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Skynet (satellite)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Launch of the first Skynet satellite, Skynet 1A, by Delta rocket in 1969 from Cape Canaveral
Launch of the first Skynet satellite, Skynet 1A, by Delta rocket in 1969 from Cape Canaveral

Skynet is a family of military communications satellites, now operated by Airbus Defence and Space on behalf of the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence (MoD), which provide strategic communication services to the three branches of the British Armed Forces and to NATO forces engaged on coalition tasks. The Skynet 1 to 4 series were operated by the Royal Air Force until 2003,[1] and subsequently operated with Skynet 5 by Paradigm Secure Communications until October 2012 when the organisation was rebranded to Astrium Services.[2]


In the 1960s satellites became an increasingly important component of signals intelligence (SIGINT).[3] Only two countries utilised satellites for signals and military intelligence, the United States and the Soviet Union, and as a consequence the United Kingdom created Skynet as its own military communications satellite.[3] The Signals Research and Development Establishment led the development of Skynet 1 and 2, and its successor Royal Signals and Radar Establishment carried out research for the development of the subsequent satellites and ground terminals.[4][5]

The MoD space communications research programme began in 1962, initially considering Moon and space debris bounce techniques, before considering a UK satellite. In 1964 it was decided Skynet should be in geostationary orbit over the Indian Ocean, significantly to support East of Suez deployments, and have a transponder with two channels permitting communications between two types of ground station. This would be an advance over the ongoing U.S. Interim Defense Communication Satellite Program (IDCSP).[6] In 1965 the U.S. invited the MoD to participate in their Initial Defence Communication Satellite Programme, and to participate Marconi were contracted to build three 40 foot diameter air transportable ground stations for the launch of the first IDCSP satellites in 1966. As Britain had insufficient industry expertise to build satellites, a contact was placed with U.S. Philco Ford to build Skynet 1, but with the assistance of Marconi to improve UK expertise for Skynet 2.[7]

Nine ground stations were initially planned, which could also communicate with sub-geostationary U.S. IDCSP satellites:[6]

Skynet 1A was the first military satellite in geostationary orbit, in 1969.[5] The Royal Air Force displayed a model of the Skynet satellite on the children's television show Blue Peter in 1969, the show also described the new British satellite control centre at RAF Oakhanger.[3]

The Skynet satellites also provided secure and encrypted facilities for the British armed forces. The largest user of the Skynet satellites was the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who were responsible for more than 80% of the communications traffic that was subsequently returned to the United Kingdom.[3] Despite the enormous communications capability of Skynet, GCHQ still found the capacity provided by Skynet to be inadequate.[8] In 1972 GCHQ was still the satellite's largest funder, and argued for the purchase of an American built Type-777 (DSCS II) satellite instead.[8] GCHQ would later plan their own satellite, Zircon, which was subsequently cancelled. The circumstances around the reporting of Zircon's existence would become known as the Zircon affair.[9]


Skynet 1

There were two Skynet 1 satellites (A and B); Skynet 1A was launched on a Delta M on 22 November 1969, but the satellite failed after abouit 18 months when all of its Travelling Wave Tube Amplifiers (TWTAs) had failed, probably due to soldered high voltage joints failing under thermal cycling.[7] Skynet 1B was launched on a Delta M on 19 August 1970. Skynet 1B was placed in a geostationary transfer orbit and was abandoned in transfer orbit (270 x 36058 km) due to a failure of the Thiokol Star 17A apogee kick motor.[10]

Skynet 1 satellites had a mass of 122 kg, were spin-stabilised with a single despun antenna with 3 watts of output.[5] The NATO 2A and 2B satellites, launched 1970 and 1971, were identical except for an antenna shaped to only cover NATO countries.[11]

Skynet 2

The second and last Skynet II satellite is unpacked at Cape Canaveral for launch processing 3 October 1974. It was successfully launched 22 November 1974.
The second and last Skynet II satellite is unpacked at Cape Canaveral for launch processing 3 October 1974. It was successfully launched 22 November 1974.

