WASHINGTON — The revolution in space technology — prominently seen with reusable rocketry advances and the commercial adoption of miniaturized satellites — is also happening on the ground, according to Kratos.
Less flashy but equally important, ground equipment used to control and operate spacecraft is in the midst of a “transformation” of its own, Kratos’ James Kramer, senior vice president in charge of commercial satellite products, told SpaceNews.
Fueling those transformations is the need for ground equipment to work with satellites in multiple orbits — low, medium and geosynchronous — and to effectively draw down not just megabits, but gigabits and even terabits of throughput.
Kramer spoke to SpaceNews about how this less-seen part of the space industry is changing.
What is driving changes to ground segment technology?
If you look at high-throughput satellites (HTS) they are dumping more capacity into the market. Now add the low and medium Earth orbit constellations expanding, bringing even more capacity. What is it doing? It’s driving the price of bandwidth down, which means that the operational efficiency at which you can deliver that bandwidth becomes more important. It also means that there need to be ways to use this bandwidth very dynamically. It needs to be seamless to the end user and it needs to be automated. That’s what will drive the efficiency.
Where satellite operators are focused is not so much on the actual satellite control side, but on how to provision a service, because that is what’s going to have to happen for the industry to consume all of this bandwidth that’s coming online. There are have to be new satellite-friendly applications that will take up that bandwidth, or else I think the industry is going to have some lean years. And it may still have some lean years because it will take some time to soak up all this bandwidth.
To use this capacity properly you are going to have to take advantage of the flexibility that satellite payloads offer, and you are going to have to do it not every two days, not even every two hours, but in minutes. It’s really dynamic.
Separate silos for planning, scheduling, real-time monitoring and billing systems using some sort of file-based or even “sneaker-based” communications system where you physically go and take a monitoring plan back to the scheduling planning system — that just can’t be the new paradigm. It is going to have to be an integrated ground system where it all happens autonomously.
As HTS comes along and satellite operators like Viasat start introducing more numerous smaller gateways, how does that affect you?
I think there are two schools of thought. One is having many small, low-cost gateways spread throughout a satellite’s coverage footprint, and then the other is having a handful of strategically placed large, powerful gateways that can bring capacity to users through their user terminals. Cost is still going to be an issue in both cases. One is a small number times many and the other is a larger number times a few.
Some operators like AsiaSat have talked about the expensiveness of building gateways as a big part of a full HTS system.
Operators absolutely need to understand the cost of the ground infrastructure that’s required to take advantage of these HTS satellites. Many of them are looking at deferring capital outlays by building as you need it. You can do that with amplifier size — you can ramp up as you illuminate the satellite. You also can find providers, and Kratos is one of them, that can meet a short schedule. If a large gateway traditionally takes 18 months to put in place, and you start capital outlay 18 months before you get in service, that will be a problem for some operators.
I think AsiaSat is a good example. Some of the smaller, regional operators are almost in a wait and see approach on HTS, and I think they are taking a good approach to that, because they are evaluating all the space and ground segment implications together.
What do you think of gateways going to higher frequencies than Ka-band like Q- or V-band, which are even more susceptible to rain fade?
There certainly is talk about Q- and V-band. We’ve participated in requests for information and studies about that. I think the concept of [geographically] diverse pairs is always going to be effective to combat weather. You could have some catastrophic storm that covers them all, but I think operators will manage new bands as they have managed others. It used to be only C-band in Asia because it was too rainy for anything else. Now there are lots of other frequency bands and they manage it. I think they will do the same as the frequencies continue to rise.
If megaconstellations result in innumerable people self-installing flat panel antennas, might that wreak havoc from a signal interference perspective?
I think the flat panel array is less susceptible to creating adjacent satellite interference as many offer auto-tuning and effectively self-pointing capabilities. At the same time, when interference does occur, it creates some challenges for geolocating the antenna since the self-tuning often suppresses the sidelobes that most geolocation systems rely on to detect interference. I think it will be interesting to see what flat panel arrays bring to the industry.
What if flat panel antennas can’t be made cheap enough for households in underserved regions to buy and install?
My concern would be only that the capacity doesn’t get taken up if we as an industry can’t serve the end user. Kratos doesn’t provide terminals, that’s not our business, but as part of the satellite industry if the bandwidth goes unconsumed that’s problematic for all of us. When you say there is an antenna at every house, I wonder if that’s not the model.
Perhaps there will be a network hub in a village that gets you onto the transport, which we hope as an industry is satellite. That would be analogous to a cell tower, but it’s all satellite.
New smallsat operators seem to want much simpler ground infrastructure than what is used for larger geostationary satellites.
I think for sure the one-off missions are going to take that approach, especially when the smallsat wasn’t that costly, but I don’t think that it changes when you get into these megaconstellations. The per-satellite cost is still low, but it really is a very complex operation. If you go to Iridium you are going to find a more traditional concept — but I agree for the one-off smallsat missions you are not going to find the same ground infrastructure as a constellation.