Spaceflight Now Home

Spaceflight Now +

Subscribe to Spaceflight Now Plus for access to our extensive video collections!
How do I sign up?
Video archive

STS-118: Highlights

The STS-118 crew, including Barbara Morgan, narrates its mission highlights film and answers questions in this post-flight presentation.

 Full presentation
 Mission film

STS-120: Rollout to pad

Space shuttle Discovery rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travels to launch pad 39A for its STS-120 mission.


Dawn leaves Earth

NASA's Dawn space probe launches aboard a Delta 2-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to explore two worlds in the asteroid belt.

 Full coverage

Complex 36 demolition

The two mobile service towers at Cape Canaveral's Complex 36 that had supported Atlas rockets for decades are toppled to the ground with 122 pounds of explosives.


Atlas 5's NRO launch

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket lifts off June 15 from Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 on the classified NROL-30 mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

 Full Coverage

Riding on Endeavour

Now you can take a virtual trip aboard shuttle Endeavour's recent launch thanks to video cameras mounted inside the ship's cockpit as well as outside on the twin solid rocket boosters and external tank.

 Full Coverage

Launch of Phoenix

The Phoenix lander bound for the northern plains of Mars is launched atop a Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral.

 Full coverage

Become a subscriber
More video


Sign up for our NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed direct to your desktop.

Enter your e-mail address:

Privacy note: your e-mail address will not be used for any other purpose.

Military communications take 'quantum leap' with launch

Posted: October 10, 2007

  Atlas 5
This time-lapse photo shows the Atlas 5 rocket streaking off the launch pad. Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now
An advanced communications satellite with as much capacity as the entire orbiting fleet of craft that it will help replace was successfully shot into orbit Wednesday night atop a 19-story Atlas 5 rocket.

As the sun set over Florida's Cape Canaveral launch base, the rocket was fueled with supercold propellants for a liftoff at 8:22 p.m. EDT. The countdown rolled along smoothly and the million-pound rocket made its thunderous departure from Complex 41 right on schedule.

A pair solid-fuel boosters gave added kick for the first 90 seconds, while the first stage's RD-180 main engine continued firing through the initial four minutes of ascent. The Centaur upper stage with its single RL10 engine then took over, completing a pair of burns during the half-hour flight to reach a supersynchronous transfer orbit with its 12,796-pound satellite payload.

The nation's first Wideband Global SATCOM communications spacecraft was released from the rocket into an elliptical orbit stretching from 250 nautical miles at its lowest point to upwards of 40,000 nautical miles at its highest.

Ground controllers will maneuver the satellite into a circular geostationary orbit over the next three months. An extensive testing program to fully check out the communications gear is planned before the craft can enter service to cover southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean region.

"Once the satellite we launched today becomes operational, it will become the Department of Defense's highest capacity communications satellite and provide critical effects for our warfighters," said Brig. Gen. Susan Helms, 45th Space Wing commander at Cape Canaveral. "This mission proves that control of the battlefield really does begin here. Congratulations to our entire government/industry launch team."

A series of WGS satellites will be put into space over the next few years to provide a major upgrade of the military's main communications infrastructure, replacing the aging Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) spacecraft.

"A better capability for our deployed warfighters means there's a better chance of our sons and daughters coming home and the bad guys having bad days," said Col. David Uhrich, the Air Force's Military Satellite Communications Systems Wing vice commander.

"WGS will provide a quantum leap in communications coverage, capacity and connectivity for our Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, and will become the Department of Defense's highest capacity communications satellite. ...What that means to our warfighters out in the field, they will be able to process, receive and transmit data quicker than ever."

  Atlas 5
This time-lapse photo shows the Atlas 5 rocket streaking downrange. Credit: Chris Miller/Spaceflight Now
A single WGS satellite, valued at $350 million, has as much communications capacity as the entire 9-satellite DSCS constellation flying today.

"(WGS satellites) are able to satisfy more users, we're able to reuse frequencies much more efficiently and all of that translates into better capability for our deployed warfighters," Col. Uhrich said.

"The current DSCS system has about 8 coverage areas. By contrast, WGS will have 19 different coverage areas."

Built by Boeing, the sophisticated WGS spacecraft are constructed around the company's powerhouse 702-model design used by commercial satellite operators. But within the WGS craft are Ka- and X-band military communications packages to serve forces stationed around the globe.

"Deploying this first (satellite) and then the four satellites that will follow allow for a significant capability increase as the demand for wideband communications grows. The deployed forces overseas (have) a hunger and a demand for bandwidth," Mark Spiwak, Boeing's WGS program director.

Just like the DSCS satellites, the WGS craft will offer X-band communications that allow data, photos and video to be relayed to troops on the battlefield.

"When we deploy forces, we don't bring all of the information with us. We leave the information and data processing back here in the States. They reach back through WGS to that data," Col. Uhrich said.

"WGS is backward compatible with DSCS, so the X-band terminals that are currently fielded can work with the first WGS satellite."

What WGS offers that DSCS did not will be Ka-band communications.

"That is sort of the new frontier, if you will," said Mike Schavietello, Boeing's WGS deputy program director. "This is one of the reasons why WGS is able to deliver so much more capacity than DSCS - it has an extra frequency band to operate at."

  Atlas 5
An artist's concept shows the WGS satellite in orbit. Credit: Boeing
Col. Uhrich likened the Ka-band utilities to popular direct-to-home TV broadcasting services, allowing large amounts of information to be bounced off WGS satellites for reception across a wide area.

"In the deployed environment, our ability to come back to the States is limited by how much bandwidth we have. If you can picture a unit somewhere in Iraq, Camp Victory say, and there's 200 people on that installation and half of them need to get a web server at CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) where the leadership of our of effort is. Instead of having a hundred people using bandwith to get back to CENTCOM, you can capture the entire server using this 'DirecTV' capacity, you can broadcast it to a server in Baghdad and nobody has to come back to States for that information. So in a 'DirecTV' sort of fashion, you localize the information," Col. Uhrich explained.

"Another example - you've got a Predator flying a mission and it's got some kind of sensor on it and it's collecting information from that sensor. That sensor information, let's say you want to push that 30 different locations. Instead of having 30 different circuits, you kind of 'DirecTV' broadcast it and the people who are supposed to have access to that data will have access, and you free up communications."

And the new satellites, thanks to a box inside the craft called a digital channelizer, will enable a user with a Ka-band terminal to talk to someone with an X-band terminal via WGS.

"The beauty of the system is being able to seamlessly connect users...As long as they in the field of the satellite, they can be connected," Schavietello said.

"What that means is the warfighter behind a wall in downtown Baghdad, if he wants to know where the bad guys are and what he needs to call in -- whether it be a Predator, an F-15, a Prowler, a tank, regardless of what frequency band those platforms are on, whether it be X- and Ka-band -- you can communicate and say that's what I need and put the strike force where it needs to be," Col. Uhrich said.

Two more WGS satellites just like the one launched Wednesday are being readied for their rides to orbit next year from Cape Canaveral.

"The remaining two Block 1 vehicles are undergoing their final test activities and we are on track to launch those satellites next year," Schavietello said.

An Atlas 5 will loft the second WGS next summer, followed by a Delta 4 rocket launch of the third WGS in late 2008.

Two additional satellites with enhanced features are planned to launch in 2011 and 2012. And a sixth -- with Australian cooperation -- is in the works.