Can LEO Meet the Changing Arctic’s Connectivity Needs?

Global warming, and a changing geopolitical landscape, create opportunities for a host of countries that are quickly ramping up both civilian and military developments in the Arctic.

The U.S. government has realized that it needs to step up its game in the Arctic as the region becomes increasingly strategic to security and economic interests. Increasing activities in homeland security, defense, land, and maritime need support for the growing navigation and communication needs that Low-Earth Orbit satellites can provide.

But covering the area with satellite communication for the U.S. and its allies is challenging. The area within the Arctic Circle is more than twice the land area of the United States. As Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites operate in a fixed orbit over the equator, they are unable to reliably communicate to the Arctic past the curvature of the Earth, whereas LEO satellites can be set to orbit pole to pole.

The U.S. government is working with commercial Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators to deploy and test more LEO satellite constellations to provide connectivity to this remote region. And this region represents a major opportunity for satellite operators moving forward to serve military and commercial customers.

“The arctic is an area that has been traditionally data starved and connectivity starved, just because of the physics of it. It’s very hard to serve from GEO,” says Brian Beal, a scientist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation (SDPE) office. “The emergence of the LEO network is a very exciting development for serving that area.”

A Changing Landscape

The Arctic is in the midst of various environmental and geopolitical changes. Arctic warming is shrinking the floating sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean, and snow cover over land in the Arctic has decreased. In addition, frozen ground in the Arctic, also called permafrost, is warming and in many areas thawing, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Several scientists have projected that the Arctic will be ice-free in most late summers as soon as the 2030s.

These physical changes could have major implications for trade. A recent Congressional Research Service report (CRS), “Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress,” notes that melting Arctic ice raises the possibility of saving several thousands of miles and several days of sailing between major trading blocs. Melting ice could potentially open up two trans-Arctic routes – the Northern Sea Route, and the Northwest Passage. If the Arctic were to become a viable shipping route, the ramifications could extend far beyond the Arctic, and effect lessen shipping costs for China, Japan, and South Korea.

In addition, the shrinking Arctic ice cap, and the subsequent increase in ice-free ocean in the summertime, has increased interest in exploring for offshore oil and gas in the Arctic. And the opportunity in the area could be great — a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) appraisal estimated that 90 billion barrels of oil and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids may be undiscovered in the area.

Geopolitical changes are happening as well. The CRS report notes issues such as geopolitical competition and military operations in the region between the United States, Russia, and China; growth in commercial shipping through the Arctic; and oil, gas, and mineral exploration in the Arctic, all of which could cause the region in coming years to become an arena of international cooperation, tension, and/or competition.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has taken special notice that Russia has recently invested in the construction of ports and search-and-rescue facilities, some of which are referred to as dual use facilities, according to the CRS report. Russia also has reactivated and modernized Arctic military bases that fell into disuse with the end of the Cold War, assigned new forces to those bases, and increased military exercises and training operations in the Arctic.

“We have viewed the Arctic as a place where it’s been peaceful and stable with broad cooperation across all eight Arctic states,” says Karen Jones, senior project leader and technology strategist in the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at The Aerospace Corporation. “But in some ways, the geopolitics is getting a little more intense because there is more at stake. We have to ensure that we have a strong presence, and a good situational awareness.”

The State of Arctic Connectivity

The changing physical and geopolitical nature of the Arctic has created the need for the U.S. to not only expand its presence there but make satellite communications both more widely available, more cost effective, and more efficient.

To do that, the DoD and other government agencies are working directly with commercial satellite companies such as Iridium, OneWeb, SpaceX, and others, as well as tracking developments of other commercial companies, such as Amazon’s Kuiper constellation, all of which are focusing their efforts on providing Arctic satellite coverage with a whole slew of LEO satellites.

SpaceX alone has put a huge number of LEOs in space, and is now launching to polar orbit. A recent launch in September from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California launched 51 Starlink satellites to polar orbit.

Iridium is currently the standard-bearer for the region. The operator created the first LEO constellation in late ‘90s, and its refreshed constellation offers voice, video, and data communications at low broadband speeds. Iridium created one of the latest projects to explore and understand how LEO satellites will work in the Arctic, with Operation Arctic Lynx (OAL), a partnership-driven field demonstration of Iridium technology, primarily focused above 60 degrees North latitude and stretching as far as 82 degrees North latitude, in June of this year.

OAL included an international contingent of more than 20 organizations ranging from the DoD to scientific research institutions. During OAL, Iridium satellite Push-to-Talk (PTT), unattended sensors, Iridium Certus broadband, and other capabilities displayed real-time interoperability, communications-on-the-move, command-and-control, and developed and maintained a common operational picture for military, civil, and non-governmental organization applications.

“One of the stars of the OAL was full motion compressed video,” says Ken Flowers, vice president, Government Business Development for Iridium. “We drove from Anchorage [Alaska] to Fairbanks, a six-hour drive, with a GoPro camera mounted on our SUVs sending out video. It was raining. You could see all of the bad weather. But we were pushing that video to people at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. With a minimal delay, just three to five seconds, they could see exactly what was going on,” says Flowers. “We were not only in bad weather, but on the move traveling 70 or 80 miles per hour. And the quality of the video was excellent.”

