Ground systems technology is years behind the satellites it supports and catching up will entail a fundamental transformation of the sector and the introduction of interoperable standards, panelists at SATELLITE 2021 said Wednesday, Sept. 8.
“The technology improvements in the space layer over the last five to 10 years have been massive,” said Stuart Daughtridge, vice president for advanced technology and business development at Kratos Defense and Security Solutions. He noted that the latest generation of software-defined satellites has “unbelievable capabilities,” but they can’t be realized and monetized while the ground sector lags.
“If your ground segment can't support it, it doesn’t matter how great your satellite is,” he observed.
In the world of multi-orbit space, interoperability is key, even on the ground, said Paul Mattear, principal business development manager for Amazon Web Services.
“One of the issues that we have with ground infrastructure is a lack of standards across the board,” he said. AWS is making a play into the Ground-Station-as-a-Service (GSaaS) market with its AWS Ground Station.
Ground segment providers will have to be able to service multiple customers in different orbits using different frequencies without boutique accommodations, said Richard Schgallis, executive vice president of Space and Communications for Safran Data Systems.
“Mission cross compatibility is going to be a high interest item,” he predicted. “That doesn't mean that there will be a panacea, a one-size-fits-all for everything. But we are rapidly approaching the point where systems will have to become multi-mission capable.”
Mattear compared the current state of the ground segment to the situation in the cellphone market in the 1980s. “If you turned on your cell phone, you paid. If you traveled somewhere, you paid extra. You might not be able to use it at all.” Software-defined systems — widely viewed as the future of the ground segment — require standards, he said. “If you're going to have partners develop those software-defined systems, there has to be a standard that they can develop them to,” Mattear added.
Two industry groups this month launched separate calls for interoperable standards for digitized RF signals, so that an antenna made by one manufacturer can work with a modem made by another.
“The goal is to make things as widely compatible for economies of scale as possible,” said Schgallis, adding that the transition to a cloud-based infrastructure would make interoperability easier. “That's opening up a lot of doors,” he said.
Digitization and virtualization — where hardware like modems, network switches, and signal processors are replaced with software — will also help with interoperability, suggested Daughtridge. “IP [Internet Protocol] data transport, by definition, is a dynamic service. To get the most value out of your network, when you have a dynamic traffic requirement, you have to have a dynamic network,” he noted.
Software defined satellites are effectively a network switch in the sky, he said, “just a node on the network. That’s how we have to start thinking about it, not as something special and unique and different from the rest of the network.”
The complexity of space ground systems remains a big problem, pointed out Assaf Cohen, the global vice president of sales and marketing for SpaceBridge.
“The challenges are enormous — think about the [Low-Earth Orbit] LEO constellations where now you need to communicate with an onboard processor and send commands from the ground and optimize the network. Or a [High Throughput Satellite] HTS satellite where you need to do beam-hopping with the ground segment sending commands to the channelizer and amplifiers and utilizing the resources properly. On top of everything, we have to be interoperable. To connect all these dots, implement the standard, be an integral part of the network. And do all that in real time,” he said.
It is this complexity, Cohen said, that drives companies like SpaceX towards vertical integration, which allows to company to ensure interoperability because it owns all the pieces.
Daughtridge argued that the answer is to standardize the easy, commodified elements of the system, “That's the key with standards around the digital systems. We want to standardize the stuff that's easy, and then allow companies to innovate on the parts that are hard. That way, you can have a strong ecosystem and a strong supply chain that can all work together.”
In the end, the market will drive efficiencies like interoperability, noted Schgallis, “We're getting to the point where data from space will be used to move markets, and who is going to get that data in time to buy or sell will become a factor. That's all going to be driven by the ground segment,” he said. VS