Saturday, March 03, 2018

Did You Know About ISRO's Launch Of A British Military Satellite ?

With Technology becoming domain-agnostic, lines between civilian & military end-use blurring.

The first launch mission of the year for the Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO], PSLV C-40, that took place on January 18, 2018 & successfully deployed 31 satellites in Space, was significant one for the institution, in more ways than one.

Coming on the heels of the undesirable outcome of the PSLV-C39 mission, it had the onerous task of defending the sound fundamentals of its workhorse Space Transportation System [STS] - the PSLV. Besides its domestic audience, the mission had also, piggybacking on it 25 satellites for 6 International launch customers, that had invested both, faith & principal, with ISRO.

Thus, PSLV-C40's successful launch, laid to rest host of  floating questions, as also preemptively striking down any further aspersions.


Of the secondary payloads it launched, one certainly has interesting parentage, with application of strategic bent. The UK-based Company, Airbus-owned Surrey Satellite Technology Limited [SSTL], booked 2 seats for its satellites - Telesat LEO satellite & the CARBONITE-2. While the former aims to provide low-cost satellite-based Broadband Internet service, the latter is an Earth Observation [EO] satellite, with near real-time capability. Both satellites are, presently, functioning normally.

Of it the EO satellite, SSTL said the following,

CARBONITE-2 is a technology demonstration mission that will demonstrate a low cost video-from-orbit solution using Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technologies.  The 100kg spacecraft flies a COTS telescope and HD video, both of which have been adapted for a space environment and integrated into a custom built framework.  The imaging system is designed to deliver 1m resolution images and colour HD video clips with a swath width of 5km.

The preceding satellite, the CARBONITE-1, too had been launched using ISRO's PSLV-series, PSLV-XL configuration STS, in 2015. Improvements in the follow-up include, "enhanced avionics to provide increased data storage, faster data downlink, improved pointing accuracy, and a full colour HD video camera". In its final configuration, a constellation of such satellites would orbit the Earth, providing cost-effective HD video footage [at 50 fps] of any region on Earth. Initial plans involve a constellation of 5 satellites, eventually scaling it up to 15, enabling an eight hour re-visit.

The resolution of imagery [0.65-0.75 m at Spot Beam mode] & footage generate squarely puts it within the definition of a platform for  military applications [as opposed to the 1.5 m of the CARBONTIE-1]. This was confirmed publically, two days ago, on March 1, 2018 - in the third month after launch, by UK's Chief of Air Staff, during his visit to SSTL's facility.

Having invested $6.21 Million USD [£ 4.5 Million] into the programme, so far, its Ministry of Defence [MOD] aims for, "high-tech satellites beaming video directly into the cockpit of fighter jets, improving the situational awareness of UK pilots by giving them the very best imagery and information anywhere on Earth in real-time". The CARBONITE-2 satellite is the first such asset in the British arsenal.


What is significant is that the satellite was realised merely within 8 months of agreement signing. Built around SSTL's own standardised SSTL-42 Bus [also known as SSTL-X50], use of Commercial Off-The-Shelf [COTS] sub-systems, & adapting them for specific use, undoubtedly played a big role in achieving such a short cycle.

No longer do States have to fabricate all military-grade hardware in classified facilities, with differing standards from those in civilian domain. Maturity & economy are gradually making technology domain-agnostic.

Thus, what a group of students in an Engineering College may use to build their satellite with, could very well also be utilized by nation-states to build their strategic platforms, simply by "adding some secret sauce" to it.

With the launch of the solitary CARBONITE-2, its operators seek to operate the platform under actual operational environment, testing the system end-to-end, ironing out kinks, before going ahead full steam.

As with any dealings in the Space sector, a great deal of obfuscation exists in its various aspects - its still a niche club. While UK's MOD has officially revealed its investment in the satellite programme, ISRO need not necessarily have to acknowledge that it has launched a military satellite, let alone one for a foreign country - it never does, one only makes informed speculations.

This is because, officially SSTL has built this satellite for UK-based Earth-I Space Company, a civilian entity, that would operate the constellation, sharing its data with interested parties, the British MOD included, thus explaining "interesting parentage" characterisation. Earthi-I, that refers to this satellite as VividX2 has called it the "world’s first full-colour, full-motion video satellite".

Piggybacking privately-built satellites has lead to ISRO launching non-military satellites, that has had participation from adversarial countries too. India, on its part, has had access to satellite imageries since many decades - it presently operates the world's largest constellation of Remote Sensing Satellites.

However, in-house, high-resolution, military-grade imageries have become accessible only relatively recently. ISRO has been deploying Radar Imaging technology, so far, in its image gathering satellites. Technology that capture & transmit such true-colour videos have not yet been demonstrated in any of its satellites launched, so far.

Too much workload on ISRO. Time for India's fledgling private sector Space companies to rise up to the challenge.


Also Read: When An Indian Rocket Shot Up Into The Norwegian Sky