Ground station collaboration paving way for pioneering space missions

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TAMPA, Fla. — Ground station providers anticipate a new era of collaboration after coming together to support Astroscale, the startup months away from conducting the world’s first privately funded debris-removal demonstration.

A total 16 ground stations are necessary for delivering the connectivity Astroscale needs for its ELSA-d mission in low Earth orbit, comprising a servicer spacecraft and a smaller client satellite that will act as a piece of debris.

A typical LEO mission typically only needs one or two ground stations.

Astroscale’s two spacecraft were launched March 22 aboard a Soyuz-2 rocket, and are continuing to perform tests in preparation for a series of maneuvers this year that will demonstrate the startup’s capabilities. 

The Tokyo-based venture’s ground station in Japan is cooperating with other ground stations worldwide operated by U.S.-based Atlas Space Operations and Viasat, Norway-based KSAT and Sweden’s SSC.

This level of integration calls for software virtualization tools that the industry has only recently adopted, executives from these ground station companies said Aug. 10 during the Small Satellite Conference.

“The change from where we were five years ago to today is pretty dramatic,” John Williams, vice president of Viasat’s Real-Time Earth unit, told a conference side meeting.

“And that software, in our case automation and virtualization of almost everything at the antenna level, made it very easy for us to work with Astroscale and with other folks.

“That would have been much more difficult when many components were still on hardware and had to be programmed … just a few years ago.”

It means Astroscale can use a single interface for receiving information from all of its ground station partners about its spacecraft, Astroscale senior ground systems engineer Alexandra Gravereaux said, and also for sending commands to direct them in space.

“The other thing to note is all of us are collectively bringing higher efficiency levels,” added Dan Adams, head of U.S. sales at KSAT.

“Higher access levels, higher reliability to meet those critical mission operations that enable missions like on-orbit robotics, where in the past … there may be [a] question as to whether or not you would be able to contact your spacecraft at any time.”

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, panelists remarked on how they had yet to meet Astroscale’s Gravereaux in-person despite the project’s highly technical demands.

Brian Priar, SSC’s project manager for the ELSA-d mission, said preparing and conducting the mission entirely remotely would have been an “almost impossible thing to do just five years ago.”

Future collaboration

“The integration of our four different ground networks to support one mission is certainly an example of where we’re likely to see the LEO space economy moving,” said KSAT’s Adams.

“And in fact the broader space economy as we start to encounter more and more activity [and] the need for really more robust, resilient, continuous communications on multiple platforms across multiple users.”

He predicted “almost a commoditization” of the ground segment, where providers are all cross-compatible.

That has always been the goal at Atlas, said its chief technology officer Brad Bode, which described its business as more of a software company than a ground station operator.

Atlas owns and operates 13 antenna systems.

“We will continue to integrate those, we will continue to integrate AWS antennas, which is in the process, we will likely integrate Microsoft and hopefully maybe some of you guys as well — if you’ll let us,” Bode told the panel.

“But either way … you can tell that [the industry] is moving toward that commoditization and, in order to get there, the hardware vendors also need to get onboard for not having proprietary … signals, proprietary headers, things like that.”

Viasat’s Williams said he expects some of the market will move toward more open platforms, adding “I’m not sure all of the market will move that way. There are some customers that will probably always have specialized needs that we will all have to adjust to.”