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Hot Issues and Latest Developments in Satellite Communications:

Orbital Refueling:

As published in Satcom Frontier on November 1, 2011.

Earlier this year, Intelsat General announced that it partnered with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to provide orbital refueling, an innovative service that would extend the life of in-orbit satellites. The ability to extend the life of in-orbit satellites has the potential to significantly impact the economics and improve the efficiency of communications satellites.

Intelsat General’s Richard DalBello recently presented on a panel called “New Techniques: Extending the Life of the Satellite” at SATCON 2011 that focused on the benefits and challenges of extending the life of in-orbit satellites. DalBello discussed the MDA partnership, the future of satellite servicing and how the U.S. government and global governments are embracing this new frontier and much more.


Launching Satellites from Aircraft as a Low Cost Alternative:

November, 2011

DARPA has released a broad area announcement (BAA) calling for information about launching small satellites from aircraft as a low-cost alternative to expensive vertical rocket launches. The programme, called airborne launch assist space access (ALASA), calls for a range of modified carrier aircraft and custom-built rockets. A computer-generated picture accompanying the BAA features a heavily modified Bombardier regional jet, providing an example of what may be to come.

BAAs do not necessarily lead to any action beyond information-gathering, but presentations accompanying the announcement request proposals for placing a 45.3kg (100lb) payload into orbit, using a 2,268kg (5,000lb) air-launched rocket. Such a vehicle would allow greater flexibility in payloads and launch conditions, and could lower launch costs significantly. The first successful air-launched satellite was orbited in 1980 by Orbital Sciences using a Pegasus rocket and a B-52 launch platform. The company now offers regular launches using a modified Lockheed L-1011 airliner. More frequent are concepts, released with some regularity by companies stirring up interest, featuring aircraft ranging from MiG-21s to massive Antonov-225s.

A DARPA/NASA report from June, 2011, examining a variety of aircraft and launch configurations, concluded that modifying an off-the-shelf aircraft could result in costs as low as $3,000/lb, or around one-third the price of a large conventional rocket.

The significant limitations associated with air launch have restricted the practice from widespread use. In particular, rocket and satellite weight and performance are greatly restricted by limited aircraft payload capacity, performance and safety issues associated with highly explosive chemicals.

The air-launch concept, which has been studied since the first satellites proposals, has become increasingly attractive as the necessary size and weight of satellites for a given mission have shrunk dramatically in recent decades. Advances in aircraft reliability and operating cost gives added incentive.