Quantum Satellite To Revolutionize Telecoms

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced the Quantum program, which will develop uniquely flexible, revolutionary telecommunication satellites that can be reconfigured from Earth.

Once in orbit, the chameleon-like satellite can adapt to new commands in coverage, frequency band, power use and even change its orbital position. This will make it the first generation of universal satellites able to serve any region of the world and adjust to new business without the user needing to buy and launch an entirely new satellite.

A Quantum Leap

SSTLQuantum represents a radical shift from current telecommunication satellites, whose main mission parameters, ground coverage patterns, and operating frequencies, are fixed before launch.

Another radical shift from common aerospace development practices, artificially inflated budgets, inefficiencies, and long development times, is that the Quantum satellites will make extensive use generic off-the-shelf subsystems and equipment, and therefore they will be cheaper and quicker to build.

Quantum is a public–private partnership (PPP) between ESA, satellite operator Eutelsat, and Airbus Defence & Space (UK). In a PPP, the private industry partners share costs and risks (as opposed to milking a public funding agency for more and more free money), and therefore they are motivated to keep space programs on budget and on time.

“The Quantum programme is another excellent PPP example,” said ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications Magali Vaissiere. “Industry benefits from a new type of satellite in a highly competitive and risk-averse market, the satellite operator benefits from the satellite’s advanced features and the ESA Member States who invested in Quantum are ensured maximum return on their support through the development of their respective industries.”

The first Quantum satellite will be delivered in 2018 and operated by Eutelsat to serve government, mobility and data markets. Airbus DS will be the prime contractor, using a new platform from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. Both developments are supported by the UK Space Agency.

“The beauty of Quantum is that it uses active antennas on the uplink to the spacecraft and on the downlink to the Earth,” James Hinds from Airbus explained to BBC News. “Active means the coverage – where you point – can be moved around at the touch of a telecommand through a process called software definition.”

This means, for example, you can put power where the market demands it, or, and this does happen, you can change your coverage to mitigate interference in places where someone is unintentionally, or even intentionally, jamming your signal.

The technology of Quantum can thus be seen as a space adaptation of software-defined radio. It doesn’t have much to do with quantum physics, but the name is cool and can be interpreted as in “quantum leap” – a radical improvement to the current state-of-the-art.

“To get here, we’ve had to develop a number of key technologies and ways of working, such as larger satellite structures, higher power systems, and radiation-tolerant electronics,” said John Paffett from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. “But this is just a first product. Our intention is take this capability into small telecoms satellites, to stimulate new markets and applications.”

Images from European Space Agency and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.