Russia’s Sphere Satellite Constellation Moves Toward Implementation

Sphere constellation satellite orbits. (Credit: Roscosmos)
  • 264-satellite constellation will provide broadband and Earth observation capabilities
  • Russia’s first mega constellation would be deployed in medium orbit
  • Government plans to spend US $370 million through 2024

MOSCOW (Roscosmos PR) — After several stages of discussions and approvals in the government, the Federal Sphere project received a development plan supported by funding. In the coming years, emphasis will be placed on developing technologies and creating the first samples of spacecraft. The final decision on the number and composition of satellite constellations will be made based on the results shown.

The pandemic and the need to address priority state tasks have made certain adjustments to the plans for the implementation of the federal project “Sphere”. The creation of a national multi-satellite constellation of communications and Earth remote sensing (ERS) will continue, but the process will be phased and more variable. Behind the long – over two years – coordination in the federal executive bodies.

“After we presented the project to the government for the last time, a number of meetings were held, including with the Ministry of Finance, under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister for the Defense Industry Complex Yuri Borisov, as well as under the leadership of the President. As a result, the Ministry of Finance provided funding for priority work on the Sphere project – 7 billion rubles [US $92.47 million] for this year [2021] and another 7 billion [US $92.47 million] annually from 2022 to 2024,” Sergey Prokhorov, Director of the Department of Prospective Programs and the SFERA Project, told Russian Space

The top manager of Roscosmos does not hide the fact that at the moment Sphere is seriously different from the original version of 2019. He believes that a combination of circumstances had an effect: “Recently, there have been several well-known events that have entailed colossal government spending. This is both a pandemic, the consequences of which affected the socio-economic situation in the country, and sanctions, which affected a number of Russian enterprises and industries. I think the delay in approval and all the changes made are caused by these force majeure circumstances. “

Sphere constellation satellite (Credit: Roscosmos)

Nevertheless, all this time Roscosmos continued to develop and promote the frontal development strategy of the State Corporation, which is based on the Sphere project.

In general, the upcoming three-year stage of the “Sphere” can be called preparatory: within its framework, various technologies will be tested and prototypes of equipment will be manufactured. It depends on the results of the stage, along which path the process of mass production and deployment of groupings in orbits will go. With all the changes, the main idea of ​​the project – space for humans – remains the same.

What is Important to Know about Sphere?

Sphere is one of the key projects of Roscosmos aimed at developing space information technologies and eliminating the so-called digital inequality. Thanks to it, the most modern communication and monitoring system will be created, including both the existing and future space infrastructure.

A significant part of the territory of our country is located in high latitudes, where the population density is low, and the zones of taiga, tundra and permafrost interfere with the laying of fiber-optic communication networks. In such places, satellites will help to provide a full range of telecommunication services for stationary and mobile objects.

It is planned to achieve these goals by deploying groups with Yamal and Express communication satellites in geostationary and Express-RV in highly elliptical orbits, with SKIF broadband Internet access devices in medium orbits and satellites to provide the Internet of things. IoT Marathon ”in low orbits.

Sphere constellation satellite (Credit: Roscosmos)

Earth observation in various wavelength ranges will be conducted by the constellations of the SMOTR, Berkut-O, Berkut-VD, Berkut-X and Berkut-XLP spacecraft. As a result, integrated services will develop for the growth of all sectors of the country’s economy.

Unlike foreign competitors, Roscosmos took the path of creating not one global, but several regional systems, the capabilities of which are focused on solving urgent problems for Russia, but can be expanded to the entire planet. This can include the maintenance of the Northern Sea Route – a promising transport corridor, as well as the development of broadband Internet access and the “Internet of things” in remote and inaccessible regions of the country.

On June 7, 2018, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin spoke about the Sphere project for the first time during a direct line.

Internet from Medium Orbit

One of the planned priority tasks is the creation of a satellite-demonstrator of the system of broadband Internet access in medium-altitude orbit “SKIF”. It is planned to launch the device already in 2022. This is one of the obligations of the Russian Federation to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Its implementation will allow Russia to secure the allocated orbital-frequency resource and begin the deployment of the orbital constellation.

