Space Force touts benefits of deploying military payloads on commercial satellites

WASHINGTON — Onboard a Hispasat telecommunications satellite that flew to geostationary Earth orbit Feb. 6 is a U.S. military transponder that will provide connectivity to Defense Department users. 

Known as Pathfinder 2, the transponder — a unit that performs the functions of both transmitter and receiver in a satellite — will give the U.S. military access to communications services during the entire lifetime of Hispasat’s Amazonas Nexus. Hispasat, a Spanish commercial telecommunications provider, will operate the satellite.

The hosted payload arrangement was made in 2018, when the Air Force awarded network integrator Artel a $19 million contract to embed the Pathfinder 2 mission on Hispasat’s Amazonas Nexus high-throughput satellite, built by Thales Alenia Space. 

Now run by the U.S. Space Force, the project started as an Air Force initiative to figure out new methods to acquire secure satcom services as an alternative to short-term leasing options or to building a dedicated military satellite at a cost of several hundred million dollars. 

The Air Force previously launched a similar transponder, Pathfinder 1, on an SES commercial satellite under a $9 million contract.

With the Ku-band transponder on Amazonas Nexus, the Space Force will get contiguous coverage over the United States.

The U.S. Space Systems Command said the Pathfinder mission “was designed to take advantage of existing commercial technologies to demonstrate innovative, affordable and resilient wideband alternatives for satellite communications.”

The Space Force has touted partnerships with commercial satellite operators as it seeks to fill growing demand for satcom services by military users.  Most recently, the Space Force signed an agreement with Space Norway to launch two military communications payloads on the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission, projected to launch later this year. 

Charlotte Gerhart, chief of the tactical satcom acquisition delta at Space Systems Command, said the Pathfinder 2 mission “satisfies warfighter requirements by procuring commercially provided pre-launch transponders and securing bandwidth at a lower total ownership cost.”

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