On July 9th 2015, less than three years ago, Eutelsat, Airbus, and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement for the construction of a telecommunications satellite called the "Quantum" that would be very different from all its predecessors. And now construction is finished: On Monday, the engineering partners presented the Quantum in the British coastal town of Portsmouth, with ESA astronaut Tim Peake in attendance.
What is special about the Quantum? It is a so-called "chameleon" satellite. That means it can quickly adapt and change its character, at the push of a button - according to the needs of its controllers.
In concrete terms, this means the controllers can re-target the signal beams the satellite sends to earth toward specific geographic regions, as needed. They can also separately change the strength, frequency, and bandwidth of its signal.
So far: A defined footprint
Until now, conventional communication satellites have had a rather static build: They each sit in their fixed geostationary position in orbit, where they receive and broadcast signals on one or more preset frequencies. They relay the signals back to earth on a fixed frequency with a fixed signal strength, toward a predefined geographic footprint.
The footprint looks like a large spot on the map. At the edge of the spot, the signal is typically somewhat weaker. To receive the signal near the edge of the footprint, one needs a larger parabolic antenna. In the center, a smaller antenna is enough – often a dish less than a meter in diameter suffices.
The future: Eight footprints
With the new Quantum satellite, most of these parameters will be variable. While it too will be in geostationary orbit, it won't broadcast just one large beam back to earth, but rather, eight different beams. So it will create eight footprints, each of which can be controlled separately. The footprints' diameters can vary from between 600 kilometers in diameter, all the way up to a size covering a third of the earth's surface. And users will be able to change each beam's signal strength, bandwidth, and frequency.
Technically, it would be possible to have a beam follow its target permanently. For example, it would be possible to reserve one of the eight beams for communication with a large naval unit, such as an aircraft carrier led naval battle group. With a tightly focused beam following the group, the signals could be received only in relative proximity to the carrier's theater of operations. This will make it more difficult for adversaries to intercept communication.
The ability to change the satellite's transmission frequency at short notice is also a security feature: Should anybody attempt to disrupt the satellite by sending illicit signals to it, the user could simply change to another frequency.
In addition to broadcasting on eight separate channels, the satellite also will be tuned to receive signals from eight different geographic locations on Earth. This means the satellite can only be targeted by sending signals from these specific, defined areas on the planet's surface.
This will make jamming almost impossible. Jamming involves bombarding a satellite with very strong noise signals at the frequency it uses to communicate, so that legitimate signals can't get through. Since the satellite will be able to determine from where the jamming signals emerge, it can tune those areas out.
Many features of the Quantum satellite originate in research for military purposes, and it can be expected that many future users will come from that domain. However, soon the technology will also be available to civilian customers.
Start in 2019
The Quantum satellite is expected to be launched sometime in 2019. The first Quantum satellite is meant to take a position above the Atlantic, from where it can serve the Americas, Europe, and Africa.
But that is certainly not going to be the end of the story. More likely, chameleon satellites similar to the Quantum are going to become the new standard in communications satellite technology.