WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin announced Nov. 16 it plans to launch a payload to orbit next year to demonstrate 5G connectivity from space. The experiment is part of a larger project, known as 5G.MIL, that the company started in 2020 in response to military demand for high-speed wireless communications.

By branching the latest cellular technology into space, the company ultimately hopes to forge what it calls an “all-domain network” — or a seamless communications web between space assets, aircraft, ships and ground forces.

Dan Rice, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for 5G.MIL programs, said the company in October completed a successful hardware-in-the-loop test of a 5G non-terrestrial network payload and is moving forward with plans to launch a satellite to low Earth orbit in 2024 for a space demonstration. 

He said this payload is the industry’s first regenerative advanced 5G satellite base station for a non-terrestrial network. A regenerative payload enables direct, satellite-based communications, bypassing terrestrial networks when necessary. The satellite base station communicates with other satellites and with ground stations. In a regenerative base station, the signal processing and radio access network is onboard the satellite.

Commercial companies have demonstrated 5G from space but the networking processing functions are performed on the ground, and the satellite is a relay node to connect the ground to a user. “In our case, the radio access network, all of that software and hardware, the core network that does user authentications is all on the satellite payload itself,” Rice said. “That creates additional resiliency in cases where the satellite may be operating over territory where you perhaps don’t have secure communications to the ground.”

During the lab test, the satellite base station and user equipment on the ground successfully connected and transferred data, including live video streaming. 

Lockheed Martin said its 5G network is compliant with 3GPP Release 17, an industry standard. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) develops wireless communications standards for global consistency. 

The 5G payload was developed with open radio access network, which allows mobile service providers to build networks with non-proprietary interoperable subcomponents. 

In a separate live field demonstration in early October, Lockheed Martin established a hybrid network for land, air and space domains, including 5G connectivity and other tactical networks used by the military, Rice said. The test included five hybrid base stations with 5G, tactical datalinks and space backhaul. 

Potential customers 

The company is considering several options to market this technology. One is as part of a Lockheed Martin 5G private network that would include commercial partners and would offer services to the DoD. It also might offer the satellite payloads to commercial mobile network operators. Rice said Lockheed Martin worked with Verizon to show that a single handset could  be used to transition from a private network to a Verizon public network. 

“We’ve been focused on reducing the size weight and power of these networks so that they can be brought forward and deployed into more austere environments integrated into aircraft, ground vehicles and ships,” said Rice. 

“You would take the infrastructure with you,” he said. Terminals would be carried on vehicles, integrated directly into an aircraft on a pod or on the skin of the aircraft.

Doing a standards-based network is critical,  Rice said, “so you can take advantage of the large volume of user equipment that is out there that will be compliant to the Release 17 standard. And that lowers the cost of user terminals.”

Company funding space demo 

Joe Rickers, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for connectivity, transport and access, said the space demonstration is entirely funded by the company but he could not disclose the exact cost. 

“It’s a fairly large undertaking for us,” he told SpaceNews

The advent of interoperability standards between terrestrial and space networks was a huge breakthrough that motivated Lockheed Martin to invest in this demonstration, Rickers said.

The 5G payload, about the size of a microwave oven, has started environmental testing and has been installed on a small satellite bus similar to the ones the company is producing for the Space Development Agency’s low Earth orbit constellation. A specific launch date or launch vehicle has not yet been determined.

Rickers said Lockheed Martin has been in talks with multiple wireless providers and satellite communications companies that are interested in a 5G payload for low-Earth orbit satellites. “We see a lot of potential partners,” he said. 

“Space will be the major enabler of being able to use 5G across different platforms,” said Rickers. “It’s been slower to get traction because of the cost, and you’ve got to have standards to be able to make this work across the industry.”

“We’ve progressed to where you can tie terrestrial together to space,” he said. “It’s really starting to come together. We’ve still got a ways to go but we’ve seen a lot of progress.”

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...