UK joins rush to space-based warfare


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

British Skynet satellite launched
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

The British military's Skynet 5 satellite has been launched into space from 
Kourou in French Guiana.

The spacecraft is part of a £3.2bn system that will deliver secure, 
high-bandwidth communications for UK and allied forces.

Sunday's lift-off came 24 hours after a first attempt was thwarted by a 
technical glitch in ground equipment.

Skynet rode atop an Ariane 5-ECA rocket, which left the ground at 1903 local 
time (2203 GMT)

"It was an incredibly nerve-racking but also an amazing experience to 
participate in the countdown and launch of an Ariane 5," said Patrick Wood, who 
has led the development of the Skynet spacecraft for manufacturer EADS Astrium.

"We've already received telemetry from it. In fact, we had a ground station see 
it just 10 minutes after separation. We've even sent commands to Skynet. It's 
behaving itself perfectly," he told BBC News shortly after the launch.

Every piece of satellite bandwidth is valuable and the military is always hungry
for more

Bill Sweetman, Jane's Information Group

The British spacecraft is the first in what will eventually be a three-satellite
constellation designed to allow the Army, Royal Navy and RAF to pass much more 
data, faster between command centres.

"Skynet's going to provide five times the capacity that the previous system 
provided, and allow the military to do things they just haven't been able to do 
in the past," Mr Woods explained.

'Information warfare'

Skynet 5 matches the capability of the best modern satellite platforms - on 
which the world depends for much of its telephone, TV, and internet traffic - 
but has been specially prepared for military use.

Four steerable antennas give it the ability to focus bandwidth on to particular 
locations where it is most needed - where British forces are engaged in 

Its technologies have also been designed to resist any interference - attempts 
to disable or take control of the spacecraft - and any efforts to eavesdrop on 
sensitive communications.

An advanced receive antenna allows the spacecraft to selectively listen to 
signals and filter out attempts to "jam" it.

"As far as we know, this is the most sophisticated technology of its type - 
certainly in Europe," said Mr Wood. "It allows you to produce peaks of reception
across the surface of the Earth, and to change that antenna pattern in extremely
rapid time."

Skynet 5 replaces Skynet 4. The new spacecraft system is bigger and much more 
powerful. The high traffic rates are in both directions.

Analysts talk increasingly of the military's "network enabled capability" - the 
idea that information and fast access to it are paramount.

"Modern warfare is all about information," said Bill Sweetman, the technology 
and aerospace editor for Jane's Information Group. "Every piece of satellite 
bandwidth is valuable and the military is always hungry for more.

"The practice is to offload mundane traffic on to commercial satellites and then
to use a complementary, secure proprietary system for the traffic that has to be

"Take for example the capability of unmanned air vehicles. These generate a lot 
of imagery and that has to be passed over a secure communications link. Modern 
warfare involves passing around a lot of data, and that puts a premium on 
satellite capacity."

'Physical assurance'

The whole Skynet 5 constellation has been funded through the largest Private 
Finance Initiative (PFI) signed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The MoD does 
not own the hardware; it merely buys the services run over it.

Initially agreed in 2003, the PFI saw Paradigm Secure Communications, which is a
subsidiary of EADS Astrium, take over and operate the UK's military satellite 
comms network.

As part of this £2.6bn deal, Paradigm agreed to loft new and more advanced 
spacecraft, and overhaul the ground systems needed to support them. This has 
included replacing and updating control centres, and major antennas and 
terminals on military ships, land vehicles and planes.

Paradigm gets an annual fee for providing this service. It can also earn money 
by selling excess bandwidth - expected to be about 50% on each spacecraft - to 
Nato and other friendly countries.

The cost to the British taxpayer of the PFI jumped by several hundred million 
pounds in 2005, principally because of a decision to go for the "physical 
assurance" of building a spare spacecraft rather than a straightforward 
insurance policy that would pay out in the event of a launch failure or 
breakdown in orbit.

Even so, the MoD says, the Paradigm contract should save many millions of pounds
over the 18 years of the deal, compared with a more conventional procurement 

Skynet 5A was released from the Ariane 5 rocket some 30 minutes into Sunday's 
flight. It will take about a week for the satellite to achieve its final 
geostationary orbit.

The 5B platform will be launched towards the end of this year, with 5C due in 
orbit in 2008.

Skynet 5A's co-passenger on the rocket - the Indian TV satellite Insat 4B - also
made it into orbit successfully.


The satellites are 'hardened' against interference. A special receive antenna 
(1) can resist attempts at jamming

Each spacecraft has four steerable antennas (2) that can concentrate bandwidth 
on to particular regions

The system gives global coverage (3), providing five times the capacity afforded
by the previous system

Each spacecraft (4) is a 2x2x2m box and weighs just under 5 tonnes; the solar 
wings once unfurled measure 34m tip to tip

Improved technologies, including a solar 'sail' (5), lengthen the platforms' 
operational lives to at least 15 years

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/03/12 00:07:48 GMT


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