PARIS — Space Norway has concluded contracts with the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, the U.S. Air Force and commercial mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat to fly three payloads on each of two satellites to be launched into highly elliptical orbit on a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022.
The partners include Northrop Grumman, which is under U.S. Air Force contract to build two modified Advanced-EHF payloads and, under a separate contract, will provide the satellite platforms.
Each satellite, a Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems GeoStar-3, is expected to weigh some 2,000 kilograms at launch and to provide 6 kW of power for 15 years’ in-orbit life to provide Arctic communications.
Space Norway will be selling capacity from its X-band payload to other NATO governments and has said it’s in talks with Britain, Canada, France and Germany.
The U.S. Air Force will integrate its Space Norway EHF payloads into the AEHF satellite constellation in geostationary orbit. This is apparently the first time that an operational U.S. military payload will fly on a commercial satellite.
London-based Inmarsat will lease the Ka-band payload — both military and commercial Ka-band — to add to its Global Xpress constellation in geostationary orbit to provide Arctic coverage for maritime and aeronautical users, including commercial aircraft at the edge of the Arctic, to provide them with a higher elevation angle than is possible from geostationary-orbit spacecraft.
The government of Norway has agreed to invest some $101 million into the project now that Space Norway has confirmed, with the U.S. military and Inmarsat commitments, the financial viability of the project, which will be managed by a subsidiary, called Space Norway Heosat AS.
Kjell-Ove Orderud Skare, the program’s manager at Space Norway, said the three customers’ payloads fill up the available space on the GEOStar-3, “which is key to making this a cost-effective solution.”
“We look forward to providing the world’s first and only mobile broadband service in the Arctic region, something which has long been an important objective for the Norwegian authorities.”
And not just Norwegian. The U.S. and Canadian militaries for years have tried to structure a system that would serve the relatively modest, but strategically important, bandwidth requirements in the Arctic but have come up short.
It took Space Norway Heosat, created in 2018, to close the business case by assembling Norwegian and U.S. military demand, plus Inmarsat’s commercial ambition.
Even with the U.S. Air Force as a customer, the Norwegian government had withheld its promised financial support until the business case was firmly closed. That happened with the arrival of Inmarsat.
The confirmation of the Space Norway Heosat program could remove one sales argument used by backers of proposed constellations of low-orbiting broadband satellites, almost all of which view government business as a key customer set.
Inmarsat designed the Ka-band payload on the Space Norway satellites using some of the same specifications used for the next-generation Inmarsat 7,8 and 9 Global Xpress spacecraft recently contracted from Airbus Defence and Space.
But the contracting of the Ka-band payload, also to be built by Northrop Grumman, was left to Space Norway. Inmarsat will be leasing all the Ka-band capacity over the satellites’ 15-year operational lives.
The payloads in the highly elliptical orbit, which allows them to linger over the Arctic, will have some of the same software-defined flexibility as the Airbus-built satellites.
Inmarsat Chief Technology Officer Peter Hadinger said each Space Norway Ka-band payload will have substantially less capacity than the three Airbus satellites. What matters, he said, is to provide coverage whose importance to governments and to some commercial airlines and maritime fleet operators goes well beyond the modest bandwidth requirements of the region.
“It’s hard for any one entity to cover the business case on its own,” Hadinger said of the need for Space Norway to assemble all three of its customers.
“But once somebody’s done it, the market for somebody to do another one is pretty small,” Hadinger said. “I expect that you will see countries that had been contemplating how to do this start to cut their own deals with each of the three parties for some amount of the capacity.”
Hadinger said the several years it took Space Norway to close its business case is a lesson that the LEO broadband constellations would do well to learn.
“Going into the mobility market, there is a take-up rate that is not instantaneous. This has been true of every generation of mobile equipment we’ve deployed. It takes a long time,” Hadinger said.
“Especially for a government user it takes a long time. They say: ‘OK, once you’ve deployed, come and take do us. Then we’ll test it. After we’ve done our op/eval testing, we’ll put in a budget request.’ Then that goes to Congress, and a few years later you get the money. They they have to put it out for a bid, and select a contractor. Then you go through the process of getting it installed, which may take a couple of years.
“We have designed this not for Singapore, unlike a LEO constellation whose satellites need to be designed for peak demand. We’ve designed it specifically for Arctic coverage. That’s what it’s sized for and what the gateways are for.”