As customer requirements govern a more flexible and cost-efficient approach to satellite ground systems, the space industry must continue to research and develop more cross-collaborative solutions. These solutions historically are stove-piped systems that may control just one mission or one satellite and are many times built on unique hardware. As commercial products, flexible software and open standards are applied to ground systems, the price points for these systems will drop.
Think of ground stations as the nerve center for up to hundreds of satellites orbiting the globe. Ground stations are responsible for collecting large amounts of 24/7 streaming data and converting them into a decipherable and actionable report.
From these centers, satellites can be placed and maintained in desired orbits; receive continuous streams of data such as imagery, signal intelligence or noise from space; or monitor data from ground sensors and launch activities. The ability to meaningfully translate each of these streams of information lies within the ground. While the collection platforms are engineering marvels, the real magic happens on the ground.
As space vehicles take on more responsibilities and increased payloads and become more complex, it’s just as important to modernize and update the ground systems they are connected to in order to support new and diverse missions. For example, a new satellite payload may be created to generate faster data streaming speeds, but that technology is only useful as long as the ground station is also upgraded to receive and process the increased amounts of data into actionable intelligence.
There is great value to be leveraged from existing ground systems that can be refreshed and altered to adapt to new mission needs, enhanced capabilities and anomalies and changing conditions of the on-orbit satellites. In many cases it is much more cost effective to capitalize on updating existing infrastructure versus launching satellites when a new need arises. Commonly available and interchangeable technology is driving increased capabilities, allowing existing satellites to communicate directly with one another, and lowering costs and turnaround time for the customer for new capabilities and enhancements.
The Path Forward
- Data Fusion: There is a need today to take data from various platforms and systems together to provide a common operating picture. Data fusion makes any system more efficient, whether it’s time, reduced infrastructure or the ability to make a decision faster.
There is a growing focus on activity-based intelligence (ABI) and object-based processing or all source data fusion — weaving different data sources together to provide a more complete intelligence picture. For example, intelligence collection cannot be limited to only zeroing in on a stationary target during a specific time period, but needs to have the ability to track a target’s movement over time, prompting a more accurate analysis. In the future, data from various platforms will be necessary to solve hard problems at the speed of need.
Developing solutions emphasizing ABI is also a growing trend in several other defense and technology industries. It is used in tracking cyberthreats to help analysts better identify and characterize an adversary and terminate any potential harm. ABI is also widely used in full motion video applications where specialized algorithms are applied to follow real-time action and identify unusual events.
- Software Transformation: Space ground solutions are transitioning to software-based, mission agnostic ground systems to offer more efficiency and to enable sharing of resources. Ground system development efforts should be focused on developing mission applications that are multifunctional and easily housed in a single operating center while supporting a variety of users and missions.
Using “apps” for various functions of operating satellites and data collection reduces the hardware needed for ground systems, generates synergies across missions and enables new types of efficient cross-collaboration. The movement to this model eliminates the traditional monolithic ground solutions and the associated large vertical support organization, thereby reducing sustainment costs.
Moving toward software-based solutions also means that code for a desired mission can be integrated into an existing framework, thus reducing the effort and process time required to support a new mission. These applications must also be flexible to able to run on any common information technology infrastructures, and should have security and resiliency built into them from the start.
This is said to be the year of the ground system as much of the focus will be modernizing and transforming legacy and new ground systems to serve the space missions of the future.
Vinny Sica is vice president of space ground solutions for Lockheed Martin.