New LEO Constellations Drive Tech Changes on the Ground

Some of the most important and disruptive changes that the wave of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations will bring to the satellite business will be on the ground, rather than in orbit, experts said at the LEO Digital Forum on Wednesday.

“To light up all the [FCC-approved Non-Geostationary Orbit] satellites … you will need a lot of gateways on the ground. The amount of gateway infrastructure will be enormous,” Frederik Simoens, CTO of ST Engineering iDirect, said during the LEO Technology Ecosystem panel.

ST Engineering makes gateways — sophisticated ground stations that communicate with satellites in orbit, connecting them to terrestrial networks. Unlike satellites in the much higher Geostationary Orbit (GEO), which remain fixed at a point in space, Low-Earth Orbit satellites move across the sky and each one requires multiple gateways or hubs on the ground, spread across the globe.

To cope with the exponential growth in LEO expected in the next few years, the entire ground segment needs to be virtualized, Simoens said. Making gateways part of a software-defined network will allow their capability to be applied dynamically, as needed. Capacity can be shifted around the globe with the cycling demand of the work day.

“We’ll only do limited baseband processing functionality close to the teleport. All the other network functions will move to a more central location, which gives the benefit that all that processing functionality can easily shift from one gateway to another, or from one satellite to another,” he said.

This will become more essential as the orbital landscape becomes flexible and dynamic, Simoens added, with beams being moved around or deployed on demand. “By virtualizing, it will be easy to create those additional resources and to take them back again, when they are no longer needed.”

There is a lot of room for improvement in the LEO ecosystem on the terminals that receive satellite transmissions, Simoens said, by further integrating antennas and modems.

Lilac Muller, vice president of Product Management for mobile terminal maker Kymeta Corp., said that in order for terminal costs to fall, volumes must rise. She believes volumes are rising, but the issue is complicated by a lack of industry standards.

Muller said that new constellations and hybrid, multi-orbit networks each have their own standards and capabilities. Building terminals to receive from several of them will drive costs up. The alternative is a terminal built to receive only one constellation, the vertically integrated approach. “SpaceX, for example, can drive [down] costs on the terminal side, because they don’t need to support integration with any networks other than their own, so they can trade off,” she said.

Despite the challenges, the growing demand and accompanying leaps in scale should eventually drive prices down, as long as products are designed to take advantage of mass production manufacturing techniques. “Our technology is second-generation, we’re already working on third generation, we’re working with partners in our ecosystem. Costs will go down over time as volumes come up,” Muller said of Kymeta’s technology.

As the market expands, Stephen Eisele, vice president of Business Development at Virgin Orbit, pointed out that new segments are opening up beyond the traditional buyers in government, military, and oil and gas. This expansion brings to the table a growing number of buyers who are less interested in getting to know and understand the complex space marketplaces for services, hardware, and launch.

“They just want the data,” Eisele said of these new entrants, “They’d like to sign one signature on one contract that provides one solution.”

In response, he said, companies like Virgin Orbit will increasingly begin to offer bundling services, and turnkey solutions.

“[We are] looking across the value chain in the markets and the different verticals, and trying to figure out — who do we partner with?” Eisele said. “Do we want a partnership with a satellite OEM [original equipment manufacturer] to optimize the spacecraft for a vehicle? Do we want to partner with a downstream analytics company that can provide that service to the customer?” VS

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