The Growing Demand for Sovereign Space Systems
Nations with little sovereign space infrastructures are increasingly opting to buy their own satellites for communications and observation purposes, rather than paying for commercial data services or joining partnerships. With lower launch costs and off-the-shelf satellites now ubiquitous across the industry, service providers are jumping into the market.
June 26, 2023
For decades, the mention of space-faring nations has brought to mind major players like the United States, Russia, China, India, and Europe.
But that dynamic is rapidly shifting. In recent months, Poland announced it would procure two Earth Observation (EO) satellites from Airbus, meant to increase military reconnaissance capabilities. Around the same time, Luxembourg committed to SES’ O3b mPOWER services, which would enable the government to operate sovereign gateways and networks to build a more resilient satcom infrastructure. John-Paul Hemingway, chief strategy and product officer of SES, recently predicted that every major government will announce sovereign space plans in the next year.
Now, countries with little to no satellite infrastructure can dip their toes into procuring sovereign systems that allow for more autonomy in an increasingly space-based geopolitical environment. Meanwhile, satellite companies are pivoting from offering capacity services alone, to off-the-shelf satellites to meet those needs.
Australia’s Shifting View of Satcom
Another significant development for sovereign space capabilities came earlier this year, when Australia announced it had selected Lockheed Martin to develop a new military satellite communications system under the JP9102 program.
The project, once realized, will include Geostationary Orbit (GEO) communication satellites, multiple ground stations across Australia, along with a management system and two new operations centers. It will be the nation’s first sovereign satcom system, after decades of piggy-backing off of other allies’ systems.
Australia initiated the JP9102 program in 2016 to meet specific defense-related requirements which can only be achieved via a sovereign-controlled satcom system called the Australian Defence Satellite Communication System (ADSS), says Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, Commander of the nation’s Defence Space Command.
“A sovereign space capability allows us to independently employ capabilities when and where required,” she tells Via Satellite in an email. “It does not automatically mean the space capability has to be designed, developed or maintained in Australia, but it does mean Defence has to have access to a functioning capability when required.”
Commercial and international partnerships will nonetheless remain a part of Canberra’s space architecture, she notes. “We have a long history of these partnerships and intend to maintain them into the future.”
As of this article’s publication, the Australian Department of Defence and Lockheed Martin were working through the tender process to negotiate the final cost of the JP9102 program, with the intent to deliver systems “as soon as possible,” a department spokesperson tells Via Satellite.
Australia has a decades-long history of using satellite communications, with its domestic satcom provider Optus beginning as a government entity back in the 1980s. While today Optus is known as a commercial provider, it still hosts an Australian military payload on one of its C1 satellites.
Historically, satcom services in the Pacific region were anchored in either Australia or New Zealand. Today, a variety of nations have launched their own payloads on commercial systems to provide direct-to-home television or broadband services to their respective territories, or are investing in fiber connectivity, says David Ball, regional director for Australia and New Zealand for Lockheed Martin Space.
But those fiber services, delivered via a network of undersea cables that connect Pacific Island nations, have typically only reached capital cities, he notes. “There's still a long last-mile beyond the capital cities to reach all the outer islands.” Nation-state customers are now increasingly looking to use satellites to bridge that digital divide, he adds.
Ball, a 14-year veteran of the Royal Australian Air Force, was in service as the nation began exploring satellite communications from a defense perspective. At that point, the government leased capacity on the Optus B satellite fleet, which operated an L-band payload on board, he says. Additionally, the service used “a very narrow-band, voice and low rate data service” which was used largely around mainland Australia.
Alongside the defense payload aboard Optus’ C1 satellite, which featured UHF, X-, and Ka-band capacity, “that was a starting point for Defence to understand more and more about what they wanted,” says Ball. JP9102 is intended to replace that full suite of programs, he notes.
‘Terrestrial Baggage’ In Orbit
Analysts see the trend toward increasing sovereign space systems as reflective of sovereign lines being drawn on Earth.
The spread of multiple orbital infrastructures tends to reflect the “systemic political nature of international politics,” and “falls along the fault lines of global economic blocs,” writes Bleddyn Bowen, associate professor of astropolitics and space warfare at the University of Leicester, in his 2022 book “Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space.”
“States, societies, and people take their terrestrial baggage with them into orbit,” he writes.
As the civil, commercial, and military infrastructures of today increasingly move into the stars, nations that traditionally were not space-based are now looking upward, as well.
Some nations, such as South Africa and Rwanda, are investing the bulk of their space activities for space science and systems engineering approaches, and are not necessarily building satellites for government or military purposes, Bowen tells Via Satellite.
But nothing is inherently stopping those military and security institutions from potentially accessing those satellites if they are sovereign systems, he notes. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), for example, started as the nation’s premier science-based institution, but is now a contractor for the Ministry of Defense.
“You can't stop a government from using [satellites] in certain ways if they really want to,” says Bowen.
Satellite Companies Filling the Need
Satellite companies are adjusting their offerings to take advantage of the global demand. Finland’s Iceye revealed a new business expansion in 2022, allowing governments and multinational corporations to purchase their own synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, to be either operated independently, or managed by Iceye. To date, Iceye has publicly shared it has provided sovereign satellite systems to Brazil – whose two satellites were launched in May 2022 – and transferred full capabilities of one of its on-orbit SAR satellites to Ukraine.