Following the operational failure of the Skynet 1A satellite, the timetable for the launch of the Skynet 2 communications satellite was delayed. Skynet 2A was launched on the Delta 2313 by NASA for the United Kingdom on 19 January 1974.[12] A short circuit in an electronics package circuit board (on second stage) left the upper stages and satellite in an unstable low orbit (96 x 3,406 km x 37.6 deg) that rapidly decayed. An investigation revealed that a substandard coating had been used on the circuit board.[13]

Despite being in an unstable orbit, the ground stations successfully located and tracked Skynet 2A and were able to use telemetry readings from the solar panels to determine its alignment. Based on this analysis it was decided to use the alignment thrusters to deorbit the unit, and it was destroyed when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 24 January 1974.[14]

Skynet 2B was successfully launched on the Delta 2313 by NASA for the United Kingdom on 23 November 1974.[15] It was positioned in geostationary orbit above Kenya to give coverage of Europe, Africa and a substantial part of Asia as far east at the Philippines. It could support about ten simultaneous users. Major ground stations used a 40-foot diameter dish, while in the field or at sea a 6 foot diameter dish was used.[16]

Skynet 2 satellites had a mass of 250 kg, with a single antenna with 16 watts of output.[5]

A Skynet II satellite is packed for shipment at a contractor's facility
A Skynet II satellite is packed for shipment at a contractor's facility

The Skynet 2 satellites were assembled and tested at the Marconi Space and Defence Systems establishment in Portsmouth, England, and were the first non-amateur[17] communication satellites built outside the US and USSR.[18] The Signals Research and Development Establishment led the development, and performed initial in-orbit testing. Subsequently the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment supported Skynet, including developing ground terminals and modems, at RAF Defford which was also a backup for the primary ground station at RAF Oakhanger.[4] The Skynet 2B system was very successful for its time, and remained in service for 20 years although only having 2 communications channels.[1]

Skynet 3

Skynet 3 was cancelled as the UK withdrew East of Suez, and instead the capability it was intended to offer was delivered via U.S. and NATO assets.[1][5] This dependence on U.S. assets was identified as a weakness during the Falklands War and was one of the contributing factors for the emergence of the Skynet 4 tranche of space vehicles. Also technology improvements created the possibility of tactical satellite communications using smaller terminals, creating a new requirement beyond Skynet 3 strategic headquarters communications.[7][19]

Skynet 4

Soldier adjusting a Small SATCOM ground terminal to Skynet in 2000
Soldier adjusting a Small SATCOM ground terminal to Skynet in 2000

Skynet 4 satellites have few similarities to the earlier generations, being based on the British Aerospace European Communications Satellite.[5] The cylindrical body of Skynet 1 and 2 was replaced by a large square body housing antennas with deployable solar-cell arrays. This marks the technological improvement from spin-stabilisation, used in earlier cylindrical satellites, to three-axis stabilisation using momentum wheels and reaction wheels controlling the satellite gyroscopically. Each satellite had a design operational life of 7 years.[1]

Skynet 4 manufacture was carried out by British Aerospace Dynamics (BAe Dynamics) with Matra Marconi Space providing the Communications Payload. NATO adapted the design for the NATO IVA and IVB communication satellites, also manufactured by BAe Dynamics.[5] The programme timescales were delayed, as initially Skynet 4 was designed to be launched from the Space Shuttle (STS), with chosen RAF officers to be part of each Shuttle Crew. However following the 1986 Challenger disaster (STS 51-L), the programme slowed and all the Skynet 4s had to be modified to suit the changes needed to go on a disposable launch vehicle. As Skynet 4A's build was advanced it needed significant modification, and its completion was overtaken by 4B which had not progressed as far, and hence more easily converted. Consequently, 4B was finished first and launched in 1988, with 4A next in early 1990, and 4C later the same year.[20][21]

