Satellite Operators Solicit Bids To Create Orbital Database

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PARIS — Three of the world’s largest commercial satellite operators have issued a request for proposals for a company to design and operate a database on satellite positions, planned maneuvers and signal transmissions with a view to reducing the chance of orbital collisions and frequency interference.

The three companies — Intelsat, SES and Inmarsat — expect to select a contractor as early as December to create the Space Data Center, to be located at the newly established Space Data Association (SDA) on Britain’s Isle of Man.

If it is successful in persuading other satellite operators to overcome their natural hesitation in handing over sensitive corporate operating details, the SDA would become the satellite industry’s first global effort to address the related issues of space situational awareness and signal interference.

In bringing together three companies that regularly compete with one another, SDA already has proved it can overcome concerns about the release of proprietary information on satellite beam coverage areas, signal strength and planned in-orbit maneuvers.

Washington- and Bermuda-based Intelsat and SES of Luxembourg are the world’s two largest fixed satellite services companies in terms of revenue. Inmarsat of London is the oldest and, by revenue, the largest mobile satellite services operator. Taken together, the three companies operate about 100 satellites in geostationary orbit.

SDA Chairman Stewart Sanders, senior vice president for customer service at SES Engineering, said Nov. 17 that several other satellite fleet operators have signaled their intent to join the organization. In an interview, Sanders said the three founders have not sought additional members up to now to minimize legal complications that would slow the creation of the Space Data Center.

“There is a group of about eight operators, including the three founders, that have all indicated they support the project,” Sanders said. “In addition, there is a separate group of about 14 operators that have come together to discuss ways of combating [radio-frequency] interference. By sometime in the first quarter of 2010, you will see other members of SDA.”

SDA’s two other directors are Tobias Nassif, Intelsat vice president of satellite operations and engineering, and Ruy Pinto, Inmarsat vice president of satellite and network operations.

SDA’s request for bids asks prospective contractors to design a network that is backed up by identical databases on two other continents in addition to the home installation on the Isle of Man. The backup facilities could be nothing more than computer servers placed in operating centers already operated by an SDA member but kept separate, with restricted access.

SDA has two broad aims. The first is to provide highly accurate information on where commercial satellites are. General information on satellite locations is already publicly available, in part through the U.S. Defense Department’s Space Surveillance Network of ground sensors. But this information is not always as precise or up to date — nor is it disseminated as quickly — as it needs to be to protect against close encounters between satellites, especially in the more-crowded Earth orbits below the geostationary arc 36,000 kilometers above the equator.

The second ambition of SDA is to act as a clearinghouse of information on satellites’ individual radio beams and power levels, and whether owners have encountered signal interference — intentional or otherwise.

Unintentional signal interference is viewed as a growing problem in some regions of the world as satellite communications links proliferate. More satellites in orbit means they are operating closer than ever to one another, while widespread adoption of the technology has led to occasionally sloppy satellite-antenna pointing or Earth station maintenance.

The result, satellite operators say, is increased incidence of signal interference that, despite new satellite signal-location technology, is difficult and often expensive to locate.

SDA’s request for proposals offers the winning company a five-year contract but does not identify a price range. “We’ll see what responses we get in” and then the member companies will agree on a budget, Sanders said. He said the biggest expense is likely to be not personnel but software.

Sanders agreed that to be effective, the SDA will require operators to submit data almost constantly on their satellites’ location, maneuvers and beam locations. “Operators already do this today, but it’s on an informal basis. You call someone you know who knows someone at the company who can get you the needed information,” he said.

If SDA grows as its current members hope, it will face the question of whether to feed its data into the U.S. Defense Department’s Space Surveillance Network to improve what today is the world’s de facto satellite-tracking agency.

Alternatively, U.S. defense authorities could funnel information to SDA, whose Isle of Man location was selected in part for its perceived independence from any national space power.

One Defense Department official said U.S. authorities view SDA positively, and depending on its evolution may one day elect to contribute data to it. It remains to be seen whether satellite operators in China, Russia and India, for example, who in some cases are controlled by their national governments, will join SDA.