Space squadron optimizes wideband communication constellations

  • Published
  • By Scott Prater
  • 50th Space Wing Public Affairs

Late in 2013, the 3rd Space Operations Squadron’s mission -- "Warfighters ensuring reliable wideband communications to national authorities and U.S. and Allied forces" -- was proudly  displayed as the unit repositioned its eighth satellite during a nine-month effort to optimize the military wideband communications constellation. 

During the last six months, the squadron added the second and third Block II Wideband Global SATCOM vehicles to its fleet of communication satellites. Since those vehicles have eight times the capacity of legacy Defense Satellite Communications System vehicles and modernized communications capabilities, Air Force, U.S. Army Strategic Command and Defense Information System Agency leaders directed the 3rd SOPS to study and provide optimization recommendations. 

"We started this project nine months ago," said Capt. Matt Shull, the orbital analysis chief with the 3rd SOPS. “Planning for the current effort goes back as far as 2012, after the launch of WGS-4."

The wideband communications system of satellites consists of six advanced WGS vehicles and eight legacy DSCS vehicles. Together, they provide flexible, high-capacity communications for U.S. forces throughout the world, while enabling battle management and combat support information functions.

The optimization effort began after the Wideband Constellation Sustainment Assessment team proposed possible optimization plans to the squadron. The 3rd SOPS orbital analysis team then conducted feasibility studies for the proposals and determined multiple courses of action for each spacecraft.

"It was a daunting task," Shull said. "Some of these satellite moves involved large-scale relocations equal to 177,000 miles of movement in geostationary orbit. We had to create an optimization plan and collision avoidance plan for each vehicle, then determine where we could safely operate at the proposed location and how to safely move there."

Squadron engineers had to pay close attention to deconflicting telemetry, tracking and command links when shuffling multiple vehicles across one another. They also had to coordinate with Army Strategic Command's Wideband Consolidated Satellite Support Element to ensure communication users continued to have access to critical communication links. 

"More than 400 satellites operate in the geostationary belt," Shull said. "We're sharing space, which means we must perform daily conjunction assessments and take occasional emergency actions to avoid collisions."

The 3rd SOPS orbital analysis team consists of active-duty officers, enlisted members, and specialized orbital analysis. The 3rd SOPS team deconflicted future satellite locations based on element-set plots obtained from the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. 

Shull explained that moving the satellites, which reside in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator, involves using the vehicles' onboard propulsion systems to drift the satellites east and west. 

"We're still in the process of optimizing and will be moving a few more vehicles," Shull said. "The optimization initiative is slated for completion in late February when the squadron will halt DSCS B13 for the final time."

This optimization initiative is unprecedented in the WGS era of wideband communications. 

"Our operations tempo last year included two launches that required seven WGS operators to support launch and early orbit operations during an eight-month period," said Lt. Col. Chadwick Igl, 3rd SOPS commander. "Combined with the optimization initiative to reposition these vehicles, the entire DSCS and WGS teams performed this complex ballet to ensure all vehicles were moved safely while being completely transparent to the hundreds of thousands of warfighters around the world."

Igl called the initiative a truly monumental undertaking, in part because DSCS and WGS vehicles have unique propulsion systems.

"Each vehicle has its own personality," he said. "Without the expertise of the military and contractor expertise on the team, accomplishing this effort flawlessly would not have been possible." 

The 14-satellite DSCS and WGS Wideband Constellation represents $3.9 billion in U.S. Government assets. Members of the 3rd SOPS orbital analysis team undergo an extensive and challenging training and certification process. 

"As the commander, I put a tremendous amount of trust in the individuals selected to become orbital analysts," Igl said. "Because of their extensive training, I know they will perform to the best of their abilities to ensure the satellites I put in their care are protected and able to provide vital communications to warfighters around the world.”