The improved Stage 2 satellites (4D, 4E and 4F) were built by Matra Marconi Space and Astrium to replace the earlier versions. Improvements included increased power and resistance to electronic jamming. Skynet 4D was launched in 1998, 4E in 1999 and 4F in 2001.[22] Skynet 4D was parked in a non-operational supersynchronous orbit on 28 January 2008.[23]

Skynet 4 provides SHF and UHF services using earth cover, wide area and spot beam coverage.[24]

Skynet 5

An artist's impression of a Skynet 5 satellite
An artist's impression of a Skynet 5 satellite

Skynet 5 is the next generation of satellites, replacing the existing Skynet 4 Stage 2 system. It has been contracted via PFI to a partnership between Paradigm Secure Communications and EADS Astrium, a European spacecraft manufacturer. EADS Astrium were responsible for the build and delivery of Skynet 5 satellites in orbit, whilst subsidiary company Paradigm will be responsible for provision of service to the MoD. Paradigm have also been contracted to provide communications services to NATO using spare capacity on the satellites. In 2010 the PFI contract was extended by two years to 2022, at a cost of £3.66 billion over the course of the contract, with Paradigm able to sell bandwidth in excess of the capacity of 1.1 Skynet satellites to other Nato countries.[25][26]

The Skynet 5 satellite is based on the Eurostar E3000 bus design, weighs about 4,700 kilograms (5.2 short tons), has two solar panels each about fifteen metres long, and has a power budget of five kilowatts. It has four steerable transmission dishes, and a phased-array receiver designed to allow jamming signals to be cancelled out. They will also resist attempts to disrupt them with high-powered lasers.[27] Astrium described in 2010 the Skynet 5 system as:

The Skynet 5 satellites have the highest powered X-band transponders in orbit, a highly flexible uplink beam configuration, coupled with a world leading anti-jamming antenna to ensure that the constellation is extremely effective against hostile or non-hostile interference. All of the downlink beams are fully steerable and the whole payload is optimized to maximise performance for small, rapidly deployable satellite ground terminals on land, sea or air.[28]

The first of the constellation of Skynet 5 vehicles (Skynet 5A) was launched by an Ariane 5 rocket at 22:03 GMT on 11 March 2007, in a launch shared with the Indian INSAT 4B civil communications satellite, and entered full service on 10 May 2007.[29] The launch was delayed from 10 March due to malfunction of a launch pad deluge system.[30] Skynet 5A successfully separated from its launch vehicle and Telemetry was acquired by its dedicated Control Centre approximately 40 minutes after launch.

The second Skynet 5 UK military communications satellite (Skynet 5B) was launched at 22:06 GMT on 14 November 2007, from Kourou in French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5 ECA rocket. This launch was delayed from 9 November due to problems with the electronics on one of the Solid Rocket Boosters, and 12 November due to a fuelling problem with the launch pad. At time of launch the Ariane 5 ECA launcher set a new record on this mission, deploying a total payload of more than 8,700 kg.[31]

The third Skynet 5 UK military communications satellite (Skynet 5C) was launched at 22:05 GMT on 12 June 2008, from Kourou in French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5 ECA rocket.[32] The launch had been delayed twice. Originally scheduled for 23 May, more checks were carried out on the launch vehicle and the launch was rescheduled for 30 May.[33] A problem with the launch software during pre-launch checks led Arianespace to reschedule the launch for a second time to 12 June.[34][35]

The fourth Skynet 5 UK military communications satellite (Skynet 5D) was launched at 21:49 GMT on 19 December 2012, from Kourou in French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5 ECA rocket. 5D provides more than double the UHF channels of the previous satellites, which are in demand as they support "comms on the move" for soldiers with backpack radios.[36] The Ministry of Defence described the satellite as having a "key role in gathering intelligence on operations", as well as communications.[28]

The programme marks a change of approach in the UK from traditional defence procurement methods to a services-based contract which also includes provision of leased ground terminals, Reacher vehicles, the Satellite Communications Onboard Terminal (SCOT) for ships, and the associated baseband equipment.[37] Initially two Skynet 5 satellites were to be built, with insurance covering any launch loss; the MoD later decided to have a third satellite built in advance, and later still to have the third satellite launched to serve as an on-orbit spare.[38]

