RBC Signals technicians installing ground stations in Deadhorse, Alaska. Credit: RBC Signals

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

When Spire Global was building a constellation of cubesats to gather maritime and weather data in 2015, the startup built its own UHF ground station network. Now, most startups wouldn’t consider building their own ground systems because they can rely on a growing roster of companies that specialize in handling data flowing between satellites and ground networks.

“Most satellite flyers and data collectors are not particularly keen on spending energy on the ground solution because it’s not core to their interest or capabilities,” said Mike Carey, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Atlas Space Operations, a Traverse City, Michigan, company that offers satellite communications as a service. “We see movement away from companies building their own networks and more reliance on a service-based model.”

The ground systems business has changed dramatically in recent years thanks to a massive increase in data volume, advanced technology and fresh competition. More change is coming as constellations in low Earth orbit multiply and individual satellites collect and transmit more data than ever before.

“The amount of data coming from satellites will increase tremendously in the coming 10 years,” said Stefan Gustafsson, Swedish Space Corp. senior vice president for strategy and sustainable business. To cope, companies need to adopt new methodologies to transfer data from space to Earth in addition to focusing on data management throughout the chain from the satellite to the customer, including onboard the satellite and at the ground stations, he added.

Many ground system specialists are turning to technology to speed up the flow of data from satellites to the ground. Years ago, Kongsberg Satellite Services of Norway relied primarily on S-band and X-band antennas. Now, KSAT also transfers data in Ka-band and the Norwegian company is working with Tesat, an Airbus Defense and Space subsidiary based in Germany, to install optical ground stations.

Swedish Space Corp.’s Yatharagga Satellite Station in Australia includes a 13.56-meter S band antenna with capabilities for Telemetry Tracking & Command (TT&C) and data downlink services. Credit: Swedish Space Corp.

Increased reliance on optical communications is essential given the growth in demand for bandwidth, said Barry Matsumori, chief executive of BridgeComm, the Denver-based optical communications company previously known as BridgeSat. “With all kinds of communications needing more performance, whether it’s for space-based Earth observation or telecommunications or on the ground for 5G, the speed requirement is only going in one direction,” Matsumori said by email. “If one wants to get into not only 10s of gigabits per second but hundreds of gigabits, you need to think about optical systems to augment what can be done in the RF world.”

Communications satellites and their ground segments will play important roles in 5G networks, said Lluc Palerm-Serra, Northern Sky Research senior analyst. “5G opens a window of opportunity for the satellite industry to be integrated with the general telecom ecosystem,” he added.

To make that integration successful, though, ground systems will need to be extremely flexible and adaptable. Terrestrial communications networks rely on software to reconfigure themselves based on demand. Increasingly, individual satellites and constellations rely on software to adapt to changing conditions.

“If you have software-defined networks feeding us on the ground and the payloads or the constellations changing on a regular basis in space, if the ground system is this static entity between the two it’s going to be the bottleneck,” said Greg Quiggle, Kratos Defense and Security Solutions product management vice president. “For the industry to be a good alternative to terrestrial networking, it’s really important that the ground system make that leap forward.”

The goal is to establish ground systems that can dynamically change their configuration without changing hardware, said Christopher Richins, CEO and co-founder of RBC Signals of Redmond, Washington, a startup that offers satellite communications infrastructure as a service.

Ground station operators have been moving toward that goal for years, replacing analog with digital technology. Kongsberg Satellite Services, for example, built an application programming interface “that allows us to run scheduling for hundreds of spacecraft through a network of hundreds of antennas,” said Katherine Monson, KSAT USA head.

Still, many teleports are filled with racks of analog devices to combine channels into a satellite uplink and split channels from a satellite downlink. Once companies succeed in digitizing the spectrum, “it starts to look like signals routed through an internet protocol network,” Quiggle said. “If you do that right, not only do you drastically reduce the cost of the infrastructure, you make it manageable.”

Once the satellite signals are converted to bits, the bits can flow into public or private cloud networks. Through cloud computing, ground station operators can handle the massive increase in satellite data without huge capital expenditures.

