WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is exploring the use of small geosynchronous satellites to enhance military communications networks — either through purchased commercial services or government-owned constellations.

“We’re trying to leverage new capabilities from the commercial industry,” Clare Hopper, chief of the Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office, said Oct. 19 at the annual MilSat Symposium in Mountain View, California. 

Hopper said the Space Force is interested in procuring maneuverable small satellites that can deliver connectivity from geosynchronous Earth orbit. 

Her office on Oct. 18 issued a request for information on the capabilities of the microGEO satellite sector, which uses smaller, cheaper satellites that are being marketed as nimbler options than large geosynchronous spacecraft.

The Space Force is “seeking sources capable of supporting a Department of Defense effort launching and maintaining communications satellites that allow for greater maneuverability and smaller size than traditional geostationary satellites,” said the request. 

Through this market research, the Space Force wants to assess the advantages and potential risks of using smaller geosynchronous platforms. Companies entering the microGEO sector of the satellite industry include large satcom operators like Intelsat and Inmarsat, and satellite internet startups like Astranis

Hopper said the plan is to use IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity) contracts that provide a framework for the Space Force to place task orders for satcom hardware or services on an as-needed basis.

The IDIQ contract, Hopper said, would allow for the procurement of communications services or could give the government the ability to “effectively acquire our own constellation through a unique leasing arrangement.”

Geostationary orbit, 22,236-miles above Earth, has traditionally been the preferred location of communications satellites so antennas on the ground do not have to rotate to track them, and are pointed permanently at the position of the satellite. 

But microGEO satellites have not typically been deployed in geo orbits. These satellites are a small fraction of the mass of traditional geocomm satellites, and are being offered as a more flexible alternative.

The Space Force sees small GEO satellites as a means to increase the resiliency of military communications, the RFI said. 

It is seeking small satellites “capable of maneuvering between International Telecommunication Union (ITU) assigned orbital slots in the GEO arc,” said the request. “Increased maneuverability utilizing decentralized and spatially dispersed small satellites is imperative for the future resilience of both the constellation and the communications support for users without impact to existing user equipment and gateways.”

Direct-to-cell communications

Hopper said the Space Force also plans to issue a request for information on so-called direct-to-device satellite services.

This is an emerging segment of the satcom industry seeking to provide connectivity to cellphone users via satellites. 

Companies like AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global are developing satellite constellations to provide direct-to-cell services. SpaceX has announced plans for a Starlink direct-to-device cell phone service, promising global coverage from “cell phone towers in space.”

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...