World's First Reprogrammable Commercial Satellite Launched Into Space

What makes Eutelsat Quantum unique is its responsiveness to changing transmission demands.
Ameya Paleja
Eutelsat's Quantum satellite lift-off on Ariane 5 rocketArianespace/Eutelsat

The introduction of private space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, Blue Origin, and others is drastically bringing down the costs of launching satellites in space. While the satellites are getting smaller and more powerful, there is still the element of 'hard-wiring' in them that prevents any modifications, once the satellite is launched. Paris-based Eutelsat has challenged this notion, with the successful launch of its Quantum, a reprogrammable satellite. 

Launched on the Ariane 5 rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana on July 30, the satellite separated from the rocket after a 37-minute flight. A complete system check was performed over a three-hour period and the launch was successful.    

The Eutelsat Quantum is built by Airbus Defense and Space while its development has been supported by ESA and UK Space Agency, as part of a private-public partnership. Eutelsat Communications is the world's largest satellite operator providing commercial services for video, data, and broadband markets. It boasts delivery of 6800 television channels to one billion viewers using its fleet of satellites.  

The 3.5-ton Quantum satellite has eight communication beams and is placed on the meridian 48° East to provide services over a wide geographical area that spans from West Africa to Asia. But it is the responsiveness to changing transmission demands that makes Quantum unique.  

Thanks to a software-based design, the satellite's communication beams can be reconfigured to change the coverage area as well as the power of the signal it transmits. Interestingly, the software control of the satellite rests with Eutelsat's customers who are actually using the satellite's services. This gives them more freedom to repurpose the satellite on-demand as well as in a matter of minutes, reported. 

This ability to repurpose the satellite's capacities while in orbit, allows it to communicate moving objects such as ships and aircraft. It can also be utilized to provide added capacity for one-off events like natural disasters. While Eutelsat is a commercial satellite operator, its customer list includes governments as well, giving them the ability to respond to calamities at short notice and then reverting the capacity to regular usage, once the emergency is under control. 

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Additionally, the satellite is capable of locating the origin of communications received as well as blocking them, in case they are sent with nefarious intent of causing a disruption in services. 

The Quantum is placed in a geostationary orbit approximately 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above the Earth's surface. It will enter service in the last quarter of 2021 and is expected to function for the next 15 years.   

"EUTELSAT QUANTUM will supply services with unprecedented in-orbit reconfigurability in coverage, frequency, and power, allowing complete mission rehaul, at any orbital position," said Pascal Homsy, Chief Technical Officer of Eutelsat, while praising the "innovative spirit and expertise of the European Space industry."

Its American counterpart, NASA plans to use lasers to increase the communication speeds of satellites.  

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