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Delta 4 rocket launches for Australian satellite deploy

Posted: August 7, 2013

A rocket launch funded entirely by Australia streaked to orbit Wednesday night from Cape Canaveral in a show of international cooperation between the U.S. military and its allies.

The Delta 4 launches with WGS 6. Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket roared off Complex 37 at 8:29 p.m. EDT (0029 GMT), lighting up the Florida sky mere minutes after the sun had set, on a 41-minute climb into a supersynchronous transfer orbit with WGS 6.

The sixth Wideband Global SATCOM spacecraft was built by Boeing just like the previous five, but this satellite was paid for by Australia instead of the U.S. Air Force.

Through a collaborative deal, signed in 2007 and extending through 2029, the Australian Defence Force agreed to buy WGS 6, its launcher and contribute to system sustainment costs in exchange for a piece of the worldwide communications capabilities provided by the growing satellite constellation.

"This partnership with the U.S. provides the Australian Defence Force with a high bandwidth satellite communications capability with global coverage," said Warren King, chief executive officer of Australia's Defence Materiel Organisation.

"These satellites provide Australia with improved warfare capabilities through access to world-leading communications in terms of coverage, operational flexibility and bandwidth."

At least 10 WGS satellites will be orbited in the Pentagon's efforts to replace the aging Defense Satellite Communication System with new technology. Each WGS has 10 times the capacity of a DSCS satellite, allowing users to process and receive data quicker than ever before.

In addition to the Australian contribution, a five-nation deal signed last year is funding the upcoming WGS 9 satellite and brings Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand into the system.

"This sharing of resources is very consistant with what the Department of Defense wants to do to form stronger coalitions with our allied partners," said Dave Madden, the MILSATCOM director at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center.

"When budgets get tight, it actually forces people to think more and work harder together. I think the reductions in the budgets are going to enable us to form some very strong partnerships with a lot of our allied partners that will significantly bring down our operating costs of system and create better interoperability between our forces when we deploy together."

The Delta 4 launches with WGS 6. Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
Four WGS satellites are in service today, covering most of the planet except for the Americas. The spacecraft responsible for that zone, WGS 5, was launched May 24 and should be ready for operations in a few months.

Madden said WGS 6's operational point in space has not been determined.

"I'm not sure where we are going to end up putting it. But from Australia's standpoint it doesn't matter because they've bought into a percentage of the constellation," he said.

"Symbolically, it would have been nice to say this one goes right over Australia, they could look up and say that was the one we bought, but it really doesn't matter to them, what they care about is the bandwidth and worldwide coverage."

The communications package on each WGS provides shaped, steerable spotbeams of bandwidth wherever requested across its field-of-view for X- and Ka-band frequencies, plus the onboard capability to switch signals from one band to the other.

"What this system does is it provides point-to-point, multi-point broadcast with seamless crossbanding between X- and Ka-band communications. Where that really comes into play is the key capability of interoperability between various terminals and warfighters," Madden said.

"For example, a Navy ship can be operating X-band and go up to WGS system and be able to communicate with somebody else operating with a Ka terminal and vice-versa. It allows us more flexibility on the ground, the satellite does that conversion for them and we can cross-talk across the services."

The X-band communications through DSCS and WGS allow data, photos and video to be relayed to troops on the battlefield. But WGS also brings Ka-band to the table for high-volume broadcasting to user terminals across the reception area.

WGS 6 is seen here in the cleanroom before launch. Credit: United Launch Alliance
"What we use wideband communications for is to move large amounts of data -- video type information, two commanders trying to talk to each other over video teleconference, share information, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data (from UAVs), large files that have to move through the system...and we broadcast TV to kiosks," Madden said.

The next four WGS satellites -- 7 through 10 -- are in production at Boeing facilities in Los Angeles. Launches of those spacecraft begin in 2015.

"The demand for wideband satellite communications continues to increase," said Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems. "WGS 6 and the additional WGS spacecraft yet to be launched will help to meet that need."

After arriving in its prescribed supersynchronous transfer orbit Wednesday night, Boeing assumed control of WGS 6 from the same command center currently flying WGS 5.

WGS 6 will spend about three months using its conventional chemical engines and xenon thrusters to maneuver from the launch's elliptical dropoff orbit into its test slot in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles up.

Boeing then conducts a month of system testing before handing over the satellite to the Air Force for its own set of checks before positioning WGS 6 in its final location and setting it operational in early 2014.

"With each WGS satellite, Boeing further augments the DOD's highest capacity communications satellite system. Utilizing steerable and shapable spotbeams to enable the X- and Ka-band protected comm, these satellites provide tremendous operational flexibility for the DOD and allied forces worldwide," said Mark Spiwak, Boeing's WGS program director.

Wednesday's flight was United Launch Alliance's seventh already in 2013, using its fleets of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 boosters. The company has five more manifested this year.

Next up is the Delta 4-Heavy rocket on Aug. 28 carrying a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.