The VDES demonstration satellite is projected to launch in mid-2022, and will precede a decision about a larger constellation. Credit: Saab

WASHINGTON — Satellite operator Orbcomm, smallsat builder AAC Clyde Space, and Swedish aerospace contractor Saab are working on a demonstration cubesat for maritime communications that could mark the beginning of a new constellation, the companies announced Aug. 24.

The 3U cubesat will test a very high frequency data exchange system, or VDES, payload from Saab capable of two-way communications between ships and land via satellite. Orbcomm will distribute VDES data to customers, since the U.S-based operator already provides ship-tracking services with Automatic Identification System, which is a subset of VDES. 

The cubesat is projected to launch in mid-2022 on a to-be-determined rocket. 

VDES is currently limited to ground-based transmitters, limiting coverage to shorelines, but has 32 times the bandwidth of Automatic Identification System transmitters, according to an AAC Clyde news release. Space-based VDES would extend coverage across the oceans if provided through a constellation with enough satellites. 

Luis Gomes, CEO of Sweden-based AAC Clyde, said a decision about proceeding with a constellation won’t be made until the demo satellite is launched and assessed, but that the three companies are having discussions about what one could look like. 

“It could be a small one or it could be a large one,” he said in an interview. “We have talked up to about 100 spacecraft. Right now we are focused on demonstrating the service and then there will be a discussion with other members of the consortium on where we would like to take this and how we would like to progress.”

The Swedish Transport Administration is providing 12.2 million Swedish krona ($1.4 million) to AAC Clyde for the cubesat, which it will build in Uppsala, Sweden, at a facility previously used just for satellite subsystems. AAC Clyde said it expects to receive 17 million Swedish krona in total for the program, though Gomes declined to state the total projected cost of the satellite. 

Gomes said AAC Clyde will fly the VDES prototype in low Earth orbit, and that its current design doesn’t include propulsion. AAC Clyde typically designs its cubesats to last at least  five years, he said. 

The companies anticipate completing the demonstration in the first quarter of 2023, after which Orbcomm would continue to use the satellite’s VDES data, Greg Flessate, senior vice president and general manager of Orbcomm’s government, AIS and business operations, told SpaceNews

“It’s a natural extension of [AIS] data sets that takes it to the next level,” he said. 

Whereas Automatic Identification System is limited to simple data like ship speed and direction, VDES can provide weather, route information and other data, he said. VDES also has greater cybersecurity features than AIS, according to Saab. 

Orbcomm provides AIS data through a network of 13 satellites, Flessate said, some owned and some through partners, and has two AIS cubesats under contract from AAC Clyde. 

Flessate said the first of those two AIS cubesats is projected to launch in December, with the second to launch between the beginning of April and the end of June. He declined to say who will launch the cubesats. 

The AAC Clyde, Orbcomm and Saab cubesat won’t be the first to test VDES in space. UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Limited built a VDES demonstration cubesat with a payload Honeywell developed for exactEarth, a Canadian AIS provider, that launched in 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9. The European Space Agency also began testing space-based VDES in 2017 with Norway’s Norsat-2 smallsat. 

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...