The satellites are managed from a site named Hawthorn, a few hundred metres north of MoD Corsham, in partnership with MoD's Defence Digital (previously Information Systems & Services) who are based at MoD Corsham.[39]

Technical specifications

The fleet of military X band satellites have been specifically designed to support smaller, low powered, tactical terminals. Each Skynet 5 satellite is equipped with:

  • High power 160W TWTAs on all transponders, giving 56 dBW peak EIRP in each transmit spot beam and 41 dBW peak EIRP in each global beam per transponder.
  • 15 active SHF/EHF transponders ranging in bandwidth from 20 GHz to 40 GHz
  • Up to 9 UHF channels
  • Multiple fully steerable downlink spot beams
  • On Board Active Receive Antenna (OBARA) capable of generating multiple shaped uplink beams
  • Flexible switching capability allowing connectivity between any uplink beam and at least two downlink beams
  • Nuclear hardening, anti-jamming countermeasures and laser protection[40]

Skynet 6

As of 2018, the MoD is specifying the replacement of Skynet 5, whose PFI programme ends in August 2022.[41][42] Airbus Defence and Space will build a non-competitively sourced Skynet 6A satellite planned for a 2025 launch, as a transition to a new architecture.[43][44] As of 2017, the PFI project was viewed as unlikely to be extended, as PFI contracting was then seen as generally poor value for taxpayers, and it had depleted MoD of satellite expertise which made specifying its replacement difficult.[45]

The vision for Skynet 6 is a flexible system architecture that combines UK government, allied and commercial satellites. The MoD has become a user of U.S. military constellations Advanced Extremely High Frequency and the Wideband Global Satcom systems, and may become a partner in the Mobile User Objective System.[46] Part of the enhanced capability would be to support data links to unmanned aerial vehicles and F-35B Lightning II aircraft.[47][48]

As of December 2019, the MoD was processing requests for information from potential bidders to operate the ground stations for Skynet 6.[49][44]

On 3 July 2020, the UK Government announced that it had acquired a 45% stake in the OneWeb low earth orbit satellite communications company, for US$500 million including a golden share to give it control over any future ownership sale.[50] Analysts believe OneWeb will be incorporated into the Skynet 6 architecture. OneWeb satellites are already manufactured by a joint venture including Airbus Defence and Space, which positions the current Skynet operator well for future involvement in Skynet 6.[51][52]

Information assurance

In early 1999, Reuters reported that the Skynet system was breached by a group of hackers who issued blackmail threats against the MoD. Duncan Campbell reported that the wire reports were wrong.[53]

Satellite summary

Model Manufacturer Launch date Launch vehicle Comments
Skynet 1
1A Philco Ford 22 November 1969 Delta M Non-operational, not re-orbited, GEO 105° W[23]
1B Philco Ford 19 August 1970 Delta M Apogee motor failure, did not orbit[23]
Skynet 2
2A Marconi Space Systems 19 January 1974 Delta 2000 Rocket guidance failure, re-entry 25 January 1974[23]
2B Marconi Space Systems 23 November 1974 Delta 2000 Uncontrolled, not re-orbited[23]
Skynet 4
4A British Aerospace 1 January 1990 Commercial Titan III[54] Launched with JCSAT-2, re-orbited in supersynchronous orbit on 20 June 2005[23]
4B British Aerospace 11 December 1988 Ariane 44LP Launched with Astra 1A, re-orbited 150 km above GEO in June 1998[23]
4C British Aerospace 30 August 1990 Ariane 44LP
Skynet 4 Stage 2
4D Matra Marconi Space[note 1] 10 January 1998 Delta 7000 Replaced 4B, re-orbited in a supersynchronous orbit on 28 January 2008[23]
4E Matra Marconi Space 26 February 1998 Ariane 44L
4F Astrium[note 2] 7 February 2001 Ariane 44L
Skynet 5
5A EADS Astrium[note 3] 11 March 2007 Ariane 5-ECA Launched with Insat 4B
5B EADS Astrium 14 November 2007 Ariane 5-ECA Launched with Star One C1
5C EADS Astrium 12 June 2008 Ariane 5-ECA Launched with Turksat 3A
5D EADS Astrium 19 December 2012 Ariane 5-ECA Launched with MEXSAT-3

