Secure Satellite Telecommunications for Poland - Solutions Available Immediately

Photo. Thorium Space

Satellite telecommunications remain one of the most basic, and useful tools, both when it comes to the economy, and national security as well. This matter has been an open issue in Poland for many years. Meanwhile, an enterprise has been established domestically, that remains able to offer secure, independent communications, with control over the system yielded from within the Polish territory.

The issue of stable, secure means of communication within the Polish Armed Forces has been discussed for years now. The year 2011 was a memorable one within that scope. In the autumn a news report was published, that led to an intense discussion covering that burning topic. Poland had its troops deployed to Afghanistan back then. In September 2011 the "Rzeczpospolita" daily disclosed the fact that the satellite communications between the Afghan detachment and Poland are partially routed via a Russian satellite. The above referred to the Yamal-202 satellite, parked on a geostationary orbit (49°E position). That satellite was owned by the Russian Gazprom company, controlled by Moscow.

Piotr Nisztor, in his reports published via "Rzeczpospolita", was pointing out that the Russian satellite was used for transferring "strategic information on the operational activities of the Polish soldiers in Afghanistan. Including information on the activities undertaken by the local branches of the Polish Military Intelligence, and Military Counterintelligence". Expert hailing from the Internal Security Agency (ABW), cited in the article, was suggesting that the routing of information via the Yamal-202 system allowed the Russian intelligence, having some influence within the Gazprom's structure, to gain access to key intelligence on the location where persons using satellite phones were. The Russians could also get to know the frequency and time when those phones were used, and also the receiver's phone number.

Back in 2011 it became crystal clear that the Russian orbital infrastructure had been used by the Polish military at least since 2007, to send confidential information, also information pertaining strictly to the undertaken operations. Not only was Yamal-202 used to transfer military data, but it was also utilized for personal communications between the soldiers, and their families in Poland. Despite the assurances made by the Polish Ministry of Defence, that proper means of encryption were applied, the fact that the Russian satellite was used for these purposes could have led to exposure for the Polish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, resulting in serious dangers. The "Rzeczpospolita" daily concluded that Gazprom's satellite services were selected due to the affordable price point. That made it possible to save USD 20 thousand per month.

It seems that a situation so serious would inspire the decision-makers to undertake rapid actions to introduce remedial measures, resulting in the establishment of a secure satellite communications system for Poland. In July 2016, the outlet published a news piece reading as follows: "On 7th July, during a meeting related to the ARTES programme, the Polish Space Agency representatives confirmed that Poland should, within a few years, procure a telecommunications satellite of its own. (...) That satellite would be responsible, primarily, for communications between different military units, also those staying abroad. During the meeting, no technical details were disclosed, pertaining to that satellite. No specific date was mentioned as well. It seems probable that these parameters would be a subject of future studies that are going to be ordered by POLSA". The years passed by, and Poland still has no telecommunications satellite on a geostationary orbit. Bulgaria, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bangladesh meanwhile own satellites as such.

LEO - Low Hopes

A few years ago the market of large telecommunication satellites, purpose-built for GEO, by major players such as Space Systems Loral (currently owned by Maxar) seemed to be in a major crisis. As reported, between 2017 and 2018 only 14 platforms as such were procured by the operators.

The world was, back then, pursuing solutions following the "New Space" trend, which also was not properly understood at the time. The telecom satellites were to be dominated by thousands of LEO satellites, able to bring Internet access all around the globe, even to the most remote locations.

SpaceX (Starlink), OneWeb, Facebook, or Google were all announcing their intention to build mega-constellations. So far, Starlink has become a successful undertaking, and some effort has been made when it comes to the OneWeb system. The LEO communication networks require less powerful receivers on the user side, but they also have some disadvantages. Firstly, to be effective, these constellations need to be huge and consist of thousands of platforms. Only then a global coverage is available. Creating networks so huge also entails a huge cost, since it takes numerous launch vehicles to place all of the satellites in the orbit. Furthermore, major constellations also cause the LEO orbit to be quite crowded. This increases the risk of space collisions and further emergence of LEO space debris. The Astronomers also complained about the Starlink satellites, stressing the fact that the abundance of sunlight-reflecting satellites disrupts the night sky observations.

Nonetheless, soon after the Russian aggression in Ukraine had begun, Starlink satellites became one of the primary Internet access points for the Ukrainians. This had a major significance in areas where the telecommunication infrastructure was wiped out by the Russians. In Spring, Ukraine received thousands of SpaceX Internet terminals. Starlink has quickly become a major means of support for the Ukrainian military. It was also providing communication for civilians, who had no other channels to access the Internet.