“At ITU, we have priority,” explains Sergei Prokhorov. “That is, we will need to coordinate our system with several similar groups, of course, if they are launched. If we miss the queue, we will have to re-negotiate with the Telecommunications Union. And here we must take into account that some 280 systems from all over the world have been announced in the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau after us, as many are following this path.”

In parallel with the preparation of the demonstrator (launch in the fall of 2022 along the way, together with two Gonets spacecraft on the Soyuz-2 carrier rocket from the Vostochny cosmodrome), a preliminary design will be developed for the entire SKIF system, which includes 12 satellites in two orbital planes at an altitude of 8070 km, ground control systems and subscriber equipment. It is planned that the throughput of one SKIF device will be 150 gigabits per second, so the entire system can be considered a terrabit-class grouping.

First of all, “SKIF” is designed to provide high-speed Internet access to inaccessible and remote regions of the country, as well as ships moving along the Northern Sea Route.

The assembly of the demonstrator will take place at the MF Reshetnev ISS.

Always in touch with “Marathon”

The situation is different with the IoT Marathon grouping of the Internet of Things.

“We start with the preliminary design of the entire system, including ground terminals and the ‘service’ segment, then we create an experimental prototype of the spacecraft and, accordingly, at the end of 2023, we launch it into orbit,” explains the director of the department.

The launched device will have to confirm the performance of the entire concept in a test mode. Thanks to the IoT Marathon grouping, services such as the “satellite life button”, monitoring of the state of industrial infrastructure in remote areas, control of the transportation of dangerous goods and the satellite component of the ERA-GLONASS system will be presented. Timely transmission of a signal – about leaks, fires and other malfunctions – through space will prevent man-made and environmental disasters in oil and gas production, chemical and forestry industries, agriculture and other industries.

It is planned to place 264 satellites in 12 orbital planes at an altitude of 750 km. This is enough to provide global coverage of the entire territory of the Earth and provide data transmission from tens of millions of subscribers.

“Since the IoT Marathon is planned to be used in many industries, we will offer optimal solutions for subscriber equipment,” emphasizes Sergei Prokhorov. “It is planned that they will be of two types – for mobile and for stationary objects. Now we are working on the issue of integrating the capabilities of the Marathon IoT system into the terminals of the international search and rescue system COSPAS-SARSAT and ERA-GLONASS equipment. “

From Laser Communications to Digital Payload

Technological development is another important component of the first stage of the Sphere. Several research projects (R&D) are outlined. One of them – “Laser” – provides for the creation of high-speed optical communication channels. The transfer of large amounts of data is relevant not only for telecommunication satellites, but also for spacecraft that survey the Earth. One of the ideas involves the transfer of the survey results not directly, but through another satellite: for example, from the mid-orbital constellation of the SKIF system or a geostationary relay satellite. In this regard, laser communication is one of the most promising in terms of data transmission speed and confidentiality. As part of the “Laser” research and development project, it is planned to develop two terminals for inter-satellite communication, and subsequently – ground equipment for communication “space-to-Earth”.

As part of another work – “Type series” – the search for technologies for creating scalable unified satellite platforms for communication and remote sensing groups will be conducted. The ideology is simple: despite the different specifics, spacecraft should be based on the same technical solutions.“Obviously, survey shooting is possible with the help of simpler, and highly detailed – with the help of more sophisticated equipment,” says Sergei Prokhorov. “And if a radar is installed on the satellite, it will require large energy consumption and mass of both the platform and the payload, so the power-to-weight ratio of the device must be high. Nevertheless, all these satellites are small, and a line of unified platforms will be created for them.”

The work on the “Tiporyad”, in which both Roscosmos enterprises and private companies (about ten organizations in total) participate, is headed by Viktor Khartov, General Designer for Automatic Space Complexes and Systems.

Finally, within the framework of R&D “Tsifra” the task of transition to flexible digital payloads for promising telecommunication satellites is posed. This will make it possible to optimally use the device, correct its service areas and redistribute the power in the beams, and in the future, ensure the transfer of the signal to another frequency band. A spacecraft with such capabilities will be able to rationally use all its resources: for example, if an emergency situation or the changing market for telecommunications services requires it.

