Chameleon satellite: Airbus’ flexible vision for space

The ability to reprogramme a satellite in orbit is the stuff of science fiction. Nick Peters and Maddy White visited Airbus Defence & Space to find out more about the first ever 'Chameleon’ satellite.

One of the biggest disruptors in the satellite market is the British-built Eutelsat Quantum, or ‘Chameleon’ satellite, developed and built at Airbus’s SSTL facility in Guildford. While it has the robust exterior of a typical Airbus satellite, it is the first in the world to be completely reprogrammable in orbit.

Its ‘chameleon’ properties enable it to operate over any geographic region in the world and its software-driven approach offers a previously unknown flexibility to the traditionally more rigid telecoms industry.

The Quantum satellite (pictured above) could be the innovation that the industry has been waiting decades for, to create new generations of adaptable spacecraft.

“Software-driven satellites offer much more flexibility for our customers,” Roy Haworth, engineering integration manager at Airbus Defence & Space, told TM on a recent visit to its Portsmouth visit. “The Quantum satellite is unique, the first of its kind. This, and the OneWeb programme, are really interesting and exciting innovations in satellites that importantly have been customer-driven.”

The OneWeb programme

The OneWeb programme is a joint venture with global communications firm OneWeb, to introduce the ‘mass’ production of satellites for the telecoms industry.

The goal is to construct a high-speed and affordable global internet network, by deploying up to 900 small satellites that will be rapidly made and launched into orbit.

Never before has a single satellite been made in one day. However, the team at Airbus say not one but several will be produced every 24 hours. This poses an enormous challenge, as it turns traditional, slow, methodical satellite manufacturing on its head: construction that traditionally takes years, will now take hours, in a fully digital smart factory.

Read more about the project here.

Personalisation in satellite production

Customisation is high on the agenda of manufacturers across the globe, as this means they can gain new customers and revenue streams, and improve their flexibility in products and processes.

The application of personalisation in satellite production is one that has not previously been explored and it offers exciting prospects for network providers and their customers.

A reprogrammable satellite enables a complete transformation to be made - image courtesy of Airbus Defence Space.
A reprogrammable satellite enables a complete transformation to be made – image courtesy of Airbus Defence & Space.

A collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA), commercial satellite operator Eutelsat and Airbus Defence & Space, the Quantum project moves away from the traditional, custom, one-off approach to building satellites by offering a new and generic payload design.

A reprogrammable satellite enables a complete transformation to be made to a satellite while it is in orbit. For example, the satellite’s coverage, frequency, power, and even orbital position can all be adjusted.

This will make it part of the first generation of satellites able to serve any region of the world and adapting to new business demands without an operator needing to buy and launch an entirely new satellite.

Four years after it was first announced, the last component for the satellite was shipped from Portsmouth to Toulouse for testing in January, with Eutelsat Quantum scheduled to be launched into orbit from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana later this year.