Stew Magnuson, National Defense
28 August 2015
Barring foul weather caused by Hurricane Erika in the Caribbean, the fourth Mobile User Objective System satellite is scheduled to launch Aug. 31 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, providing full global coverage for what it is being touted as a “cell phone tower in the sky” for U.S. forces.
U.S. armed forces, civilian agencies and allies will have access to smartphone like features on the secure narrowband system, with higher data rates and beyond-line-of-sight connectivity as long as they can link to the system, although rollouts of terminals and the software waveforms that are needed to connect to the spacecraft have been plagued by delays.
“This greatly extends the coverage for our warfighters on the ground,” Col. James Ross, Army tactical radios program manager, said on a conference call with reporters Aug. 28. The system is referred to as “cell towers in space” for its ability to deliver the kinds of communications consumers expect on Earth. Officials said the voice clarity is actually better than a typical cell phone.
The Navy’s MUOS-4 spacecraft, if successfully placed in orbit, will provide global coverage, although the system will not be considered fully operational until a fifth on-orbit spare is launched, all ground station work is complete and the wideband code division multiple access is working properly.
The Navy is having difficulties delivering the waveform also known as WCDMA, which is intended to work with MUOS. The MUOS spacecraft have a payload that allows them to communicate with radios compatible with the legacy UHF-Follow-On satellites, which accounts for the 10 percent of capacity being used.
Of more immediate concern is Hurricane Erika, which is on course to make landfall in Florida the day prior to launch. Officials are keeping an eye on the storm and preparing for any delays.
Navy Capt. Joe Kan, MUOS program manager, said while it is true the spacecraft are not using their full capacity because of a lack of terminals, they needed to be launched so there was no degradation in service as the legacy UFO satellites age. Early users of the system include the Coast Guard, which has sent communications from its icebreaker, Healy, as far as 83 degrees north, and Special Operations Command.
The system is designed to be used by everyone from troops on the ground with backpackable radio systems to ships, submarines and jet fighters. It has been successfully tested on C-17 aircraft, noted Iris Bombelyn, vice president of narrowband communications at the spacecraft’s manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The company is in the early stages of testing the on-orbit spare, she added.
A third hiccup in the system’s rollout has been a court case centering around an environmental lawsuit opposing the placement of the ground control station in Italy. Kan said the other ground stations can take up the slack while the Navy awaits the decision by an Italian court.
Kan said there are already ongoing high-level discussions with the joint staff, U.S. Strategic Command and others about the follow-on narrowband system. “No final decision has been made yet, but we certainly are proceeding and are on track to start the pre-acquisition activities as early as 2017, once those decisions are made.”
“There is a lot of interest in getting the pre-acquisition activities going," he added. Expanding MUOS to a sixth satellite to increase capacity is also on the table, he said. It is engaging with a “number of different countries” to look at the possibility of funding partnerships, he said. Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all been part of the talks, he said.