Australia’s Sovereign Satellite

Credit: Airbus Defence & Space
Credit: Airbus Defence & Space

The Australian government is about to select a prime industry space partner to set it on a course that will deliver its own managed and operated military satellite service.

One of the most important advances in Australian defence that will transform the military’s sovereign communications for years to come is Joint Project 9102, the Australian Defence Satellite Communication System (ADSS). This will basically free the Australian Defence Force (ADF) from its reliance on satellite dependency on the United States.

The contenders include Airbus Defence & Space, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and indigenous company Optus. Boeing is a key player in the space defence sector, in that it provides the US military and some of its allies, including Australia, with its Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS). Although close allies, Australia still needs to ask permission to use it, which theoretically could be delayed if the US had a higher priority.

Airbus invited AMR to view its facilities in Portsmouth and Hawthorn in the United Kingdom, and to learn more about its proposal. The Airbus case is strong, following on from its ongoing collaboration with the UK Ministry of Defence over its four Skynet 5 satellites, as well its international partnership with Al Yah Satellite Communications (Yahsat), the UAE’s international satellite operator. The Yahsat satellite is UAE controlled and decisions made by the UAE. Airbus would provide Australia with a similar arrangement where the ADF would end up with a sovereign, independent satellite operation.

The UK’s need to begin replacing its Skynet 5 satellites begins with the launch of Skynet 6A, which was awarded to Airbus in July 2020. Much work went into Skynet 5 in terms of research and development, which was conducted over a period of 10 years – by Airbus and the companies that it had acquired – before the launch of the first Skynet 5 satellite in 2007. “This is a complex system – it is not just the spacecraft it is the whole control architecture that you need to operate it and manage it as well,” said Martin Rowse, director space, Australia, Airbus Defence and Space.

The purchase of a 45 percent stake in the OneWeb Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite company by Airbus on 3 July 2020, will allow the company to include OneWeb’s technology into Skynet 6’s architecture, as OneWeb satellites are already manufactured by a joint venture including Airbus Defence and Space.

Skynet 6A will initially supplement the existing SKYNET 5 fleet of four satellites which were launched in 2007 (the first two), 2008, and finally 2012. Airbus won the Skynet contract in 2003, managing four Skynet 4 satellites, which were developed and operated, by the Signals Research and Development Establishment, Royal Signals and Radar Establishment and Royal Air Force until 2003.

According to Rowse, the Skynet 5 type of satellite is designed to have a lifespan of between 10 to 15 years, although they will in fact exceed this lifespan. “Design life dependent on fuel and the degradation of components – solar flares and natural radiation in space are one of the factors that degrade components. If you want to go beyond that lifespan you have to be efficient at how you manage them.”

The Australian government will decide on one of the prime contractors, but the intention is that a new space sector will grow rapidly serving both military and civilian needs. With this in mind, Airbus has formed Team Maier (a word from the indigenous Meriam people that means the link between the land, sea and space) to unify industry behind the project and on into further work in the space sector.

Team Maier comprises an initial six companies with more due to be announced later in the year. These include: Blacktree Technology (whose skills set covers wide to narrow band satcoms), Clearbox Systems (who specialise in control segments), Microsoft, SSTL, UGL (the largest facilities provider in Australia who will provide the ground infrastructure) and Willyama Services (an Aboriginal owned IT and cyber services business). These core companies have teaming agreements in place to ensure they have as much responsibility as possible in Australia. So that when the contract is finished in 10-15 years that capability is retained in Australia. This will help to generate the next wave of people coming into the space sector and the skills could even be exported. That is the way Yahsat was delivered and that is the way we think is best for Australia to deliver sovereign capability.

According to Rowse, Australia would like to have a similar arrangement to Yahsat). He notes that the initial contract was to deliver an end-to-end solution over the 10 years of the contract. In a similar way to the model developed for Yahsat, Airbus would recruit and train Australians so that they could take over the operations at the end of the contract period.

One of those key partners is Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), a subsidiary of Airbus. Once a university spinout based in Guildford, it provides LEO knowledge and expertise. The company’s founder, Sir Martin Sweeting, invented the small satellite and the company has now been developing these over 40 years.

