Companies are striving to reduce the complexity of the satellite ground segment.
Through packaged services, partnerships and APIs, ground segment providers aim to make communicating with satellites as easy as possible. That does not mean that operators can wait until the last minute to consider data delivery.
“We’ve had experiences with customers who are about to launch satellites, and they have not figured out how they’ll bring the data down,” said Jai Dialani, Leaf Space USA managing director. “That’s quite dangerous because you cannot launch until you know how you’re getting your data down.”
Startups need government approval to launch satellites. In addition, ground station providers need licenses for every new satellite their network serves.
Obtaining those licenses takes anywhere from months to more than a year.
“Much of the process is out of our control when we hand off licensing paperwork to jurisdictions and bureaucratic processes around the world,” said Dan Adams, KSAT USA CEO. “In some geographic locations, it takes a long time.”
Every country has its own licensing requirements.
“Some are easy, some are complex, and some are impossible to deal with,” Dialani said.
Acquiring licenses to retrieve data in the United States, Singapore and Japan can be time-consuming and expensive. Australian requirements are much tougher than those of New Zealand. Some European nations have far more onerous rules than others.
But despite this complex environment, it’s “fairly common” for satellite buyers to bring in the ground segment late in their regulatory process, according to John Williams, vice president of Viasat’s Real Time Earth (RTE) ground station network.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Williams said, “it’s been going on for some time, and as we’ve entered this newspace era in the last few years, we’re bumping into it more.”
The majority of culprits are young commercial companies that are more focused on developing their payloads than what it takes to operate them.
Most of the constellation companies have taken a somewhat casual attitude to the ground segment for their gateways, according to Robert Bell, executive director of the World Teleport Association.
“My personal suspicion is that it’s because they come from Silicon Valley culture, where the assumption is that the internet provides everything needed on the ground,” Bell said.
“One operator of multiple teleports told me of multiple inquiries for gateways in the middle of vast desert regions, where no company has existing infrastructure, and the constellation companies were surprised that it all had to be built.
“Another operator talked about seeing ‘gateways’ that are just a few motorized antennas in a parking lot, with no security and no power or connectivity backups.”
But commercial satellite companies are not the only procrastinators when it comes to the ground segment.
Williams spoke of a government customer launching in June that had not yet made a regulatory filing his company needs to license a site the government agency intends to use.
They were focused on getting the satellite up, and the filings they needed for the ground segment “slipped through the radar,” he said.
Given enough time, ground station operators are adept at navigating bureaucratic processes and obtaining the necessary approvals.
“Even if they come late, folks are going to put in that extra effort to try to satisfy the customer and get them on board and get them ready for launch,” Williams said. “It’s just more of a rush then. It’s more difficult and lots of stress on both sides.”
While efforts are being made to speed up regulatory machines worldwide, ground segment providers say they are only seeing incremental change.
GETTING THE TIMING RIGHT
Ground segment providers suggest potential customers approach them anywhere from a year to 18 months before launching satellites.
Adams said 12 months provides enough margin because KSAT “should be in a position of signing contracts six months out.”
Christopher Richins, RBC Signals co-founder and CEO, recommends startups consider the ground segment even earlier.
“We recommend people start 18 months beforehand to make sure that they’ve got sufficient time. And there’s no penalty for doing it earlier,” Richins said. “Having a well-architected, thoughtful communication architecture is a critical piece of a space mission. Getting that wrong can have significant implications to the technical success of the mission and the commercial success.”
For example, a company that considers how customers will use the data provided by their satellites and how much the customers are likely to pay for the data will be in a better position to decide exactly what communications services are necessary, Richins said.
“If you wait until the very end, you’re basically stuck with whatever kind of base capability your satellite design allows,” Richins said. “Then you have to fit your commercial and technical operations within that capability.”
Ground segment experts also suggested that companies preparing to launch satellites with unusual waveforms, modulation schemes, data rate requirements, or communications spectrum approaches meet with ground segment providers years before launch.
“We had a customer come in recently and talk to us and they wanted to do really, really high speed,” Viasat’s Williams said, “six to seven gigabits kind of speed. Well, none of the data providers can really do that yet.”
The customer had to go back to the drawing board and scale down their plans to the one gigabit per second range.
Customers are making “design choices to build their spacecraft and if they make decisions based upon a set of requirements they think will work, rather than confirming they work, they’re headed for disaster,” Williams said.
KSAT’s Adams said he understands the urge to try something new.
“We’re an industry of engineers,” Adams said. “But businesses like KSAT are built around delivering at scale, which means we are delivering solutions that the preponderance of users in the market want. Edge cases result in complexity and cost and barriers to entry for some users.”
Atlas Space Operations invites customers to confirm that their satellite radios can communicate with modems at established ground stations.
“When someone comes to us and says, ‘Hey can you work with this particular satellite radio, we can say yes, thumbs up,” said Brad Bode, Atlas chief technology officer and chief information officer. “Conduct that verification process early so that you don’t design yourself into a hole.”
SPACE SEGMENT FIRST
Like many companies, French Earth observation startup Promethee focused initially on the satellite.
“At first glance, the satellite seems much more complex than the ground segment, but in fact the opposite is true,” Promethee President Olivier Piepsz, said by email. “The ground segment is very complex from a functional point of view, especially the mission aspects. Since 2022, we put a lot of energy on the ground segment.”
In contrast, Hydrosat, a Washington-based geospatial data and analytics startup, began by considering the ground segment.
“Everybody loves to focus on satellites and launch events because they are tangible, and they are exciting,” Pieter Fossel, Hydrosat co-founder and CEO, said by email. “However, if you think about the satellite business from the perspective of the product and the customer, the product is data and that data inevitably will flow through the ground segment in order to reach the customer. Therefore, the ground segment is tremendously important, because ultimately raw satellite data needs to be downlinked, processed, stored and transported.”
Denver-based Earth observation startup Albedo also considered the ground segment early.
“Two of our first five engineering hires were for our ground segment team,” Topher Haddad, Albedo co-founder and CEO, said by email. “To build a user experience that solves customer problems, the space, ground and customer-facing software need to be architected and built in parallel.”
Plus, Albedo employees carried the scars of previous “projects that were too focused on the space segment, and missed the parallel potential of their ground segment to unlock capabilities,” Haddad said.
Efforts to standardize ground and space networks could one day foster a more collaborative environment where “by definition, they would work together” from the outset, according to ST Engineering iDirect chief technology officer Frederik Simoens.
Satellites operating under standardized configurations could be more easily matched up with ground systems.
In the past, “basically any ground system could work” with simple satellites that just received a signal from the ground and sent it back.
Today, satellites typically manipulate these signals, changing and routing beams as needed and generally playing a more active role in communications infrastructure.
“Now you really need to integrate space and ground and you need to match them well together,” Simoens said. “But I think the solution to that, longer term, is to standardize how all of this is done. Then it will be easier again to decouple them.”
But “we’re not there yet,” he concedes. And even if the space industry can agree on technical standards to improve collaboration, it does little to streamline bureaucratic procedures.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.