See also


  1. ^ Marconi Space Systems merged to form Matra Marconi Space in 1990. MMS acquired BAe Space Systems in 1994
  2. ^ In 2000 MMS merged with DASA's space division to form Astrium.
  3. ^ BAE Systems sold its 25% share of Astrium, renamed EADS Astrium


  1. ^ a b c d Day, Belinda (30 June 2017). "The Original Skynet". Royal Air Force Museum. Archived from the original on 2 September 2019.
  2. ^ "Government Communications". Paradigm Services. Archived from the original on 28 October 2014. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Aldrich 2011, p. 347
  4. ^ a b Harris, Dick (July 2018). "Defford Satellite Communications". Malvern Radar and Technology History Society. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g P J Skilton (January 1989). Tactical UK Military Satellite Ground Terminals - A Research and Development Review (PDF) (Report). Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. RSRE Memorandum 4262. Retrieved 19 January 2021.
  6. ^ a b Burr, Ron (February 2012). "Chapter 14.2 - Satellite Communications". The Decca Legacy - a View From Inside the Radar Company Decca - BAe Systems 1949-2009. Wootton Bridge Historical. Retrieved 21 January 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Harris, Dick (July 2018). "Skynet". Malvern Radar and Technology History Society. Retrieved 21 January 2021.
  8. ^ a b Aldrich 2011, p. 348
  9. ^ Wilby, David. "The Zircon Affair 1986-7" (PDF). BBC. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 September 2012. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
  10. ^ NASA. "Skynet 1B NSSDC ID: 1970-062A".
  11. ^ "NATO 2A, 2B". Gunter's Space Page. Retrieved 22 January 2021.
  12. ^ Kevin S. Forsyth. "History of the Delta Launch Vehicle: Flight Log".
  13. ^ Kyle, Ed (9 April 2010). "Delta 2000 series". Space Launch Report.
  14. ^ NASA. "Skynet 2A NSSDC ID: 1974-002A". Retrieved 18 December 2014.
  15. ^ NASA. "Skynet 2B NSSDC ID: 1974-094A".
  16. ^ Dykes, Godfrey (2007). "Satellite Communications". RN Communications Branch Museum/Library. Retrieved 14 January 2021.
  17. ^ The first communications satellite built outside the US and former USSR appears to have been Australis-OSCAR 5, built at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia and launched from Vandenberg on 23 January 1970.
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  29. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 23 May 2007. Retrieved 18 May 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  30. ^ "British Skynet satellite launched". BBC News. 12 March 2007. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  31. ^ "Arianespace boosts Skynet 5B and Star One C1 into orbit: Sets new record" (Press release). Arianespace. 14 November 2007. Archived from the original on 17 June 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  32. ^ "Successful dual launch for Arianespace:Skynet 5C and Turksat 3A in orbit; 25th successful launch in a row for Ariane 5" (Press release). Arianespace. 12 June 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2008.[permanent dead link]
  33. ^ "Arianespace Flight Skynet 5C – Turksat 3A: Liftoff rescheduled for the night of May 30, 2008" (Press release). Arianespace. 14 May 2008. Archived from the original on 30 May 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
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  40. ^ "Skynet 5 System features". Archived from the original on 16 May 2014.
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  45. ^ Todd, David (29 November 2017). "UK MoD confirms competition for proper follow-on to Skynet 5 after award to Airbus for Skynet 6A gapfiller". Seradata. Retrieved 21 July 2019.
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  48. ^ Reynolds, Conor (12 September 2019). "Who Wants to Run SKYNET 6? Gov't Says £6 Billion in Contracts is Landing Soon". Computer Business Review.
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External links

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