Unlocking the Spectrum Value
As the current satellite frequency bands become increasingly congested, it has become critical to exploit higher frequencies for satellite communications to accommodate the rapidly growing need for high data transmission rates and complex waveforms. One company, Torrance, California-based L3 Electron Devices, stands ready to meet the demand to power and amplify signals for commercial satellite operators as the spectrum broadens.
February 14, 2017
Founded in the 1950s, L3 Electron Devices began originally as the Microwave Tube division of Hughes Aircraft Company and was later acquired in 2005 by L3 Technologies, Inc. L3 Electron Devices has been a proven performer for commercial, military and government customers for upwards of 45 years. Its hardware has been deployed on more than 180 satellites, with over 450 million Traveling Wave Tube (TWT) operating hours and more than 142 million Electronic Power Conditioner (EPC)/Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier (TWTA) operating hours in orbit. The company has delivered 4,700 space TWTs and 2,100 TWTAs to customers worldwide and has space-qualified products ranging from L-band to V-band frequencies, with output power ranging from .5 W to more than 250 W.
Different satellite frequency bands, which are used for uplinks and downlinks (e.g., C-band, Ku-band and Ka-band) are like data highways. As these bands are used by more operators, they congest with data, much like a crowded highway, and limit data throughput. More bandwidth means a wider highway, which can transmit more information at a faster rate.
Looking back to the early years at this growing problem, C-band dominated the market (~5 GHz up, ~4 GHz down), followed by Ku-band (~14 GHz up, ~12 GHz down). As the C- and Ku-bands became congested, the market moved up to Ka-band (~30 GHz up, ~20 GHz down), and even that is now becoming overcrowded to the point where finding a solution to accommodate the growing need for data transmission is an absolute must.
The clear next step within the industry is to move to the next International Telecommunication Union (ITU) frequency designation: Q-/V-bands (~50 GHz up, ~40 GHz down). Q-/V-bands are very attractive as an uncluttered, wide-bandwidth solution that can accommodate these complex waveforms and provide very high data transmission rates. Extremely high frequencies enhance the performance of the industry's generation of high-throughput satellite programs. By offloading backhaul links between a satellite and its hubs from the Ku-/Ka-bands to the Q-/V-bands, significantly more bandwidth can be made available for users and the number of hubs can be reduced, helping to drive down the cost per bit.
Meeting today’s needs by continuing a heritage of proven performance
Prime satellite operators have had an especially intense interest over the past year in Q-/V-band opportunities to solve the growing congestion problem, as well as provide increased data transmission capacity to ultimately drive revenues. The key to a stronger satellite for these operators is a high-power, wideband downlink signal, and one company, in particular, has been investing millions of dollars in research and development over the past several years to develop the necessary signal amplification technology in anticipation of the shift to Q-/V-band frequencies. L3 Electron Devices has been a leading supplier to the space and defense industry for more than 45 years and is historically known for its top-performing TWTs, EPCs and fully integrated TWTAs. In fact, L3 Electron Devices is the only company in the world offering a 300 W Ka-band TWTA for downlink applications. It is now reshaping the TWTA market by introducing new, revolutionary technologies to better serve the high-throughput satellite market and accommodate Q-/V-band needs while developing a fully digital EPC to address the flexible payload market. Additionally, L3 Electron Devices is in production today with Ku-band Solid-State Power Amplifiers (SSPAs) for space applications and is actively developing a full product offering that extends to Q-band frequencies.
With space-qualified production experience from 1 GHz to 65 GHz, L3 Electron Devices is well-positioned to provide signal amplification for the emerging Q-/V-band commercial markets. It has been delivering flight millimeter wave (>22 GHz) TWTs since 1994. Its complete millimeter wave product family (addressing the >22 GHz to <76 GHz space downlink frequencies) has been in production since 2004 in support of seven flight programs to date, and more programs are currently in production. Leveraging its existing legacy high-power, millimeter wave TWTA design at Ka-band and V-band frequencies with proven on-orbit performance and reliability, L3 Electron Devices can offer Q-band TWTAs producing up to 200 W RF output power at efficiencies of up to 50 percent. That equates to incredible long-term savings for cost-conscious satellite operators!
Unrivaled capabilities, all under one roof
L3 Electron Devices has best-in-class facilities to handle all aspects of TWT and electronic power conditioner design, manufacturing, RF and environmental testing, as well as material analysis and inspection, in a single, fully integrated state-of-the-art facility. Housing nearly 100 percent of the manufacturing and testing processes associated with development and volume production under one roof is a unique attribute, as many suppliers either have separate facilities or only handle certain phases of development, creating a fragmented procurement process.
For the design and development process, L3 Electron Devices employs 3-D modeling and industry-leading engineering analysis tools and a combination of in-house, proprietary, NRL and commercially available software modeling tools. Distributed computing using cutting-edge Linux clusters is then utilized to test and validate designs. During manufacturing and RF testing, Six Sigma practices are integrated into the company’s process-controlled cathode facility to ensure quality production.
L3 Electron Devices’ RF and environmental testing capabilities are unparalleled in the industry. Simulation of extreme deep-space conditions occurs within each of the company’s 40 thermal vacuum chambers using multiple vibration tables and ultra-modern equipment to duplicate the stress that components will endure for space and military operations. Having such a robust testing facility also allows L3 Electron Devices to maintain its high-capacity production levels to meet the industry’s rapidly growing demands.
Detailed raw material, piece part and unit inspections are critical to delivering a high-quality product. L3 Electron Devices has completely upgraded a significant portion of its material analysis capability. X-ray Fluorescent (XRF) equipment in the company’s receiving inspection area and a large chamber Electron Scattering Chemical Analysis (ESCA) machine ensure unwanted contaminants are not present in incoming parts. A 230 kV X-ray machine capable of 3-D tomography enables detailed and thorough inspection of all units, and an aggressive Foreign Object Debris (FOD) campaign is underway to further enhance production efficiencies.
Fifty years and nearly 400 million on-orbit hours after the launch of the first communications satellite, L3 Electron Devices TWTs continue to provide signal amplification for the majority of communication satellites
Constantly innovating to stay ahead of ever-evolving industry standards and demands to meet lower prices, L3 Electron Devices has a long-standing reputation as a proven partner and key supplier of high-reliability products for defense and space. Whether to facilitate a broadcaster bringing the world to its viewers or a scientist exploring a far-off galaxy, L3 Electron Devices understands its critical contribution to mission success. The company is proud to have the most innovative minds in the industry, a highly skilled workforce and a lean manufacturing facility to provide its customers the most value at an affordable cost. •