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Telesat Prepares for U.S. Air Force Satellite Exercise

Telesat Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. Credit: Telesat.

Telesat and two American partner companies plan a nine-month exercise with the U.S. Air Force that could position the Canadian satellite operator for future military and government tenders.

The goal for Telesat is to better understand how its low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation of satellites will perform under simulated operational conditions. The military is interested in confirming two things. The first is that the satellites will have low latency (or delays) in sending information. The second is high throughput, meaning the ability to transmit and receive large quantities of data (such as real-time videos) to and from remote locations.

The Telesat LEO network is expected to begin operations in 2022, using a set of satellites orbiting at roughly 1,000 km to 1,200 km above Earth. This altitude is high enough to avoid the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere (which would drag the satellites down over time), but low enough to offer fast communications with populations on Earth. 

The high throughput comes because the LEO network takes less time to transmit and receive information than satellites that are further away. For example, many communications satellites operate at geostationary orbit at roughly 36,000 km from Earth – or 30 times to 36 times higher than the Telesat satellite constellation’s orbit. Telesat is used to designing geostationary communications satellites with powerful spot beams that cover half the Earth. At the lower altitude, the beams are smaller, which focuses more of the energy into a smaller area to achieve higher throughput.

“We think it’s terrific that the U.S. Air Force is exploring the subtleties of these new commercial space-based networks to really define and refine the advantages they bring, because they are very stark,” said Don Brown, Telesat’s general manager of government services, in an interview. “Low latency is a very big deal in that customer’s world. So is high throughput. Both of those are things that networks like Telesat LEO bring in a revolutionary way, and the Air Force is really trying to understand what that revolutionary improvement in global networking can mean for them.”

There will be two sets of exercises, said Rich Pang, Telesat’s government user terminal development manager. The first will be with General Dynamics, doing data operations. Telesat and the Air Force will be running emulators to see what happens to Telesat LEO’s system “when military satellites start plugging in and military traffic starts flowing through it,” Pang said in an interview. The exercise should go well, Pang said, because the LEO network is “designed for terabits of capacity.”

The second effort is with Ball Aerospace, to understand how the LEO system can send information to a data centre or “the tactical edge”, meaning where the military is doing an operation. Sometimes it may be preferable to have the satellites share information between each other without involving the data centre, for example, for security reasons. 

In general, the U.S military is testing newer modes of satellite operations through two programs – an initial DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) project called Blackjack and a follow-on program called CASINO (Commercial Augmented Space Network Operations). The new Telesat exercises fall under CASINO, which examines how to use LEO networks in an operational environment. Blackjack focused more on “the demonstration and experimentation element” as a first step to getting ready for operations, said Brown.

Brown pointed to other work that Telesat is doing in association with this project. For one, they are interested in how cloud computing interacts with the LEO networks – so this military work could assist Telesat with how to capture, manage and disseminate data to all types of government users. Telesat is also working on new antenna systems with Ball Aerospace, and a modelling analysis of the network with General Dynamics.

Telesat added that the Air Force is the lead on this project, but other government agencies are likely to jump on board with the technology once it is proven in this environment. 

Telesat’s latest quarterly financial results, from Sept. 30, 2019, indicate year-over-year growth in revenues, and a net loss due to financial instrument and foreign exchange technicalities. The company reported consolidated revenue of $237 million, which was $10 million or four percent higher than the same period of 2018. Telesat posted a net loss of $123 million that quarter, compared with a net income of $117 million at the same time in 2018. 

The quarterly loss, Telesat said in a statement in September, was due to “higher non-cash losses on financial instruments, and a larger non-cash loss on foreign exchange, arising principally from the translation of Telesat’s U.S. dollar-denominated debt into Canadian dollars in the third quarter of 2019.”

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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