For six months the system's operation was flawless. In the autumn of this year, the cooperation started to become complicated. In October, Financial Times reported that the use of the Starlink network has become complicated for the Ukrainian Army. This happened when the Ukrainians launched their counterattack. The troubles became more evident when the Ukrainian units were entering the areas that had been occupied by Russians. Elon Musk soon came to a conclusion suggesting that he is no longer willing to finance the satellite communications for the people fighting in Ukraine. He also demanded the Pentagon cover the costs. Numerous Starlink terminals delivered to Ukraine were co-financed by governments of the United States, the UK, and Poland. Elon Musk, facing criticism, ultimately agreed to cover the cost of the Ukrainian Starlink coverage, but the bad impression did last.

Even assuming that no political, or economic surprises emerge, one shall take into account certain limitations imposed on LEO mega-constellations when it comes to strategic military communications. It has been pointed out already, a network as such may only be effective when large numbers of satellites are already placed in outer space. The revisit times could result in interrupted communications in any other case. Secondly, suppliers of solutions as such, Starlink for instance, require the user to utilize proprietary ground terminals exclusively - such as the ones recently delivered in high numbers to Ukraine. The above limits the system's flexibility, as it can only work with a single terminal type delivered by a specific supplier. Secondly, the lack of end-user control over the terminal design and any hidden functions implemented there is also concerning - should a political necessity emerge, remote deactivation of such a terminal may be plausible. It is difficult to treat a solution as such as a fully autonomous one, with the state yielding completely sovereign control over the system. LEO satellites are also vulnerable to ASAT attacks. China, the USA, India, and Russia remain in possession of the capability to conduct such an operation.

GEO Returns

After a brief decline, the demand for geostationary telecommunication satellites seems to be on the rise. This was evident as early as 2019, when 15 satellites as such were procured, which is more than the total number for the two preceding years. The factors that were at play here include greater autonomy and end-user control. Greater flexibility in working with ground infrastructure was also relevant. GEO satellites usually offer the capability of using a broad variety of terminals available to state and military users. No necessity emerges to replace the terminals with new, LEO communications-dedicated systems - as it happens in the case of Starlink.

In June 2020 stated the following: While the LEO opportunity window seems to have matured, however, growth and success have been limited by evolving technical designs, underestimated costs, and overpromised capabilities. On the other hand, the "old space" geosynchronous (GEO) satellite industry has remained steady. Although capacity prices have dropped in the last decade, GEO operators continue launching new satellites and expanding their services to new markets, from expanded government commercial SATCOM expenditures to the aviation and telecommunications backhaul markets. (...) Despite the excitement of LEO/MEO constellation possibilities, geosynchronous satellite operators are still winning in the growing SATCOM market. GEO operators continue to dominate today's and tomorrow's satellite communications markets. Although financial stability remains a struggle, this group has operating satellites in space, landing rights, established ground segments, successful distribution channels, and ever-improving end-user equipment.

Also in the case of the satellites providing GEO communications one should be careful, establishing a secure link, and yield control over the system. Any discrepancies here may be catastrophic, as the incident that occurred on 24th February in Europe has shown (when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began). Communications between the Viasat's KA-SAT satellite (GEO, 9°E) and several thousand German Enercon wind turbines were disrupted. This resulted in a temporarily disabled network, also making the end user unable to remotely control and monitor the status of hundreds of wind turbines via the WWW.

Secure and Cost-optimized Alternatives

Wrocław-based Thorium Space company's telecommunication satellite may potentially be a good solution for Poland. This would be a SmallGEO platform system, with the platform being delivered by OHB, hailing from Germany. The assumption for this system is to be a dual-use solution, to be used both by the military, as well as civilian users.

Conventionally, large GEO telecommunication satellites are designed for specific purposes, meeting specific user requirements. The flexibility here is very much limited. The system, throughout its lifecycle, offers a single, predefined configuration when in orbit. This makes some of the satellite's capacity unused, once the market conditions change. For that reason satellites as such were usually scaled up to accommodate a lot of hardware, to get such an inflexible asset ready for the potential evolution of the market.

Thorium Space's approach is entirely different. The satellite designed by the said company is a generic one, without having a customer-tailored design, but being able to fulfil a multitude of missions for a variety of entities. The said satellite has been fitted with an electronically-controlled flat antenna array. It offers comprehensive DBM capability (Digital BeamForming). The above means that the frequency range available can be divided freely, and distributed among the current customers, with continuous tailoring of the use of the satellite, to meet the latest, ongoing demand. Dozens or even hundreds of usable bandwidths can be separated, with the satellite completing a multitude of tasks, as opposed to a conventional satellite using transponders.

For now, it is assumed that the baseline configuration of the Thorium Space satellite would offer a bandwidth ranging from 50 to 100 Gbit/S. This performance figure may go up to 1 terabit per second in the future. The aforesaid 50-100 Gbit/s capacity is somewhat aligned with the Polish requirements in the area of critical communications.

The SmallGEO satellite would be able to utilize the Ka-band, and also the bandwidth used for communications by NATO. The individually devised bandwidths could be rented directly by NATO, or via NATO, for the specific NATO member states.