“This is such a complex machine, smart, which, if various external factors and circumstances change, will be able to reconfigure its resources, adjust to the consumer,” explains the director of the Sphere project. “In general, building up competencies in creating payloads of telecommunications devices is our future, including for economic reasons. Today, unfortunately, almost all civil communications satellites are created using foreign components. And in the cost structure, for example, of a geostationary vehicle, the payload reaches 70%.”

What is laser communication?

Laser communication is a type of information transmission using electromagnetic waves in the optical range. It allows spacecraft to be connected not only with ground stations, but also with each other. Due to the high throughput of laser communication lines, it becomes possible to minimize the number of ground communication points, expanding the coverage area.

Compared to radio communication, laser communication has a higher data transfer rate, lower power consumption and low interception capability. Its main disadvantage is the need for precise beam guidance, capture and tracking of the spacecraft. Since the divergence of the laser beam is very small, the task of getting a beam from one satellite into the optical receiver of another is extremely difficult (at a distance of 1000 kilometers from the radiation source, the beam has a diameter of only 10 meters) – a compromise is needed between pointing accuracy and laser power.

In addition, a laser beam is an excellent solution in a vacuum, but in atmospheric conditions it is not the best choice as a communication line due to significant signal attenuation in clouds, rain and fog.

Monitoring the Earth on New Technologies

A year ago, it was announced that more than 200 small spacecraft for high-periodic all-weather monitoring of the Earth “Berkut” would be launched into low orbits under the Sphere project. It was assumed that they would be of several types – survey, highly detailed and radar. As for the functionality of satellites, the plans have not changed, but talk about the size of the group is still premature.“

At the current stage, the main task we see is the development of technologies on demonstration devices, gaining experience and building up the competencies of our enterprises, in order to compete at the international level,” notes Sergei Prokhorov. “And the number of devices will depend on the amount of funding.”

Over the past two years since the beginning of the design of the system, the capabilities of the devices have improved. For example: if earlier the resolution of 2.5–5 m was included in the survey monitoring parameters, now this value is already 1.5 m with a swath of 85 km. High detail shooting performance will also improve. Additional functions will appear, in particular, high-resolution video recording.

Radar satellites continue to receive the highest priority. They are especially useful where 24-hour, all-weather surveillance is required, such as in the Arctic. Thanks to these satellites, ship captains, while moving along the Northern Sea Route, will receive operational information about the ice situation along the route of the entire route, despite strong clouds or polar night.

Private groupings? Not excluded

One of Sphere’s tasks is to attract private business to the project. First of all, we are talking about the inclusion of communication services, data transmission, navigation and remote sensing of the Earth in the services of telecommunications, transport, banking, insurance, mining and other companies. The integration of all these capabilities at the level of subscriber devices, the availability of a satellite signal anywhere in the country opens up good prospects for expanding business and improving the quality of customer service.

In addition, all advanced countries are striving to develop unmanned vehicles and robotic systems. Whoever is the first to collect satellite surveillance, positioning and telecommunications capabilities on their platform will have a competitive advantage and the chance to build a network of drones on a global scale – in the air, on land, on water.

“I am sure that our new technologies and services will interest big business, which is already actively looking at the satellite communications and remote sensing markets,” notes Sergei Prokhorov. “And in principle, we could propose the creation of completely private orbital groupings with the technological support of the Roscosmos State Corporation and our organizations.”

It is possible that this initiative will speed up the transition of the “Sphere” to the stage of serial production of devices, since the state is not yet ready to bear the full costs in all areas of the original version of the program.

“At the current stage, the main thing is to prove the consistency of the solutions and technologies put into the Sphere,” sums up the interlocutor. “And in the future, with the transition to replication, everything will depend on the needs and financial capabilities of the state. But we will also take into account the growing interest from the business side.

“Does this mean that Russian analogues of StarLink and OneWeb will appear in the near future? We do not set ourselves such a task, therefore it is unlikely. Nevertheless, we will ensure healthy competition for these systems in the telecommunications services market ”.

Igor Afanasyev, Russian space