The U.S. military’s newest communications satellite is projected to last seven years beyond its original design life thanks to better-than-expected fuel economy and a U.S. Air Force decision to load it with additional fuel prior to its October launch, according to service and industry officials.

The first Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite, launched

Oct. 10

aboard an Air Force Atlas 5


now is expected to operate for 19 years, according to Mark Spiwak, WGS program manager for prime contractor Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif. Spiwak and other WGS program officials spoke with reporters Jan. 29 in a conference call arranged to mark the Jan. 18 transfer of the

satellite to Air Force control.

The WGS system represents the U.S. military’s first step toward overhauling its satellite communications architecture. Each satellite will be able to route 2.1 to 3.6 gigabits of data per second, a tenfold increase from the satellites they are replacing

, and digital equipment will allow communication between users operating on different frequencies.

The first WGS satellite’s estimated lifespan was revised following three months of on-orbit checkout by Boeing. Five years of the anticipated extra life

is due to

fuel efficiency demonstrated during on-orbit testing, and two years were tacked on for the additional xenon ion fuel, Boeing spokesman Dave Garlick said.

Increasing the satellite’s fuel load by

10 percent prior to launch was

not a trivial matter, Garlick said in an e-mail. He characterized it as

“a painstaking procedure that takes weeks of planning and several days to accomplish in a manner that is safe for both the hardware and the personnel involved.

Boeing is under contract to

build six WGS

satellites for the Air Force. The second and third

satellites in the series are undergoing environmental testing and will be launched separately this year. The fourth will follow in 2011, the fifth in 2012 and the sixth in 2013. Australia last year agreed to finance the sixth satellite in exchange for access to the satellite network.

The Air Force has decided to purchase the additional fuel for the second and third WGS satellites and is likely to do the same for the remaining three, Air Force Col. Donald Robbins, WGS program manager at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base,

said during the conference call.

The satellite’s downlink beam

also is exceeding expectations, Spiwak said. Its power margin is 25 percent greater than ground tests predicted, which will enable users to link to the satellite with smaller antennas and maintain stronger connections

, he said.

“We’re thrilled with [the satellite’s] performance,” Robbins said. “It’s responding as designed. We’re not waiting to turn it on.”


satellite is positioned over the Pacific Ocean and is on track to meet its scheduled Initial Operating Capability milestone in January 2009, Robbins said. But the Air Force plans to have it ready for the military to use by some time in April.

The next two satellites are slated to be positioned in slots covering

Europe and

central Asia, Robbins said.

The entire WGS program is expected to cost $1.2 billion, and Robbins said he is not anticipating a change in its funding profile when the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush unveils its

2009 budget request next week.