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The Original Skynet

Skynet is the British Military Satellite Communications project which began in the 1960s to provide independent secure communications for forces operating in the Far East.  Skynet and other Space operations have always been the remit of the RAF as satellite launch vehicles were derived from the ballistic missiles in use by the RAF for defensive purposes during the Cold War.  Prior to the operation of Skynet; the UK used American satellite communication systems.

Skynet 1 took advantage of the partnership between the UK and USA in Space as it was developed by Philco-Ford (an American company) and Marconi (UK based, now part of BAE Systems).  The two Skynet 1 satellites (A&B) were both launched using American rockets from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The UK does not have any suitable sites for launching satellites into space.  Skynet 1A was launched on 22 November 1969 but failed shortly after in 1970, 1B was launched on 19 August 1970 but never came into service as motor failure left it stuck in an unsuitable orbit. 

Skynet 1 satellite

Four years later the first of the Marconi built Skynet 2 satellites, Skynet 2A was launched but the satellite was destroyed when the rocket exploded on the launch pad.

Skynet 2A launch, 18 January 1974.

Skynet 2B made up for all the previous failures when it was launched on 23 Nov 1974 as it remained in useful service for the next 20 years despite only having 2 communications channels.  An engineering model of Skynet 2B is one of the objects planned for display in our forthcoming Centenary exhibitions. The engineering model to be displayed in the gallery is likely to have been used by the RAF as a training model based at the former RAF Oakhanger.   

Skynet 2B satellite engineering model from RAF Museum collection.

 

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, military budgets were reduced and Skynet 3 was cancelled as the UK withdrew from the Far East.  During this period, apart from the single Skynet 2B satellite the UK used American owned communications satellites.

 

1982 saw the commencement of the Falklands War and brought home to the government the need for an independent satellite communications system to support UK forces during conflicts in which the USA was not involved.  After six years of development by BAE Dynamics (now part of BAE Systems), the first Skynet 4 satellite (Skynet 4B) was launched.  The Skynet 4 family of satellites (A-F) were designed to have an operational life of 7 years and were launched between December 1988 and February 2001.  Skynet 4C (launched 30 August 1990), 4E (launched 26 February 1999) and 4F (launched 7 February 2001) are all still in service.

Skynet 4 satellite in orbit.

2003 saw the RAF relinquish the role of satellite control through a private finance agreement to Airbus Defence and Space.  1001 Signals Unit, who were responsible for satellite control were disbanded, although many of the personnel still do the same job now as civilians.   

 

Skynet 5 satellites (launched between November 2007 and December 2012) are considerably more advanced than their predecessors, having 24 communications channels, compared to Skynet 2’s two.  Skynet 5 (built by Astrium) has an anti-jamming capability to prevent other signals interfering with communications and a 28 day autonomous operating system so it can continue to operate even if its ground control base is not operational.  Skynet 5 has been designed to operate for 15 years but if its predecessors are anything to go by it will be in use much longer.

Skynet 4 and 5 provide the UK with secure communications and allow Remotely Piloted Air Systems such as Reaper to operate in a different country to where their controllers are.  Other satellites, including those which are commercially operated are used for navigation (GPS) and for intelligence gathering, open source satellite imagery such as that produced by Google Earth is a common source of intelligence.     

RAF Reaper remotely piloted air systems controlled using satellite communications.

It is likely that future satellites will have more communications channels, allowing them to transmit more information in higher definition and have better resilience against space weather events such as Coronal Mass Ejections.  Currently, satellites have to be moved out of the path of these events as their signals will be disrupted by electromagnetic radiation resulting in loss of operation.  This is particularly inconvenient if the satellites are being used for communications in a combat situation.  At present, satellites are considered to be the most effective method of providing high speed (near real time), data intensive communications, they may however be facing completion from High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned systems, such as the experimental Zephyr.       

  

Skynet 6 is currently under development by the Ministry of Defence in partnership with commercial companies such as Northrop Grumman.     

Belinda Day : Assistant Curator
About the Author

Belinda Day : Assistant Curator

I have been part of the Curatorial team at the Royal Air Force Museum, London, since 2012, having previously worked as part of the Access and Learning team. My role as an assistant curator includes answering enquiries from the public, academics and Royal Air Force personnel, receiving and cataloguing the kind donations of historical material given to us, writing and developing exhibitions and facilitating access to the archive collections for staff and visitors alike.

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