Navy to Expand Communications Reach with Nanosatellite Launch

November 19, 2018 – A Navy nanosatellite designed to extend the range of ultra-high frequency (UHF) communications into the polar regions is scheduled for launch Nov. 19 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Officials at the Navy’s Program Executive Office (PEO) Space Systems in conjunction with developers at Space and Naval Warfare Command Systems Center Pacific are leading this effort known as the Integrated Communications Extension Capability (ICE-Cap). ICE-Cap will demonstrate the ability of low-Earth orbit satellites to extend the geographic coverage of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and legacy UHF Follow-On (UFO) satellite constellations to the polar regions.

MUOS gives mobile forces cell-phone-like capabilities via the Wideband Code Division Multiple Access, or WCDMA, waveform while also supporting the legacy UHF currently provided by the UFO satellites. Currently, four MUOS satellites with one on-orbit spare make up the constellation, providing UHF coverage between 65 degrees north and 65 degrees south latitude. The ICE-Cap satellite will act as a relay to the existing MUOS constellation and, based on its orbit, extend communications into the polar regions for mobile forces.

“This is a force multiplier,” said Capt. Chris DeSena, program manager, Navy Communications Satellite Program Office at PEO Space Systems. “We are delivering warfighting capability that naval forces and their partners need to compete, deter and win. The Arctic portion of maritime domain is becoming more active and important, and MUOS and ICE-Cap help ensure we have advantages in any challenges we might face there.”

The small size and low weight of nanosatellites make them an affordable asset. The ICE-Cap payload, a 3U nanosatellite similar in size to a loaf of bread, will be commercially launched as part of the SSO-A mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with more than 70 other satellites. In addition to the ICE-Cap satellite, the mission will launch three other Navy projects. These even-smaller 1U nanosatellites measure only 10 centimeters per side.

The smaller Navy-built satellites will serve as calibration targets and technology demonstrations to improve tracking of small objects in space. These satellites will host different combinations of radio frequency reflectors that reflect radar for improved space object tracking and optical reflectors that reflect lasers for precise measurement of satellite altitude.

“The development and launch of these four nanosatellites demonstrates the Navy’s interest in leveraging the significant growth and private-sector investment in disruptive, new-space technologies aimed at driving down the costs of developing, building, launching and operating constellations of small satellites, increasing access to space,” said Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Kocis, the assistant program manager for science and technology at PEO Space Systems. “Recent advances in small and nanosatellite technologies will enable the Navy to address current and future warfighting challenges rapidly by being able to leverage the latest technology advances.”

A traditional satellite often has an eight- to 10-year design cycle and is expected to remain on orbit for 15 to 20 years. A nanosatellite, by comparison, has a 12- to 18-month design cycle and an expected lifespan of about three years. These shortened timelines allow for constant technology insertion. The Navy satellites on the SSO-A mission have taken advantage of these advances and are a pathfinder for future Navy space efforts.