More Connectivity is Coming

On the commercial side of LEO development, OneWeb is heavily targeting the Arctic as a market. The company is working to provide seamless connectivity across the whole Arctic region, says Dylan Browne, head of Government Services for OneWeb. The company expects to deliver coverage to the 50th parallel North and above by the end of 2021.

“There is tremendous demand from different sectors in the region, be it community Wi-Fi, health clinics, [and] high schools in the region that just require connectivity for studies,” Browne says. “There are so many sectors that are underserved today. That will change in November.”

He describes connectivity right now in the region as very sporadic and patchy. “You have the haves and the have nots. 48 percent of the region has little or no internet. The Alaska Chamber of Commerce can’t even run Office 365 on the networks that they have,” Browne says.

Better satellite connectivity for the region’s huge industries — such as fishing, lumber, tourism, off-shore energy businesses — will drive efficiency and safety for those industries, according to Browne.

In May, Hughes Network Systems and OneWeb announced a contract from the AFRL to demonstrate managed LEO satellite communications services to connect the Arctic region to sites around the globe. Under the agreement, Hughes will test and implement these end-to-end services on the OneWeb system between selected U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) locations, a first step in using the power of LEO satellites for high-speed, low-latency broadband access in the Arctic.

OneWeb is planning full global satellite coverage by June, 2022, with coverage of the Arctic a priority, says Browne. “Other operators are following us because they have seen that there is a market demand there. The hunger for data usage is only increasing. We say the more the merrier.”

Hughes has been tracking LEO for many years, says Rick Lober, the vice president and general manager of Defense and Intelligence Systems at Hughes Network Systems. Hughes wrote a proposal with OneWeb to do testing work with LEO in the Arctic, he says, particularly at Thule Air Base in Greenland, home to the USAF Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. He said this is proceeding well and the site should be connected by the end of this year.

Connectivity right now is limited in the Arctic, says Lober. “There is some GEO connectivity up there. But antennas have to be risen up on a mountain or tower to work on the look angle towards the equator,” he says. “It’s not impossible but it is problematic. There are hundreds of LEO satellites in polar orbit, going around the poles constantly, that cover all these different swaths of Earth.”

From a security perspective, there are a number of positives with LEO service, says Lober: “First of all, there are a lot of them. You have a very resilient constellation. If one of those satellites is jammed or knocked out of the sky, there is another there a few minutes later.”

The second advantage is low latency, as LEO latency is about a tenth of GEO. “That can be important for certain applications like missile defense, where you don’t want to wait for a half a second for the message to get there,” Lober says.

Commercial Satcom Works With the DoD

USNORTHCOM’s goal is to have more commercial satellite companies working in tandem with the DoD, working with AFRL testing commercial satellite communication capabilities in the Arctic.

The Air Force plans to prototype and test Arctic communications capability north of 55-degree latitude, where many current satellite communications options lose coverage. The experiments are part of AFRL’s larger Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program, which looks to leverage commercial internet from space for military use.

Beal, a scientist at AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation office, tells Via Satellite that the DEUCSI program seeks to establish resilient, high-bandwidth, high-availability Air Force communications and data sharing capabilities in the Arctic by leveraging the developing commercial space internet networks.

“This approach differs radically from traditional military satellite communications programs where the government typically dictates, and pays for, every aspect of the program. By taking advantage of the commercial space internet, we plan to concentrate government efforts and resources on the few areas that are unique to DoD applications,” he says.

“The strategy we have taken is that we put out a fair number of use cases of the ways we think that the DoD might potentially want to use the emerging commercial space internet,” says Beal. “From there we focused on doing field experiments. We are focused on putting hardware out in test, hooking it up to actual systems that we like to use as data sources, and push information through various systems. Then we see what worked well and what didn’t.”

One of the biggest surprises that he has found so far is how quickly the commercial world is moving and advancing capabilities, Beal says. “We expected that to happen and wanted that to happen. But when you see it in action, it’s really quite impressive.”

Beal said the program is following commercial capabilities as they evolve, with intent to test capabilities as soon as they are ready. For example, they started testing some Starlink terminals in the middle of last year. As expected, at first, the service was spotty. “We were getting OK data rate performance but it wasn’t very consistent,” says Beal. “But in just a matter of weeks and months, the system is now working great.”

Beal says that the AFRL is starting the same thing now with Hughes and their OneWeb partner, easing into it with small experiments at first and then ramping up when capabilities come online, and it’s happening very quickly.

For now, demonstration and pilot projects with multiple business and government partners are the name of the game with LEO in the Arctic. Interest is ramping up throughout many industries, some of which are exploring new technologies that are reliant on better satellite communications in the region.

For example, autonomous ships directed via satellite communications could be the future of vessel traffic through new shipping lanes in the Arctic, using faster communications connectivity offered by LEO.

Jones of The Aerospace Corporation points to changing Arctic as an example of the accelerating pace of change in the satellite industry.

“The DoD is looking to the commercial sector to innovate and provide services to them. 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have thought about that. Now they are looking at this in terms of remote sensing, positioning and navigation, and communications,” she says. “I think you will start to see increased dependence on both civil and defense sectors for commercial operators to provide that service to them.” VS

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