The Web in Space

September 2007
By Rita Boland

The Internet router in space (IRIS) capability will enhance network-centric connections among dispersed users. The increased efficiency of the technology enables smaller, lighter satellite terminals.
Out-of-this-world connections improve converged communications.

A plan to put the Internet in orbit could lead to big benefits for troops and other users. The efficiencies of the technology would provide increased speed, smaller terminals and direct access to the Internet. The program’s public-private partnership will combine commercial development and products with government leasing and usage and could help blaze a path toward a new business model.

A U.S. Defense Department joint capability technology demonstration (JCTD) will test the Internet router in space (IRIS) through collaboration among many government agencies and several private companies. The three-year program enables the public and private partners to demonstrate and assess the advantages of the IRIS capability.

The IRIS enterprise solution will leverage commercial industry participation to develop and provide a first-generation Internet protocol (IP) (layer 3) packet routing capability onboard a geostationary satellite, which will enhance network-centric operations through information access, collaboration and dissemination. IRIS extends the IP capabilities of current terrestrial networks into space. The architecture allows direct IP routing over satellite, eliminating the need for routing via a ground-based teleport, thereby increasing the efficiency and flexibility of the satellite communications link.

An official at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Arlington, Virginia, explains, “The IRIS payload regenerates signals received before retransmitting them. The decoupling of uplink and downlink paths provides the capability to achieve a higher throughput and more efficient links, and potentially allows smaller antenna sizes than using the current transport capabilities through ‘bent-pipe’ satellites.” DISA serves as the transition manager for the IRIS JCTD to the government user community.

The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is the combatant command sponsor for the IRIS JCTD and has overall responsibility for the project management. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center serves as the technical manager for the IRIS JCTD and is responsible for collaborative interface with industry as it develops the IRIS payload. The Army Space and Missile Defense Command acts as the operational manager for the IRIS JCTD and is responsible for the demonstration and utility assessment of the IRIS capability. 

IRIS’ payload would bring everything over IP (EoIP), supporting voice, data and video communications. As the military uses more bandwidth-intensive applications such as video and graphics, the types of technologies provided by IRIS become increasingly important. The efficiencies inherent in IRIS require less bandwidth for these types of communications.

Officials at STRATCOM say experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the need for network-centric operations. Joint, interagency and multinational users need mobile, flexible and dynamic connectivity and the ability to share information seamlessly and globally throughout all phases of operations and spectrums of conflict in austere environments.

STRATCOM officials expect several benefits from IRIS including the IP-based architecture of the capability accelerating information sharing processes and operational decision making, and improving situational awareness. They also anticipate that “IRIS will enable a transformational extension to the existing Global Information Grid by providing high-bandwidth redundant Internet protocol communication.”

IRIS represents the next generation in telecommunication satellite services with IP as the common reference among networks. It could allow seamless communication of incompatible communications equipment for joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational users. According to STRATCOM, the Defense Department accepted IRIS as a JCTD to examine the utility of augmenting information transport with space-based IP routing and processing.

Intelsat General Corporation will manage the JCTD, partnering with Cisco Systems, which will provide the commercial IP networking software for the onboard router; Concerto Advisors, a financial advisory firm, is working on equity financing for a company that will provide funds for aspects of the demonstration; and SEAKR Engineering Incorporated, will manufacture the space-hardened router and integrate that with the IRIS payload. Space Systems/Loral will construct the satellite to host the payload.

Program officials expect that IRIS will offer a slew of benefits for warfighters. The geostationary orbit provides widespread coverage and reduces the time troops need to establish their connections. An official with DISA shares that “IRIS will bring onboard IP routing capability from a geostationary satellite and cross-band and cross-beam connectivity within and between coverage areas, reducing the need for routing via ground-based teleport and thereby increasing the efficiency and flexibility of the satellite communications link. IRIS will also provide enhanced throughput to small, disadvantaged terminals.”

The first satellite and payload are scheduled to launch in 2009; the satellite will position at 45 degrees west longitude to cover much of Europe, Africa and the Americas and a small part of the Middle East. The private companies will develop, build, launch and operate the industry-hosted payload on the Intelsat IS-14 satellite.

