One of the UK Ministry of Defence's most radical private sector supply contracts is set to mark its halfway point with a dramatic increase in capability, as Astrium Services starts the final push towards a 19 December launch of the fourth satellite in its Skynet 5 secure communications constellation.
By adding another layer of redundancy to the existing three satellites - the first of which was launched in 2002 - the new 5D spacecraft, designed for a 12-year service life, has allowed the UK MoD to extend until 2022 its 10-year old Skynet 5 X-band and UHF contract with Astrium Services, which formerly ran the scheme as Paradigm.
The new spacecraft will also extend the geographic reach of the service. In addition, as Astrium Services has also acquired the payload of the Anik G1 satellite - set for launch in early 2013 - within the next few months Skynet's provision of X-band services will stretch from 178˚W to 135˚E, leaving just a narrow strip of the Pacific out of range. X-band is used for communication beyond theatre and has the advantage of being highly secure.
Speaking in Toulouse on 6 November, where final checks had been completed before Skynet 5D was to be packed for shipping to the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, for integration with its Ariane 5 rocket, Astrium Services executive director for government communications Simon Kershaw said the new spacecraft would provide also at least 11 new NATO-compliant UHF channels for tactical communications by UK and other forces which buy Skynet communications support. UHF, he added, is a "rare commodity" for troops in the field.
In addition to tactical and out-of-theatre communications, Skynet provides personal mobile phone and internet access for troops in Afghanistan and other theatres.
In addition to the UK, customers have included NATO, the US Department of Defense and the armed forces of Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia.
Astrium has two major Skynet ground stations in addition to its satellite and connections control centre in Corsham, Wiltshire, and provides a number of mobile ground stations for forward deployment. Agreement with the MoD is "imminent", adds Kershaw, for the development of a less capable but more-easily deployable ground station which could also find its way on to ships.