Military Space Quarterly | USAF Eyes Purchase of Commercial Satellite Platforms

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FARNBOROUGH, England — Several U.S. satellite builders are expected to submit bids in the coming weeks for a novel U.S. Air Force program that would purchase three generic commercial satellite platforms to which the service would add its own payloads, according to U.S. industry officials.

The program, called Lynx, appears to be an evolution of what the Air Force had called Muscle, or Multi-Use Satellite Commercialization Experiment. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles sent out a request for information on the Muscle program in early 2011.

The idea is to provide the Air Force with an ability to launch a telecommunications satellite into geostationary orbit quickly by buying generic spacecraft platforms, or buses, in advance.

As described in the January 2011 request for information, the Muscle program would include “delivery on-orbit of a small-medium weight class commercial bus with a high-rate RF subsystem, ground terminals to interface to satellite planning/control center, and satellite command and control software. A bus dedicated to only the payload or co-hosting with other commercial or military payloads may be considered, so long as all objectives can be met. User terminals and their mission planning/control are not included.”

Industry officials said these elements are still found in the Lynx competition.

Roger Krone, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, said Boeing’s Seal Beach, Calif.-based space division expects to respond to the solicitation in the coming weeks by proposing three satellite platforms, including the company’s new 702 SP product line.

The 702 SP uses all-electric propulsion to reduce a satellite’s weight by up to 50 percent of what it would be at launch if it used conventional chemical propellant. The drawback to an all-electric design is that the thrusters used to put the satellite into final geostationary orbit pack less punch than chemical thrusters, meaning it can take several months after launch before a satellite reaches its operating position 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

In a July 10 briefing at the Farnborough Air Show here, Krone acknowledged that the all-electric propulsion design is not usually associated with rapid response. But by using a heavier launcher to place the lower-weight satellite directly into geostationary orbit, the objective of fielding a communications capacity quickly could be achieved.

“With direct injection we are in final position within a couple of weeks — not months,” Krone said.

Boeing inaugurated its 702 SP product earlier this year with an order for three or four satellites from two commercial satellite operators — Asia Broadcast Satellite of Hong Kong, and Satmex of Mexico.

The all-electric design has captured the interest of several other satellite fleet operators. Other satellite manufacturers have said they are working on similar designs.

Krone agreed that having the U.S. Air Force as an early customer likely would accelerate the market’s adoption of the technology. Krone said the Air Force solicitation, which he declined to discuss in detail — or even to name — appears to be looking for a satellite bus with a capacity in the vicinity of the 702 SP and Boeing’s mid-size bus, the 702 MP, which uses conventional propellant to raise a satellite’s orbit from its drop-off point after launch.

Joanne Maguire, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., said her company is also interested in the Air Force solicitation. Maguire likewise declined to discuss the program in detail but described it in general terms in a March interview as an example of the Air Force’s push to adopt commercial procurement methods to cut costs.

“I think we have some products that could answer the mail, so we’re in the hunt for that one,” Maguire said.

 

Warren Ferster contributed to this article from Washington.

 

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