Lighter, mesh antennas can help cut satellite costs

Mesh satellite antenna

The U.S. military claims it has been looking for ways to reduce the soaring costs of intelligence, communications and other satellites, exploring options ranging from reusable launch vehicles to modular “plug and play" payload features touted by major satellite makers like Boeing.

Another approach to reducing satellites costs comes from partners Harris Corp. and Vanguard Space Technologies. Late last year, Harris teamed with San Diego-based Vanguard to produce a lightweight antenna reflector for satellites. The partners said their approach provides significant weight savings, and lighter satellites are cheaper to launch.

The antenna reflectors are based on Harris' fixed mesh reflector (FMR) technology and Vanguard's expertise in composite structures used to support structural elements. Harris' mesh antenna reflectors that unfurl in orbit are used on Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and being deployed by the Navy to provide high-bandwidth global communications.

Harris claims its FMR technology can reduce satellite antenna mass by 50 percent compared with current solid reflectors used for satellite applications across UHF and V-bands. The two companies also claim FMR provides radio-frequency reflectivity and surface accuracy equivalent to solid reflectors.

The partners said antenna reflectors based on FMR technology can be designed for applications using a range of bandwidths, including C-, Ku- and Ka-bands. Those applications usually require smaller spot beams—that is, a satellite signal that is concentrated in power similar to those transmitted via high-gain antennas. Spot beams provide a limited swath of geographic coverage but stronger signal strength.

The approach also allows for efficient reuse of scarce frequencies, resulting in greater satellite capacity.

While Harris has been using mesh material for large antennas that unfurl in space, the company said FMR is a new material with higher density. That makes them better for use with high-frequency antennas operating in highest communications frequencies, such as the high-bandwidth Ka-band.

Harris is currently under contract to build 10 antenna reflectors for the MUOS constellation. Each narrowband communications satellite carries two antenna reflectors. The latest MUOS-3 bird was launched on Jan. 20.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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