SmallSats: Change Agents from the Ground Up

SmallSats are spurring innovation across the industry including on the ground segment, which will ultimately influence all operators, regardless of size.

If one were to look at the year 2015 and try to identify the biggest influencer over the satellite industry, that title would undoubtedly go to small satellites. These spacecraft are the zeitgeist of today, and are literally shaping every segment of the industry. One often overlooked segment is, well, the ground segment. Here there is change too. Though less glamorous than new launch vehicles or pictures of satellites you can hold in your hands, the impact of SmallSats on ground systems and terminals is far from unnoticed. The SmallSat sector’s willingness to take on risks and try new, sometimes unconventional approaches is spurring innovation on the ground, which will ultimately influence all operators, regardless of size.

New Needs

Without legacy systems in place, SmallSat operators lack the barriers that sometimes face established players when it comes to ground infrastructure. They also have requirements that stand in contrast to those of large, multi-million dollar satellite operators.

“Large satellite ground systems are usually procured as a program, with requirements, design reviews, formal acceptance test programs, etc.,” says Stuart Daughtridge, vice president of advanced technology at Kratos. “SmallSat ground systems, on the other hand, are procured like commercial software — they evaluate what is available on the market, they buy the product that best meets their needs, install it, get a little training, and start using it. If it does not do everything they need, they use product Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to add the features they want and move on. It is a very different model, approach, and as a result, a very different price point.”

Kratos has paid attention to SmallSats for close to two decades, according to Daughtridge, but decided two years ago to develop products specifically for this market. Daughtridge says SmallSat operators, because their spacecraft cost so much less, are more inclined to pursue automation of satellite controls rather than dedicate 24/7 staff to the job. What would be mandatory for a few $300 million satellites is pedantic for an entire constellation that might cost $30 million. Not only that; having large constellations makes automation, which is a newer concept for many established systems, a requirement for SmallSats. Daughtridge expects some of these popular ideas among SmallSat operators will gain momentum with larger operators too.

“The SmallSat boom will bring and mainstream some new technologies and will help drive greater automation into the ground infrastructure business. For example, the SmallSat market is an area where we have been able to push and get fast adoption of new technologies, such as software modems and fully virtualized ground infrastructure. Their automation requirements have pushed us to have tighter integration between our products to allow them to seamlessly operate the entire ground system as a single automated system. This includes integrated automation of the C2 operations using our quantumCMD product line, the day to day flight dynamics operations, real-time management of the ground equipment, and enterprise-level management of the network and computer infrastructure itself. These new technologies/products have now been proven out in the SmallSat market, and are getting interest from some larger satellite operators,” he says.

New Entrants

Like the manufacturing and launch sector, the ground segment is also spurring on new entrants. One of those is Spaceflight Networks, a division of Spaceflight Inc. dedicated to building out a network of 12 ground stations around the world specifically for SmallSats. With partners such as Spire, that number is expected to reach 45 by the end of 2016. Spaceflight started in SmallSat manufacturing, expanded into launch, and then grew into ground operations based on feedback from launch customers.

“Our main objectives in developing our ground station network are to serve the needs of the growing small satellite community and to enable access to space,” says Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight. “We are investing in the development of an infrastructure that allows SmallSat operators to communicate with their satellites without having to build their own ground station networks or develop custom radios. This standardization is bringing down the overall cost of communication services, and therefore total spacecraft/constellation ownership costs.”

“We are following very closely the emergence of new small satellite operators and are presently discussing with a significant part of them,” adds GMV Executive Director Miguel Angel Molina. “We definitely see opportunities for GMV although it remains to be seen to what extent existing expectations will materialize.”

Molina says GMV is pursuing an internal effort to adapt its products to the SmallSat market in terms of capabilities and cost, with new entrants playing a direct role in influencing future products.

“In addition to that, we are also investing on services associated to the long-term safety related to these new constellations. The space debris population is already a problem and the presence of new constellations is increasing the need for space surveillance avoiding the risk of potential collisions,” he adds.

Future Forecast

A tremendous number of new SmallSat constellations, for everything from broadband to ship tracking to Earth observation, either kicked off or reached orbit in 2015. This number is expected to keep climbing.

“In 2014, 131 CubeSats were flown, and over 100 were for commercial services,” says Phil Smith, senior space analyst at Tauri Group. “In 2016, we are projecting 240 total CubeSats, and the trend is expected to continue growing at least into the near term. And this is just CubeSats; several companies build small satellites using different bus standards.”

Opinions differ on where this trajectory will end up. Daughtridge says the current SmallSat boom might plateau for a while, following the rapid proliferation seen recently. Andrews anticipates we are just at the beginning. What is largely unanimous is that the factors driving today’s SmallSat explosion are starkly different from those of the 1990s. Business models are diverse, applications are abundant, and even those with perhaps most semblance to ideas from the 1990s have incredible new technology with a concomitant surge in demand for connectivity. All this means SmallSats are not only shaping the industry today, but stand poised to continue catalyzing new approaches for years to come — both in space and on terra firma.

Terminal Tactics

Also a ground focus, getting terminals that function optimally with SmallSats can be a major challenge. It was the inability to conquer such challenges that is often attributed to the demise of SmallSat constellation ideas of the 1990s, such as Teledesic. Today, terminal suppliers are confident of a change.

“I think there are a few differences,” says Pradman Kaul, president of Hughes Network Systems, which is a major partner for the OneWeb constellation and formerly worked on Teledesic. “One, the technology has progressed dramatically in the past 12 to 15 years. Also, the systems are quite different. Teledesic was primarily a [Low Earth Orbit] LEO system operating for enterprises. Our interest in the OneWeb system is primarily for consumers and small to medium enterprises.”

Kaul says advances in components, antennas, and sub-systems offer significantly more promise than former attempts. Hughes, he says, will work closely with Qualcomm — another OneWeb partner — because of the company’s significant design work on the air interface and the Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) that will be used in the user terminals. Hughes is responsible for the ground network, and will be one of two or three manufacturers of the user terminals, says Kaul. The satellite manufacturer, a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb, will also be a close partner in terminal development.

“On a macro level, systems in terms of what they do are the same, but the technology and the methods of implementation, etc., are quite different. I’m hopeful that this will absolve some of the issues and problems that existed 15 years ago, because you just couldn’t do it 15 years ago with the technology that was available,” he says.

One such development that could have a profound impact is the introduction of commercially viable phased-array antennas.

“We see this explosion of interest in LEO as a real boon for us,” says Dave Helfgott, CEO of Phasor. “We’ll be able to take advantage of whatever environments these platforms find themselves. And it’s great news that the LEO satellite companies are thinking about the Earth terminals now because there are some famous missteps in our industry about constellations that really didn’t think through how the Earth terminals would communicate and it became fairly uneconomical. The fact that they are talking to us now is a good sign. They are taking it seriously.”

Helfgott says Phasor’s electronically steered antenna, slated for launch in 2017, has attracted the attention of many LEO SmallSat operators. An advantage, he says, is that tracking satellites with phased array antennas is analogous to moving from one spot beam to another.

“We can do two beams on a single array. What that means is when you are looking at a LEO constellation, for example, you can look at one satellite passing over and track it, and acquire a second satellite as it’s coming into view without breaking the first connection. So you have a ‘make-before-you-break’ capability on a single antenna. That’s interesting also when doing mobility and moving from beam to beam,” Helfgott says. VS

Caleb Henry is Via Satellite’s assistant editor.

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