Satellite data business is Amazon’s next disruption target

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Amazon is partnering with defense industry giant Lockheed Martin to provide low-cost ground infrastructure to satellite startups.

WASHINGTON — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos 18 years ago founded Blue Origin to make space travel cheaper and more accessible. The company on Tuesday announced a new foray into the space business by partnering with defense industry giant Lockheed Martin to provide low-cost ground infrastructure to satellite startups.

The new business venture — called AWS Ground Station — brings to bear the cloud-computing capabilities of Amazon Web Services in ground stations where satellite data is uploaded. Lockheed Martin’s contribution to the partnership is a network of distributed antennas that would supplement traditional dish antennas.

“This partnership is designed to be disruptive and lower the barrier of the cost of entry,” Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, told SpaceNews. “Startups don’t have to buy computing power or parabolic dishes. You buy what you need, services on demand.”

The target customers for this service are companies and government agencies that operate hundreds — eventually thousands — of satellites orbiting the Earth and collecting data, particularly low Earth orbit satellites that collect imagery and currently account for about 63 percent of the active satellites in orbit, Lockheed Martin said in a news release. The Amazon-Lockheed venture will challenge both incumbent and startup ground station operators that have in recent years designed services specifically for the burgeoning small satellite sector.

Businesses and government agencies that need access to satellite data typically have to build or lease ground antennas to communicate with the satellites. Customers require antennas in multiple countries and U.S. locations to download data when and where they need it without waiting for the satellite to pass over a desired location. All of this requires significant capital investments, Ambrose said.

Initial customers of AWS Ground Station include remote sensing satellite operators DigitalGlobe, BlackSky, Spire, Capella Space, Open Cosmos, and HawkEye 360.

Amazon said it already has two ground stations in operation and 12 will be completed in 2019, all co-located with its AWS data centers. Parabolic antennas at each site will be linked to Lockheed Martin’s distributed antenna network — called “Verge” — to get global and continuous downlink, Ambrose said. So far, 10 antennas have been deployed in Denver. “We haven’t determined exactly where we’re going to put everything,” said Ambrose. “That’ll be a function of the customers, and what frequencies they want.” The Verge network is now set up to receive S-band transmissions but many remote sensing data comes down in X-band. “We’ll be working next year on the X band capability,” Ambrose said.

The AWS satellite ground station service will be administered like Amazon cloud services, on a “pay-as-you-go basis,” the company said in a news release. “Instead of building your own ground station or entering in to a long-term contract, you can make use of AWS Ground Station on an as-needed basis. You can get access to a ground station on short notice in order to handle a special event, severe weather or a natural disaster.”

An industry analyst told SpaceNews  the Amazon-Lockheed partnership promises impressive new services but it is too soon to predict how successful it will be.

“Starting with one ground station in Denver providing services in S-band is quite limited,” said the analyst, who requested anonymity because some companies involved in this venture are clients. “The real service will begin once they bring additional ground stations online across the world to provide site diversity and increase the number of passes per day/per orbit,” the analyst said. “We have already seen ground stations co-located with data centers, so the data storage element is not new, but the proposal of a seamless service across one provider for downlink, storage, and data processing will present an interesting dynamic.”  The AWS concept brings together “key pieces of the value chain for upcoming high-data volume constellations, and any improvement in the process of getting data to Earth, processing it, and delivering it to the customer will be valuable.”