An Atlas 5 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral this morning with one of its heaviest payloads ever: a new US Navy communications satellite that's far more sophisticated than the outgoing model. It's the second of five such satellites to launch (four operational, one orbiting backup) that will make up the Navy's new Mobile User Objective System, an orbiting communications system designed to link ships around the world with voice and data transmission capability.
MUOS is designed to assist, and eventually replace, the Navy's current UHF-based satellite network, which can only transmit voice communications. The difference in capabilities is impressive: the UHF satellites currently flying have a bandwidth of just 2.4 kilobytes per second. The 15,000 pound MUOS satellites, built by Lockheed Martin, can transmit a comparatively-blazing 348 kilobytes per second, and the whole system is meant to act as a sort of global 3G network for the military.
"You can think of the satellites as the cell towers in the sky," said Iris Bombelyn, vice president of Lockheed Martin, during a pre-launch press briefing. "That's a really good way to think of how the system works."
A render of a MUOS satellite in action, via Lockheed Martin
According to Reuters, MUOS-2 will take about eight days to stabilize in its geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above Earth, where it will then unfold its solar panels and antennae to start testing. Space News reports that it's expected to take six months before MUOS-2 is confirmed operational. MUOS-1 was launched last year, with the third coming in 2014, the fourth in 2015, and the fifth sometime after that.
Lockheed Martin says the satellites deliver 16 times more transmission throughput than the old systems, which is pretty impressive stuff considering the satellites are transmitting across the globe from tens of thousands of miles away. For the US military and all of its global interests, it's certainly going to be nice boost in communications capability. But, I have to ask: Since the system will be able to transmit data, who's going to be the first to send top secret plans via Snapchat?