“You almost have to do this otherwise, the ground system would become so expensive it actually would stand in the way of continued growth for the industry,” Quiggle said.

In fact, ground system companies are working hard to reduce the cost of satellite operations and data transfer.

“There will be a lot of satellites up there,” Gustafsson said. “We need to be very cost effective to be able to operate all these satellites. You can’t operate 10,000 satellites the same way you operate two.”

A Kratos Defense and Security Solutions’ photo illustration of a network operations center. Credit: Kratos photo illustration
A Kratos Defense and Security Solutions’ photo illustration of a network operations center. Credit: Kratos photo illustration

Ground systems companies are preparing to support growing numbers of satellites, in part, by rapidly building new ground stations. In addition, companies are testing phased array and electronically steered antennas. For the moment, it still costs companies less to buy multiple parabolic antennas than a single phased array, but growing demand is likely to reduce the cost of phased array technology.

“We think that phased array antenna price points will come down so that a multi-satellite, multiband antenna capability will serve the missions of large satellite constellations,” said Carey.

Monson agrees. “The ability to support multiple communication links at the same time is obviously going to bring the cost down,” she said. “The more that we can bring the cost basis of space down, the more missions become viable and the more the industry grows.”

Looking ahead, companies also note an increased emphasis on security.

“We have customers who want to be exclusively in the cloud,” said Paul Kennedy, Earth observation systems vice president for MDA, a Maxar company. “We have customers who want to be exclusively in highly secure systems. Increasingly, we’re seeing customers who want hybrid systems with tremendous privacy and security on certain data sources and a way to use the cloud to integrate other data sources.”

In the future, artificial intelligence and machine learning also are likely to play key roles in space-to-ground communications networks. “We’re working on systems that can make decisions like information processing and extraction on the spacecraft that previously would have been made on the ground,” Kennedy said. “That changes the relationship between the spacecraft and ground systems as well as the need for antennas and data transfer networks.”

While in some ways the industry is moving toward greater standardization of ground systems to serve many different customers, companies still are designing networks to serve individual clients.

“We are in an innovative phase right now,” said Linda Lyckman, SSC senior vice president for business and technology innovation. “The biggest challenge is not only the technology development, it’s talking to the new players, understanding the market and the needs of the end user.”

Atlas Space Operations, AWS Ground Station team to bring the Amazon cloud to the Atlas Freedom Network

Atlas Space Operations’ 3-meter antenna in Mojave, California. Credit: Atlas Space Operations
Atlas Space Operations’ 3-meter antenna in Mojave, California. Credit: Atlas Space Operations

The satellite ground systems business is experiencing rapid change, prompting new business models and alliances. Two of the industry’s recent entrants forged a new bond in July.

Atlas Space Operations, a company established in 2015 to offer satellite communications as a service, announced plans to support AWS Ground Station within its Atlas Freedom Network. Amazon unveiled AWS Ground Station in 2018 to offer satellite customers access to Amazon Web Services’ cloud-computing.

Through the latest agreement, Atlas and AWS will offer customers an expanded ground station network, simplified satellite management and access to AWS data services, said Mike Carey, Atlas co-founder and chief strategy officer.

Prior to the July announcement, Atlas was a member of the AWS Partner Network, a large group of cloud software and service vendors working with the industry giant. Under the new agreement, Atlas will provide customers with access to AWS services through its Freedom cloud-based ground station network.

“Amazon has phenomenal data hosting, data transit and secure storage capability,” Carey said. “Atlas’ expertise is taking raw data from a spacecraft and doing all the work required to so that when it gets to the customer by way of the cloud it’s ready for use.”

In addition, the Atlas Freedom Network takes care of satellite command and control, scheduling and management of all hardware and software resources necessary for successful satellite communications, Carey said.

AWS Ground Station began offering service at its first two sites in May. The company plans to operate 12 sites by the end of the year. Atlas operates 10 ground stations and plans to have 31 sites running by the end of 2020.

— Debra Werner

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...