As already mentioned, the aforesaid spacecraft is expected to be software-reconfigurable - newly uploaded software could lead to a configuration change. No portion of the satellite's capacity would remain unused for long periods, as quick payload configuration would be possible to meet the new customer requirements. The company hopes to dynamically manage the satellite, to utilize at least 90% of its processing power. This dynamic management capacity would be available thanks to innovative chip design manufactured by Teledyne, also partnering with Thorium. The chip in question allows for easy analogue-digital conversion (direct digital RF) and handling large data streams. The aforesaid component has been certified for use on a geostationary orbit. Following the provisions of a memorandum signed with Teledyne, Thorium Space has obtained an exclusive right to use the innovative chip.

Modern Platform

What makes the satellite with Thorium Space payload a modern unit is the use of the SmallGEO platform. The platform in question is manufactured by the German OHB company - which also acts as the prime contractor responsible for the platform integration. Thorium meanwhile, would be responsible for delivering the payload.

The SmallGEO platform for the Polish satellite would come in the all-electric variant. The above means that the aforesaid satellite would only be fitted with an electric propulsion system, lacking conventional chemical motors. The manoeuvres in orbit, or outer space, orbit stabilization, and adjustment would be possible thanks to ion motors.

The All-Electric satellite with a specific payload may weigh 40-50% less than its conventional counterparts with equivalent payloads. The SmallGEO platform in the all-electric variant is marketed as Electra. The implementation process that OHB initiated was supported by ESA financing. The company advertises its platform as one that addresses commercial space telecommunications, suggesting that the above is done by diminishing the cost concerning the payload power available in the orbit - thanks to the cheaper launch.

Several factors remain decisive in making SmallGEO Electra a perfect solution here, meeting the orbital objectives that Thorium Space defined. It is a software-defined platform which means that the satellite would offer full reconfiguration capacity. Depending on the ongoing requirements and tasks assigned to the satellite at any given moment, it could receive relevant firmware on the go, and the configuration would thus change. Furthermore, it remains incredibly important that the aforesaid platform has almost perfect heat dissipation characteristics. This is especially significant for telecommunication satellites that handle multiple operations that, when in orbit, need to dissipate the heat to avoid overheating.

The satellite, as a whole, would weigh around 1,000 kilograms. At the same time, the satellite will offer capabilities similar to those usually associated with platforms five times heavier.

Security and Flexibility

Basing the Polish satellite communications on the Thorium Space GEO platform would provide Poland with a great degree of flexibility. A system as such could work in sync with a myriad of ground terminals, already operated by the Polish Armed Forces. There would be no need to procure dedicated terminals, as it happens in the case of LEO telecommunication satellite constellations.

The satellite would also be manufactured in Europe, in its entirety. Poland would yield complete control over the preparation, implementation, and operation of the system. There would be no need to make use of intermediary services rendered by the major satellite operators.

The personnel responsible for the Polish satellite would remain in Poland. It would be possible to supervise their work and subject it to a strict set of security measures. This is quite relevant, as the human factor is the weakest element of advanced technological solutions as such, that can be used by the potential adversary to take over the system.

The system as a whole, based on the GEO satellite, does not see any data leaving Poland. In case of the enemy attacks targeting the satellite, the country would still have access to secure communications, simply moving along the RF frequency spectrum. The enemy RF signals would not even be allowed to affect the satellite. The system would also be SIGINT-capable. This is an incredibly relevant capability when it comes to military use.

Thorium Space plans to create a readymade engineering model of the satellite payload in late 2023. Then, the product certification would begin, with the responsibility for that assigned to Teledyne. 18 months later the Polish company would have a telecommunications payload at its disposal, ready to be deployed to GEO orbit. The satellite featuring that payload, integrated by OHB, may be viewed as an affordable, secure, and flexible solution that Poland could adopt for communications.

The efforts undertaken by Thorium Space to create secure satellite communications domestically have already been noticed by the Polish Ministry of Defence. The expression of that has been made visible by the fact that in October this year the company received PLN 18.1 million of funds, within the framework of the SZAFIR defence and security programme, pertaining to the development of modern, breakthrough technology.

The project's total value is PLN 20 million. By implementing the undertaking, the enterprise would create a T-XPDR system. As we reported in the past: The goal of the project is to develop a demonstrator of a fully digital, adaptive telecommunications Ka-band transponder (space segment), utilizing the latest SDR/SDS, and Cognitive Radio technologies, designed to establish tactical satellite comms (PTSC), equipped with innovative, multiband, flat AESA antennas.

The transponder that would be created will be capable of providing secure communications for the Polish military user segment. The system would also offer the capability of digital forming and dynamic assignment of radio beams to the areas where those beams would be required. As noted by Thorium Space's Paweł Rymaszewski, a solution as such would provide secure satellite communications - which is a key capability in the national security domain, considering the constantly evolving geopolitical circumstances.

Article text written in collaboration with Thorium Space