Key technologies the commercial satellite constellations need are on the horizon


WASHINGTON — If satellite constellations are to fulfill their promise of offering global communications services, they will need key technologies including low-cost antennas and laser cross-links, according to speakers at the Satellite 2018 conference here.

“You’ve got to have ground antennas that are agile, affordable and can be produced in quantity,” said Erwin Hudson, Telesat Canada’s vice president for the Telesat LEO broadband constellation. Those antennas are on the horizon, he added, thanks in part to the investment of terrestrial communications companies in 5G networks.

“We were upset when the 5G guys tried to take our [satellite] spectrum at 30 gigahertz band,” Hudson said. “The good news is they are dumping tons of money in antenna technology. Now we are saying, ‘Spend more. Spend more.’”

All of the technologies the new constellations will require are being developed or repackaged for commercial satellite applications.

Ball Aerospace, for example, is eager to share phased-array antenna technology it developed for military applications with commercial communications constellations. “We see huge demand for the use of the antennas for 5G satellite communications,” said Debra Facktor, Ball vice president and general manager for strategic operations.

Ball is eager to work with industry partners to redesign antenna packaging, reduce manufacturing costs and deliver antennas at scale, she added.

Another key to the success of the commercial communications constellations will be reprogrammable software, said Lisa Callahan, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager for commercial and civil space. “As satellites are flying over, how can we change the software, insert technology over time or change their purpose so as they reach the other side of the world they are doing something different and then coming back and doing something different again?” Callahan asked.

Hudson agreed the constellations will require sophisticated onboard processing for frequency modulation, routing data and reconfiguring spacecraft. “The way a spacecraft behaves over North America may be very different than how it behaves over the ocean because the type of traffic it serves is very different,” he said.

In addition, the constellations will need to send data between satellites to enable true global connectivity, Hudson said. “You can’t get the data rates that are truly interesting and meet the demand without laser cross-links.”

All of the major satellite manufacturers and their partners have been making significant investments in antennas, reprogrammable satellites and laser cross-links, Hudson said. “We are finally at the point where these things are ready to be produced in volume at price points that are interesting.”

One remaining challenge is control of these large constellations, Hudson said.

“If you were to wave a magic wand and put 300 satellites in orbit with hundreds or thousands of global beams, and these beams have to hop around and steer and point at different places and hand off between satellites, how do you make all that work?” Hudson asked. “You need a very sophisticated software control system to manage that. The good news is there are some software companies in the world investing a lot of money in controlling complex systems.”