Don Brown, vice president of the hosted payload program at Intelsat, shares that IRIS will allow service members to interconnect from distant locations, and it will take the complexity out of Internet access from space. Currently, troops need to go through a bit connection to a teleport on the ground to connect. “It’s an inefficient connection,” he says. “IRIS gives you direct Internet routing on the satellite.” The increased efficiency has the potential to enable smaller, less expensive satellite terminals in the future.

Gerry Jansson, director of space segment development for Intelsat, explains that the IRIS payload is a regenerative payload so it can compensate for propagation effects, allowing for smaller terminals. The need for less hardware makes Internet access possible in remote locations, a benefit for troops working in sparsely populated areas as well as for residents of those places.

The IRIS technology will work with legacy systems as well as terminals developed in the future and will provide interoperability among the different tools. “You’re leveraging the [Defense Department’s] investment in commercial satellite terminals by bringing a fundamental new capability in space,” Brown shares. Sailors on a U.S. Navy ship could use the payload to route messages efficiently from C-band terminals to soldiers in the field who are using Ku-band terminals. Those ground troops could use IRIS to connect from their terminals to unmanned aerial vehicles. “What’s powerful about IRIS for the military communicator is that it has the potential to put a diverse community of joint users using diverse satellite terminals directly in communication with each other,” Brown states.

Currently, troops have to create distinct networks based on the types of satellites they want to use and to tie into the satellites with a fixed transponder. IRIS eliminates the need to dedicate a full transponder to one band. The payload will interconnect one C-band and two Ku-band coverage areas.

To enhance the interoperability of IRIS and the ground terminals, the software onboard is Cisco’s standard commercially available software. Rick Sanford, director of space and intelligence at Cisco, explains that using the same software drives compatibility between what happens on the spacecraft and what happens on the ground. Sanford says Cisco developers had to write in low-level interface drivers to accommodate the new hardware platform, but the network functionality is standard.

To keep connections on the ground and in orbit operational, IRIS has several types of security. The spacecraft has its own security capabilities, and the user base can provide security through encryption and decryption of information going through the payload. Jansson says there is no way to hack in. In addition, Sanford shares that the benefit of using IP technology is the ability of the network to attempt to reconfigure automatically and to keep a communications path available if a problem does occur.

The military will evaluate IRIS through a series of tests and operational demonstrations designed to assess and provide insights on the IRIS capability. The evaluation will include simulations, emulations, field tests and on-orbit operational demonstrations. The DISA official explains that the agency’s role in the JCTD is to understand the test scenarios and corresponding results and subsequently to comprehend the capabilities IRIS brings to troops, saying that “this knowledge will assist DISA in matching IRIS capabilities with future satellite communication needs of the warfighter.”

If the military determines that IRIS has uses for service members, DISA will formulate a process to identify which applications and users are best served by the capability and will explore options to leverage those services.

In addition to the military applications for IRIS, the technology has the potential to roll out to the private sector, although the government will be the largest initial customer of the EoIP services. Brown believes this could be the first step toward worldwide Internet coverage. Sanford agrees and predicts a second evolution of IRIS in which laser cross-links from commercial craft will provide enhanced services. Sanford believes IRIS will become a pervasive capability. Though only one satellite is scheduled for the initial launch, the future plan involves sending up several birds with the IRIS capabilities, creating the equivalent of an Internet backbone in space. 

The benefits to both military and civilian users come from the partnership between the military and the commercial sector. The JCTD represents a burgeoning level of cooperation between the two parties in which industry makes a significant investment to enable a capability and the government takes advantage of the offering. Private-sector development and government fee-for-service payment are efficient ways to deliver IRIS to the warfighter because they reduce the amount of time necessary to develop the system and put the capability on orbit. If the demonstration is successful, IRIS can transition to operational use immediately.

Personnel from the government and private sector involved with the IRIS JCTD stress the agreement structure as much as the technology. STRATCOM officials say the demonstration represents a new model for government and industry collaboration. Sanford believes it makes sense for other projects to use the same model. It saves money from a procurement perspective, allows tighter control of costs and management and facilitates a shorter time to market and flight. He says industry is conducting a demonstration for the military but that companies are also building a capability that has commercial viability. IRIS provides communications to military and commercial users anywhere a satellite can reach. At the end of the JCTD, the payload will convert to commercial use.

Web Resources
U.S. Strategic Command:
Defense Information Systems Agency:
Intelsat General Corporation:
Cisco Systems Incorporated:


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