The UK's four Skynet 5 satellites are coming to the end of their service life requiring replacement - the first of which will be Skynet 6A. Credit: Airbus Defence & Space
The UK’s four Skynet 5 satellites are coming to the end of their service life requiring replacement – the first of which will be Skynet 6A. Credit: Airbus Defence & Space

Skynet 6A

On 13 July Airbus reported that the Skynet 6A military secure communications satellite had passed its Critical Design Review (CDR).

The Skynet 6A contract includes the design, development, manufacture, assembly, integration, cyber protection, test and launch of the satellite, as well as associated national technology development programmes (which have also been planned for Australia). According to Richard Franklin, managing director of Airbus Defence and Space UK, the CDR was achieved on time and that the next target is the delivery of the Communications Structure by the end of the year.

Skynet 6A remains on “firmly on track and making great progress” said Franklin. He added that over 400 people are now working on the project at three sites in the UK – Stevenage, Portsmouth and Hawthorn. The scheduled launch date for Skynet 6A is planned for 2025 with the aim of it being fully operational by 2026. Although the UK currently has this military satellite in production and funded, it is likely that it will need further satellites as the remaining Skynet 5 satellites reach the end of their operational lives, although how this will be achieved and when has not been publicly clarified.

The actual Skynet 6A satellite is being constructed entirely Stevenage, and because of its sovereign ownership the integration will take place at the Airbus facility in Portsmouth. Usually integration has previously been completed at an Airbus facility in the south of France but this is not the case for Skynet 6A. Once completed, it will be tested at a new national test facility at the Harwell Campus, near Oxford, said Patrick Wood, Head of Space Systems Production. The facility has been build over the last three years.

An interesting fact is that the next Mars Rover is also being built by Airbus in Stevenage. The Solar Orbiter, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and launched from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral in February 2020 with a mission to take the closest images of the sun to date, was also built in Stevenage.

On 1 February 2022, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “It’s crucial we continue to push the frontiers of our defence space ambitions, enhancing our military resilience and strengthening our nation’s security.” Credit: Airbus Defence & Space

Sovereign Australia

The Australian military satellite project JP9102 as an ambition has been around for 5-6 years, according to Rowse. Airbus responded to the Australian government’s Request for Information (RfI) to begin the project in 2019. Airbus based its submission around the UK’s SkyNet 5 and its model of operation, leading into Skynet 6. Like the UK and the UAE, Australia wants sovereign control and end-to-end management of its military satcom capability. The bid was completed in January 2022 – the submission date for all of the bids.

Australia’s satellite will, like Skynet 6A, operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) not Geo Stationary (GEO). LEO is ideal for the type of communications and observation missions that are required by the ADF.

Commenting further, Rowse said, “We will provide an enhanced version of Skynet 6A – the same bus and components but highly enhanced to meet Australia’s requirement which includes tri-band (X-band, Ka-band and UHF) which allows for high resilient satcom and mobility.”

The project will include a new $20 million investment in a new ground station, the plans for which have already been conceived by partner UGL. There will be two new operation centres with roughly the same scale and operating model as the UK uses at its facility at Hawthorn in Wiltshire, managed by a highly specialised workforce.

However, the actual build of the satellite would remain in the UK because building it in Australia would not be practical or sustainable in the current planning model. But Rowse reaffirmed that building an SME base in Australia was an integral part of the proposal buy Airbus, a process that has already started.

Airbus is already working to build up the skills base that this burgeoning satellite sector is beginning to demand, not just among school levers but also in up-skilling professionals in more precise expertise relating to space activities. This also means supporting to entrepreneurs.

Airbus has already set a number of projects with each having an Australian partner who will be the lead as Airbus delivers the capability, said Rowse. “Airbus has agreements with around 40 companies in Australia and has discussed with them what would make the biggest difference to their space ecosystem. There is also much STEM activity now occurring on a wider scale.” All of the projects will be split financially between the Australian Government and Airbus, and many are already linking to the ADF’s new Space Command, which was established on 18 January 2022.

Rowse added that Airbus was interacting with additional space related programmes within the National Space Mission, irrespective of whether it wins JP9102.

“We want to leave Australia with a greater space capability than when we came in, which helps us because it brings in additional supply chains and customers. We are spending as much as we can to include collaborative work and skills transfer, which will also financially viable to Australia,” conclude Rowse.

by Andrew Drwiega