For Iceye founder and CEO Rafal Modrzewski, the expansion is not a novel idea for the space industry as a whole – companies like Airbus and Lockheed have long made that their business model – but perhaps more so for the “new space” players.
“For one reason or another, the ‘new space’ Earth Observation companies at first, perhaps, decided that they may not provide such offerings,” he says. “I think that was related to the way the technology was being built and developed.”
When it was standard practice for a satellite company to build a bespoke, standalone system that could take years to reach the launch pad, the lack of scalability was a core challenge for many businesses. “From Iceye’s perspective, we looked at this whole problem once again, and decided that you can sell satellites in a scalable way,” Modrzewski says. “Which means that that revenue stream should be perceived as a very repeatable, scalable revenue – same as software, although it’s hardware.”
Iceye’s new business line is based off of its ongoing factory manufacturing line. Regardless of the customer, the satellites procured are nearly identical, with some minimal differences on the software side, or changes in generations of satellites coming online in the future via software-defined features and small hardware tweaks.
Because of that, customers are now looking at much shorter delivery times and lower prices, along with less burdensome documentation, Modrzewski says. “The whole model starts looking like a highly reputable and scalable model from the company perspective. And from the customer perspective, it’s delivered faster, it’s way simpler to buy, and it is cheaper, more appealing.”
While Iceye has had some takeup from nation-states, Modrzewski says there has been more interest in its satellite mission line so far from other companies.
He doesn’t see Iceye’s offering replacing the need for large GEO-based systems, but serving as a complement asset.
“Even if you are already in possession of many big satellites, you’re still going to vastly benefit from a swarm of small satellites,” he says.
Satellogic has also recently begun selling off-the-shelf satellites to both government and non-government customers, after several years of offering its “Constellation-as-a-Service” product that allows governments to tap into the company’s existing operational satellites as they orbit above sovereign territories.
Albania signed such a contract in late 2022 to have access to two systems, says Luciano Giesso, Satellogic head of Global Government Sales.
The company sees a market for its Constellation-as-a-Service product for nations that already have assets in space, and want to augment their capabilities, as well as countries that “are just dipping their toes” into the space capabilities market, Giesso tells Via Satellite.
“This works for them to be able to use a certain amount of satellites and to get the capacity that they need, instead of building or buying a satellite,” he notes.
Still, Satellogic came to realize that certain countries want to own and operate their own systems, and launched a new line dubbed “Space Systems” in the first quarter of 2023. Under that line, the company sells existing generation spacecraft for less than $10 million, then can adjust the onboard capabilities, or accommodate existing ground segments, based on customer needs, per Giesso. Mexico has signed a letter of intent with Satellogic for Constellation-as-a-Service, with the deal including an onboard computer manufactured in-country.
Like Iceye, Satellogic’s hardware systems will be virtually identical coming off of the factory lines, aside from changes for new generations of satellites. The company claims it takes about three months for a satellite to be produced.
When a customer signs on to use Satellogic’s “Constellation as a Service,” operation of the satellites in orbit can occur as quickly as the day the contract is signed. But more typically, they wait for new satellites to launch, says Giesso.
They won’t have to wait long. Satellogic has launched 12 satellites in 2023 so far, with the most recent launch of four systems aboard SpaceX’s June 13 Transporter-8 mission. The company has launched 46 satellites to date, with 38 systems currently in orbit. Giesso expects an additional six to eight satellites to be launched by the end of the year.
Satellogic and other service providers across the globe see defense and intelligence as the main drivers for nations to operate sovereign systems, along with border monitoring. But there’s a growing interest in using satellites for civil uses as well, such as agriculture and natural disaster monitoring and response.
Still, the answer to what defines “space sovereignty” remains somewhat blurry. The U.S. government is considered to have complete control over its space framework – except for the amount of semiconductors, and other hardware and software that is imported from nations like Taiwan.
“Does that make the U.S. less sovereign?” says Bowen. “Does it matter because they're allies? I don't know.”
But for any nation to consider procuring a space system for the first time is a notable and expensive investment, even if the costs have lessened significantly, he adds.
A key factor in nation-states’ drive to procure their own systems is that it has never been cheaper for them to do so. High-resolution optical or radar imagery, and full motion video from space, once accessible to only a handful of nations, is now available to practically anyone with a credit card, says Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C.
A smaller nation may only be able to afford one or two satellites, which will not provide global coverage by any means. But that country will still have a greater sense of control and autonomy over the tasking of the satellite and the data received.
“They don't have to rely on gifts of imagery from another country; they don't have to rely on just buying commercial data,” says Weeden.
Observers note that it makes the most sense for a nation-state procuring sovereign satellites for the first time to focus on satcom and observation assets. The next capability priorities would likely be space situational awareness, along with position, navigation, and timing.
As more and more nations begin to consider procuring new systems, Weeden warns of a potential congestion issue looming – not in terms of physical assets in space, as proliferated commercial constellations are contributing much more to that problem than any sovereign space capability could, but in terms of spectrum availability.
“All of these satellites need radiofrequency spectrum to talk to the ground, and that is increasingly congested,” he says. VS
Vivienne Machi is an award-winning reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany