Editorial | The Right Approach to Tech Development

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Eutelsat’s plan to give unproven anti-jamming gear a trial run on one of its future communications satellites is noteworthy not only as a step toward addressing the growing problem of intentional interference but also because it employs a promising new model for ushering government-backed space technology into the commercial sector.

Eutelsat is among several satellite operators that have been hit with increasing incidents of intentional interference in recent years, particularly in the Middle East coverage area. Although more than 90 percent of all satellite interference is unintentional, some operators are beginning to feel the financial impact of deliberate jamming, particularly since the Arab Spring upheavals began in late 2010. Anti-jamming gear such as nulling antennas has long been available, but such hardware is expensive and thus hasn’t been widely adopted by the commercial satellite industry.

The European and French space agencies, through a pair of programs known as Artes and Flexible Payload, respectively, have been developing a lower-cost solution: converters that would enable satellite operators to quickly hop from one uplink frequency to another to stay one step ahead of would-be jammers. Both efforts have been under way for years, but until now there has been no plan for moving the technology from the design phase to space-based qualification testing.

Enter Atlas, a European Space Agency (ESA) initiative to co-finance, with industry, qualification testing of space technologies with promising commercial applications. In the words of a Eutelsat official, Atlas is providing the “extra push” that encourages a normally reticent private sector to adopt unproven technology. Fortunately, the Flexible Payload, or Flip, converter is a fairly low-risk technology that would not affect a satellite’s normal operations even if it doesn’t work as planned.

Eutelsat plans to place Flip-based frequency converters — along with government-developed modulators to ensure efficient power allocation among satellite channels — aboard the Eutelsat 8 West B satellite under construction by Thales Alenia Space. The satellite is slated for launch in 2015 to an orbital slot covering the Middle East that Eutelsat hopes will anchor a brisk business from regional television broadcasters. The satellite’s revenue-generating potential, coupled with the interference problems in the region, makes it a great candidate test bed for the technology.

If successful, the demonstration will benefit not only Eutelsat but all satellite operators in interference-prone regions. Companies that might be especially interested are those that lease capacity to the U.S. Defense Department, which has long been concerned about the vulnerability of commercial satellites to interference.

ESA is to be commended for a program that encourages private investment to get technologies off the government drawing boards and onto operational commercial platforms. The French space agency also deserves credit for its work on the Flip frequency converter technology, as does Eutelsat for being an early Atlas participant. In an era when government budgets for just about everything are facing tough scrutiny, this is a good example of how taxpayer investments in space technology can be leveraged for true economic benefit.