SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Air Force constellation of satellites designed to transmit high-resolution imagery and videos continues to expand as U.S. allies appear ready to pledge financial support for one spacecraft and Congress provides funding for another.

As a result of steadily rising demand for global satellite communications services, the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) fleet of X- and Ka-band satellites, which originally was expected to include six satellites, now is likely to include 10 spacecraft.

“A multinational agreement is in the works with several nations which may add another satellite to our constellation,” Dave Madden, director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate in Los Angeles, said Jan. 10 during a teleconference with reporters to discuss the planned Jan. 19 launch of the fourth WGS spacecraft. The satellite funded by the multinational group would be the ninth WGS satellite.

The U.S. allies expected to share the cost of the spacecraft are Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand, industry officials said. Air Force officials declined to confirm that list of countries but said the United States and five international partners are expected to sign by Jan. 17 a memorandum of understanding pledging funding for a ninth WGS satellite.

“If the deal goes through, [the five nations] will pay to procure the satellite in exchange for access to a certain percentage of bandwidth across the entire WGS constellation,” Madden said. The agreement is similar to a deal U.S. and Australian government officials approved in 2007. Under that agreement, Australia paid for the sixth WGS spacecraft in exchange for access to the WGS constellation.

These agreements benefit the U.S. military because “we get an additional satellite on orbit to support our operations and it aligns U.S. forces with allies because they are all on the same equipment,” Madden said.

Funding for a 10th WGS satellite was included in the 2012 Defense Department budget bill signed Dec. 31 by U.S. President Barack Obama. Although the Air Force did not request money for that spacecraft in its 2012 budget plan, Congress provided $326 million to pay for it.

That money was drawn from another program, Assured Satcom Services in Single Theater, or ASSIST, a Defense Department initiative designed to reduce the cost of acquiring commercial satellite communications services by establishing a long-term lease of a dedicated, commercial spacecraft to serve U.S. forces in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

Due in part to a growing reliance on unmanned aircraft capturing large amounts of imagery, demand for military satellite communications capacity is expected to increase exponentially, Madden said. Air Force officials are “working hard to try to figure out the best way to satisfy demand with a combination of WGS, hosted payloads and other options,” he added.

Three WGS satellites are currently in orbit. The fourth WGS spacecraft has been mounted on a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida in preparation for launch. Prime contractor Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., is building the fifth, sixth and seventh WGS satellites. On Dec. 16, the U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing a $296 million contract for production and launch of the eighth WGS satellite.

After launching WGS-4, Air Force officials plan to spend approximately six weeks using the satellite’s xenon-ion thrusters to raise the satellite into orbit. That propulsion system is similar to the one that failed to move the Air Force’s first Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite into orbit after its August 2010 launch. Investigators determined that the AEHF thruster malfunctioned due to debris in the fuel line. Air Force officials have scrutinized the WGS-4 fuel lines to ensure the same problem does not prevent that satellite from reaching orbit on schedule, Madden said.

The WGS-4 satellite is scheduled to be placed in an orbit over the continental United States while engineers test its performance. By the end of April, WGS-4 is scheduled to move to its destination “in the Indian Ocean region,” Madden said.

In January 2013, the Air Force plans to launch the fifth WGS satellite. WGS-6 is scheduled for launch in June 2013, said Jim Sponnick, United Launch Alliance vice president for mission operations.



U.S. Air Force Orders Eighth WGS Satellite

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...