Insight | Western Australia’s leading role in space


Western Australia’s leading role in space


As we look to the launch of I-6 F1 on 21 December 2021, Todd McDonell, Head of Inmarsat Australia and President of Inmarsat Global Government, explains the key role Western Australia is playing in providing critical satellite communications services and connecting the world.

The space sector began as the preserve of governments only. It was risky, expensive and the commercial benefits were unclear. We have all read about the Moon landings and the key role ‘The Dish’ at Parkes Observatory in New South Wales played in transmitting the communications of the NASA Apollo missions, or seen it in the movie at least. Now, as a new space age dawns with more and more businesses entering the arena, Western Australia is stepping up.

Having made tentative steps into space in the 1980s and 90s, the role of the private sector has been booming in recent years. From satellite communications to live TV broadcasts, the private sector is now leading on multiple fronts, including the advent of private space travel and the early stages of space tourism. Improved technologies and lower access costs, following the trail blazed by NASA and others, have now made involvement in the industry not only viable for businesses but also increasingly essential to economic growth through enhanced connectivity and to making our world more sustainable via climate change monitoring from space.

More than 3,000 active satellites are already in orbit from operators around the world. This offers Australia an opportunity. We are in a prime position to play an active role in the future private sector ‘space race’ focused on telecommunications enhancements and connectivity that enables new technologies, not just space travel but flying taxis and other innovations not yet dreamt up.

A pivotal moment for Australia’s active participation in the global space industry is the upcoming launch of Inmarsat’s I-6 F1 satellite, the most sophisticated commercial communications satellite ever made.

Shifting demand for connectivity

The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally shifted global demands around connectivity. We are a planet demanding constant access to technology, with the high rate of demand only set to increase at the same rapid rate into the future. Whether at home, in the office or out and about in an urban area, we take connectivity for granted. But if someone needs reliable or high-speed internet access in the wilderness or on a plane or at sea, satellite connectivity is the only option. There is no mobile phone tower, local Wi-Fi signal or plug-in point around. Remote farmersseafarers and air travellers all need signals from space, to monitor crops and livestock, call for help or just to watch a sports match or stay in contact with their loved ones.

With that demand always growing, meeting it needs a sizeable step forward in technology too. I-6 F1 is almost the size of a double-decker bus. It weighs five and a half tons at launch and, when its solar arrays deploy in space, it will have a ‘wingspan’ equivalent to that of a Boeing 767. Unlike the proliferation of shoebox-sized satellites being launched into an orbit 500-1,000km above the Earth in their hundreds in recent years, I-6 F1 will orbit at 36,000km in geostationary orbit, with its signals covering a third of the Earth’s surface. Also, unlike these low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, I-6 F1 will not have a lifespan of five years or so. It is designed for a minimum of 15 years’ service.

In addition, larger satellites with longer lives at higher orbits means fewer launches and no burning up of old technology in the atmosphere at the end of its life, with the resultant pollution that this causes.

Australian space hub

It is scheduled to be launched from Japan in December this year and will be supported by newly-constructed ground stations in Landsdale, near Perth, and Merredin in Western Australia. This will make the country a hub for space-based connectivity and grant the state a key role in guiding technological advancement into the skies.

I-6 F1 will provide 50% more capacity than the earlier fleet of I-4 generation satellites, which still remain in service, and will ensure the seamless continuation of 99.9+% reliability, which is critical to maritime and aviation safety services for millions of seafarers and airline passengers daily.

This will be Inmarsat’s first dual payload satellite, featuring payloads for both L-band (ELERA) for weather-proof, resilient signals and Ka-band (Global Xpress) for high-speed data as you would expect in your home or office. It forms part of Inmarsat’s visionary technology roadmap, which will see the company launch seven new satellites in the coming years while expanding an already significant ground network, designed to serve the region for the next 15 years and beyond.

Inmarsat-6 F1/GX6A underdoing testing
L-R: President Global Government Inmarsat Todd McDonell and Commander Defence Strategic Communications Brigadier Gregory Novak at the Defence Network Operations Centre, HMAS Harman, Australian Capital Territory

The future of connectivity

I-6 F1 will enable a host of new applications and services that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of both commercial and government users, delivering world-class reliability and global reach, which is a non-negotiable as we move into the next phase of connectivity. As demand for bandwidth soars, Inmarsat will ensure continued capacity is available in key demand and growth areas.

Such a leap forward in technology is dependent on its ground segment to land signals from around the world and route them into the internet. Western Australia will be a vital cornerstone in this communications network on which millions of lives depend every day.

Maritime safety systems from Inmarsat protect more than 1.6 million mariners daily. The Australian Defence Force uses Inmarsat services to connect personnel deployed overseas on operations, as well as for calling home and keeping connected to the outside world on their downtime. Connected farms in the Outback can feed or weigh cattle automatically as well as irrigate and monitor crops remotely. Mines in remote locations can monitor safety, raw material consignments and, most importantly, their people. I-6 F1 will enable myriad technologies and communications to enhance lives worldwide.

As the global demand for connectivity increases, so must the capabilities of the infrastructure designed to deliver that connection. Inmarsat, in partnership with Western Australia, is leading the industry with its approach to increased investment, with others in the private sector likely to follow.

Using the launch of I-6 F1 as an indicator of what Australia’s space industry can expect in the future, there exists a great opportunity to leverage the impressive expertise and capabilities within Western Australia to take the industry to new heights. We look forward to the launch, scheduled for 21 December, as Inmarsat and Australia continue to develop their lasting partnership in space, for the good of us all on the ground.

About the author

Todd is responsible for leading and driving Inmarsat’s government business in all regions of the world outside of the USA. This includes developing strategies that deliver greater operational capability to governments and providing holistic solutions that meet government telecommunications requirements.