Uber-ization of Ground Stations: The Small Satellite Market’s Enabling Aggregator Wave

Real-time communication with satellites, especially those that are part of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations is a growing challenge. Providing frequent updates remains critical in delivering near-real-time intelligence within the Earth Observation (EO) market. The same applies to the seamless connectivity objectives of the communication constellation operators. The ability to transmit data across the network seamlessly is the value operators intend to offer their customers.

These objectives across the satellite industry collectively impose the requirement of being able to communicate with the satellite at any given time. Be it mission operations (station-keeping) or uplink and downlink of data, the satellite operators aspire to be in touch with their space assets at all times. This becomes a challenge for the LEO constellation operators for multiple reasons.

While having enough satellites to bring down the revisit time is a critical parameter, being able to execute on-demand data exchanges with the satellites remains high-priority. Ground stations provide the communication link between the operators and their satellites. While some operators have their own ground stations, others rely on private ground station service providers. Irrespective of the nature of ownership, satellite operators are reliant on the limited ground stations they have access to. Their reach with their satellites only extends to as many ground stations as they have access to.

However, as expansive their ground station network is, the satellite operators have well defined windows for exchanging information with their satellites. This systemic challenge is more pronounced in the case of New Space players who are small-satellite operators conducting constellation missions in LEO.

The Much-Needed Enabler

While the ground station services market has some well-established players such as Konsberg Satellite Services, Swedish Space Corporation, and Atlas Space Operations, not all satellite operators from the New Space segment have the financial and infrastructural abilities to procure their services. There are OpenSource solutions such as The Libre Space Foundation’s satNOGS, which relies on open source practices and modular architectures to enable users develop their own cost-effective infrastructure to communicate with their respective satellites. These however do not support the key operational requirements of the New Space participants who have commercial business models relying on their constellations’ persistent surveillance and their operational ability to provide frequent updates and on-demand services.

The ideal solution, in this case, has to be an affordable and reliable service which allows the New Space participants establish an efficient format of mission operations where they can execute data exchanges and mission commands on-demand without necessarily having to invest heavily on in-house or specialist ground station services.

The Space Industry’s Response

In order to meet this evolving demand from within the fast-growing segment of the space industry, multiple aggregator models have evolved from private market participants. Services from companies such as RBC Signals, Infostellar, Amazon Web Services, and Spaceit are offered through specialist ground station capacity aggregator platforms. These are digital solutions enabling ground station operators to provide their excess capacity to a global user base. Since this is very similar to the business model of Uber, these aggregator services represent the ongoing “Uber-ization” of ground station services within the space industry.

These platforms are open to all willing ground station (terminal) operators such that they can connect their terminals to these platforms and provide their access during idle time. Each ground station terminal, based on its current utilization, will remain idle on either side of their scheduled exchanges with their respective target satellites. These digital platforms at the other end provide access to satellite operators to schedule their exchanges with their respective satellites. The automated operational format ensures that the scheduled exchanges get executed as and when a relevant ground station terminal’s capacity becomes available such that the user can retrieve the data immediately.

Being able to sell excess or idle times provides additional revenue opportunities to the ground station service providers and terminal operators. This also provides a reliable source of cost-effective mission operations to New Space satellite operators who otherwise will need big budgets to afford such services from the established players. This Uber-ization of ground stations has brought opportunities to life for those startups who wish to develop and deliver new capabilities for new customer groups but have to make do with a small start given their humble beginnings.

Looking to the Future

A staggering 60,000 satellites are planned to be launched in the 2021-2030 timeline. With multiple commercial small-satellite operators in the market, the need for enhanced mission operations is much more than an industry-wide requirement. With or without funding, these small-satellite operators will require multiple mission operations capabilities to deliver on their promises. While the existing specialist ground station service providers will be delivering against this demand, the operational requirements are evolving so quickly that the aggregator services will cease to remain nice-to-have’s moving forward.

With the manufacturing domain delivering its value and the launch domain offering more cost-effective launch services, it is about time the ground station services market stepped up to the challenge by offering services which are not only comprehensive in coverage but also affordable to a diverse set of market participants. Serial production in manufacturing is growing and dedicated launch services are chasing effective spaceport-based business models to support the fast growing small-satellite markets.

The downstream service markets are observing new players with new products and services. With increasing competition, the differentiating factors are shrinking in number. When the upstream capabilities start resembling each other, the key differentiators will include the ability to communicate with the satellites on-demand. Those who can provide frequent updates and execute on-demand satellite tasking will take the growth opportunities offered by the space markets.

Having access to a cost-effective and comprehensive ground station network will remain a strong differentiator among satellite-based services, especially those from the New Space participants. From a time when the New Space participants were pushing for a place in the space industry, we have now moved into a time when the same New Space participants are driving new services to support their commercial business models. They have initiated the growth phase of new segments of the space industry, which is becoming more inclusive and affordable.

These ground station capacity aggregators are adding to the momentum with which the space industry is getting democratized. “Space for All” is not a distant reality anymore and small-satellite doesn’t mean inferior capability by any standard. New Space startups with limited financial backing will stop being categorized as vulnerable science projects moving forward. While the credits are due to the satellite manufacturing community which embraced modular design philosophies to enable the possibility of cheaper satellites and dedicated launch service providers who have brought down the cost of launch, these ground station capacity aggregators are closing the circle on the democratization of the space industry through their revolutionary Uber-ization of ground stations. VS

Arun Kumar Sampathkumar is the industry manager for Aerospace and Defense at Frost & Sullivan.

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