A lot has changed in the satellite industry in recent years. VSAT sizes are now measured in inches rather than feet. IP data rates are stated not in kilobits per second but in megabits per second. Customers now talk of “putting a micro terminal on everything smoking”— meaning ships, land-based vehicles and aircraft — to provide true satellite communications on the move.
The satellite industry is now on the verge of matching these improvements in antennas and modems on the ground with significant changes in spacecraft design. Engineers at Intelsat General and parent company Intelsat are looking ahead to design satellites that meet customer needs for a spacecraft’s 15-year-service life. But they are also working on ways to upgrade satellites once they are in orbit, whether through a software upgrade from the ground or a servicing vehicle sent into orbit.
One recent example is the Internet Router in Space (IRIS) hosted payload that is on our Intelsat 14 satellite. The IRIS payload has shown that a uplink signal can be “routed” to several different ground stations simultaneously, and that the IRIS software can be quickly updated from the ground. Such technology could one day lead to the ability to pass signals from one satellite to another via a laser link, eliminating unnecessary uplinks and downlinks with ground stations.
Intelsat and other companies also are looking at multi-spot-beam technology with high-power beams that are pencil thin. For the pencil-beam approach, beam-to-beam handoff schemes and frequency reuse require solving known issues associated with multiple high-data-rate users exhausting the bandwidth in a few of the pencil beams. Other work is being done on designs that accommodate mobility and smaller terminal sizes and tackle the weather limitations of Ka-band.
Hosted payloads will also play an important role in future designs, so that customers can get a capability in orbit without having to launch a dedicated spacecraft or small constellation. Progress is being made in schemes to permit on-orbit refueling of existing satellites and perhaps even the capacity to replace components in orbit to upgrade an older spacecraft.
What will work best for the future? We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting to see, since our customers clearly demand that we design around their needs now before launching assets that we all have to live with for many years to come. We at Intelsat and Intelsat General are working on these issues and are always open to the thoughts and ideas of our customers to help us design and launch spacecraft better suited to tomorrow’s needs.