WASHINGTON — A prototype multibeam antenna passed its first tests, bringing it one step closer to filling the U.S. Air Force’s desire for ensured connectivity through multiple satellite constellations.

Working in collaboration with satellite operator SES Government Systems, Isotropic Systems is assessing whether its new multibeam antenna can connect to multiple satellites simultaneously, even if they are in vastly different orbits, the developers explained in a June 3 announcement about the tests.

The Air Force doesn’t want to rely on any single constellation in any single orbital range. As laid out in the U.S. Space Force’s Fighting SATCOM Vision, the military wants to ensure that it’s systems can communicate via satellite even if one satellite — or even a whole constellation — is disabled. In order to get there, the military needs antennas that can connect to multiple satellites in multiple orbits. For example, if a weapon system is primarily using a government satellite in geostationary orbit to communicate and that satellite is taken offline, then the antenna could ensure connectivity by switching to a commercial constellation in low Earth orbit or medium Earth orbit.

In September 2020, SES and Isotropic announced they had been issued a two-phase contract by the Air Force Research Laboratory to evaluate the use of Isotropic’s prototype multibeam antenna over the SES O3b medium Earth-orbit constellation. That contract is part of the Air Force’s Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program, designed to leverage commercial satellite broadband providers to connect it’s legacy systems.

SES declined to share the value of the antenna contract, but according to a federal database the company was awarded a $1.7 million contract in July 2020 for work on commercial space internet project.

The first phase of assessments took place over two tests. The first, at the Harwell Science, Technology and Innovation Campus in the United Kingdom, demonstrated that Isotropic’s multibeam terminal can connect with multiple satellites simultaneously. A second test in Port St. Lucie, Florida, showed that the system meets military requirements for acquiring and tracking the MEO satellites from SES.

“Interoperability and multi-orbit capabilities are essential to achieving this vision, and these collaborative trials with the armed forces demonstrate how Isotropic Systems’ multi-beam antenna can successfully deliver robust connectivity across our vast MEO and GEO fleet,” said SES Government Solutions President and CEO Pete Hoene.

The second phase of assessments will test whether the prototype can connect with satellites in multiple orbital layers, demonstrating seamless transition between connecting to SES satellites in MEO and GEO. The trials are set to finish by the end of the year.

More broadly, new low Earth-orbit satellite constellations, such as OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, have opened improved communication possibilities for the military with the promise of internet connections all over the world with low levels of delays. For instance, U.S. Northern Command is experimenting with OneWeb for connectivity in the Arctic, where traditional satellite services are less available. Meanwhile, the Air Force has been testing whether it can use Starlink and other satellite constellations to pass data to and from its aircraft.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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