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Vital military communications craft getting ready to go up

Posted: November 17, 2011

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A spacecraft that will improve communications with the U.S. military's aerial drones currently employed in some of the world's hotspots has arrived at Cape Canaveral to prepare for blastoff in January.

The Air Force says it plans to put this WGS 4 spacecraft into operation over the Middle East and Southeast Asia for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command when it becomes operational early next year.

The Block 2 series of satellites -- WGS 4, 5 and 6 -- are pictured in their manufacturing factory. Credit: Boeing
The satellite joins the expanding fleet of Wideband Global SATCOM communications satellites that form the Pentagon's worldwide communications backbone across all branches of the military.

Three WGS satellites have been deployed, and now WGS 4 is being readied to launch as the first craft in the program's upgraded Block 2 series.

All of the craft provide X- and Ka-band communications, plus enable crossbanding between the frequencies through the onboard channelizer unit. No matter which frequency is being beamed from the ground terminal in the hands of a user, it can be routed through the orbiting satellite.

"It does that by using a channelizer, which is kind of the heart of the satellite which is able to convert the frequencies from X-to-Ka or X-to-X or Ka-to-Ka, and that provides a certain bandwidth availability and a number of channels associated with that," said Mark Spiwak, the WGS program director for satellite-builder Boeing.

But the new Block 2 satellites come with a bypass feature for aerial reconnaissance vehicle communications to skip the crossbanding path, opening up the amount of data being transmitted through the spacecraft.

"For these next three satellites -- 4, 5 and 6 -- we converted two of the channels to be a bypass around the channelizer. So it's only Ka-band, it doesn't have the ability if you use these two channels to crossband X-to-Ka, but it provides three times the bandwidth," Spiwak said.

That increased capacity will directly help the military's remotely-controlled unmanned drone programs, which are used for surveillance, intelligence-gathering and offensive operations.

"So (we're) basically providing to users two uplink and two downlink channels that go around the channelizer that are about three times the bandwidth as the normal channels," Spiwak said.

"So why is that good? That's good because as the Global Hawks, the Reapers, the Predators, all of the AISR platforms, as they are converting to their different terminals, obviously the more bandwidth is good for them, and you can lock on to one or several Global Hawks, multiple Reapers and Predators, and the more bandwidth allows the operators to pump more data through. You've got that wider pipe on two uplink and two downlink channels," Spiwak said.

"That's kind of the main change (for Block 2). It still has all of the X-band flexibility, Ka-band flexibility that the first three have, but this has these extra, larger pipes that you can really pump a lot of data through."

Built by The Boeing Co. in California, WGS 4 was delivered to the Florida spaceport aboard an Air Force transport aircraft, departing Los Angeles International Airport Monday night and touching down on the space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center early Tuesday.

The shipping crate holding the satellite was offloaded from the plane and hauled across the river to the commercial Astrotech processing campus in Titusville where WGS 4 will undergo the final steps needed before launch.

"We will put fuel into it in the early part of December, we encapsulate in the middle of December," Spiwak said.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket is standing atop the Complex 37 pad awaiting the satellite's arrival. The booster was rolled out Oct. 10 to start its own pre-flight checkout sequence.

Liftoff is scheduled for Jan. 19 during a window extending from 7:38 to 9:11 p.m. EST (0038-0211 GMT Jan. 20).

Boeing expects to finish constructing WGS 5 next February for its launch from the Cape in January 2013. The WGS 6 bird, funded in collaboration with the Australian military, will be completed next summer for its anticipated launch in the summer of 2013.

"We're ready to keep building these, to look at evolutions, we're talking to the government on enhancing the capability, and then be ready to launch them when the launch vehicles are available," Spiwak said.

The Air Force has ordered WGS 7 and contracted for the long-lead parts needed to build WGS 8. There's also an option for WGS 9.

The Defense Department and Boeing are working to streamline the future spacecraft, building upon the program's heritage to reduce testing costs and lower the overall prices through a commercial-like operating model.

"This was a very long negotiation, this was the government saying we need to buy these satellites more cost-effectively and Boeing responding," Spiwak said.

"We were able to work fairly close with the Air Force to get a program plan that they're comfortable with and we were able to take about 12-15 percent of the cost out and provide the same product to the government for less."

WGS spacecraft supply communications such as maps and data to soldiers on the battlefield, route voice calls and data messaging, and even offer quality-of-life considerations like television broadcasts and email delivery to the troops.

They are replacing the aging Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) spacecraft. Each WGS has 10 times the capacity of a DSCS satellite, allowing users to process and receive data quicker than before.

WGS 1 was launched in October 2007 to cover the vast U.S. Pacific Command that stretches from the U.S. western coast all the way to Southeast Asia.

WGS 2 satellite followed with an April 2009 launch to serve U.S. Central Command and the warfighters in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of Southwest Asia.

WGS 3 went up in December 2009 to cover U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command, plus lend additional support over the Middle East.

"I'll use the analogy 'kid with a new toy' -- finding out this toy does some pretty neat things, so we get very positive feedback from the customer community on how they are utilizing and doing things they never thought they'd be able to do with the satellites," Spiwak said.