As we enter 2024, the opportunities for satellite technology development seem as vast and unending as outer space itself.
Certain technology trends remain powerful drivers across the space domain year over year, such as artificial intelligence, launch capacity, and lower size, weight, and power (SWaP) initiatives. Advancements in these areas are opening up opportunities for progress in efforts related to space debris mitigation, non-GPS navigation, and multi-orbit constellations.
Via Satellite spoke to leaders and analysts across the space domain to establish 10 significant trends, both on the macro level and via individual technologies, set to impact the industry in 2024.
Climate Change as a Catalyst for EO Technologies
The market for satellite-based Earth Observation (EO) technologies has largely focused on the government and military sectors, as well as some larger enterprise sectors like oil and gas. But growing concern over the effects of climate change – and efforts to mitigate them, like environmental, social, and governance (ESG) regulations – will support the launch of new EO satellite technologies, including hyperspectral, infrared, microwave, and greenhouse gas monitoring, says Claude Rousseau, research director at NSR, an Analysys Mason Company.
EO companies are offering new products that target key climate change initiatives. Planet in November launched a global 30-meter resolution dataset known as the Forest Carbon Diligence solution, and plans to release a three-meter resolution version in 2024. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), not traditionally known as a major space tech user, has begun harnessing satellite remote sensing data to support its biodiversity and deforestation tracking efforts.
Moreover, the EO sector has been in the global spotlight since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and even more so since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and Tel-Aviv’s retaliatory bombings over Palestine.
Satellite-to-Cell Tech, and the Role of 3GPP
Satellite and wireless companies across the globe are exploring the potential for satellite-to-cell technology, which some analysts consider to be one of the biggest opportunities in satcom history. Smartphone makers from Apple to Huawei have incorporated emergency messaging services into their latest models, supported by satellite partners’ services. Meanwhile, Starlink plans to begin offering texting services via its Direct to Cell initiative in 2024, followed by data and call services in 2025. Even the U.S. Space Force announced plans to solicit proposals for military users to procure direct-to-cell communications services.
There have been some hiccups in this journey: Qualcomm and Iridium announced in November that they are dissolving their direct-to-device partnership, a development analysts attributed to both price point and a lack of technology standards.
The mobile standardization body 3GPP will increasingly become the reference point for satellite standards as direct-to-cell technologies come on the market, says Lluc Palerm, a principal analyst at NSR. 3GPP’s Release-17, established in 2022, included non-terrestrial networks (NTN, another word for satellite) in its mobile standard for the first time. This gave the satellite industry its first technical specifications for integrated, direct-to-device 5G over satellite, and enabling the development of narrowband and Internet of Things services over satellite with unmodified mainstream divides.
“The influence of 3GPP will only continue expanding as direct access evolves towards broadband services and expands into higher frequency bands,” says Palerm.
Multi-Orbit Constellations Enabled by Onboard Data Processing
On-board data processing speeds have increased dramatically in recent years, thanks to ever-updating artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) technologies that help data providers cull through reams of remote sensing information, drive down latency, and provide higher resolution data.
Those advancements will be a key enabler for multi-orbit constellations, which might incorporate a mixture of any of the three major orbits, as well as Cislunar Orbit, for increased connectivity and remote sensing coverage. Operators in Geostationary Orbit (GEO) have been discussing the potential of multi-orbit satellite services for years but now the concept is being demonstrated and offered to customers.
These hybrid orbits will become more viable going into 2024 as companies and governments seek resilient satellite architectures in an increasingly congested and contested space environment. “People are realizing that mixed orbits are a more powerful situational awareness tool,” says Bill Gattle, CEO of LightRidge Solutions, a private equity-backed firm producing airborne and space-based sensors for protection against on-orbit attacks for the national security community.
Proliferated LEO Constellations Moving Forward
The remainder of this decade should prove to be “a watershed period for satellite communications,” as several major planned proliferated Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations introduce service and drive adoption, notes Brooke Stokes, a partner at McKinsey Aerospace & Defense.
Three years ago, the nascent Space Development Agency’s (SDA) pitch to launch a layered network of military satellites into LEO was viewed by many in the satellite world as a non-starter. But in the short timeframe since then, those stakeholders are now seeing a shift in national security mission areas to incorporate a disaggregated proliferated-LEO concept, supported by several billions of dollars in funding for R&D, prototyping, and launching the systems in its architecture. That shift is prompting satellite manufacturers to resolve on-orbit networking challenges, and leverage commercial technology and capacity to meet the SDA’s rapid production timelines, says Sarah Schellpfeffer, Northrop Grumman Space Systems vice president and CTO.
Advances in secure networking technologies will be key to the success of the SDA’s forthcoming architecture. The agency’s director Derek Tournear says he looks forward to the next generations of High Assurance Internet Protocol Encryptor (HAIPE) devices and multi-level processing, “needed to enable the secure, low-latency, high throughput delivery of mission data to the tactical edge” via the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, or PWSA. Those devices will also need to support interoperability of not only the PWSA satellites in orbit, but also the capability and data provided by mission partner commercial providers, the agency says.
A growing number of entities, both commercial and government, are looking at in-space manufacturing as the future for developing critical components for computers and pharmaceuticals, with the number of patents with the word “microgravity” in the title or abstract increasing from 21 in 2000, to 155 in 2020, according to data gathered by McKinsey.
U.K.-based Space Forge is moving forward to building the first in-space foundry to manufacture critical semiconductor substrates among the stars, that would provide superior performance and reduced defects compared to those made on Earth.
As with Earth Observation technologies, the global climate crisis will help make the business case for in-space manufacturing, as it has the potential to take the climate impact of manufacturing off Earth, says Andrew Parlock, managing director for Space Forge US. The company claims its foundry in space would result in a 60 percent reduction in energy consumption, and equate to 15 tons of “carbon negative” technology.
Industrialization of Satellite Production
The satellite industry has made big promises to deliver on in the next few years to scale up constellations. “We are paying close attention to companies’ abilities to get up the learning curve on production, be it for thousands of satellites, optical terminals, solar panels, or rockets,” says Stokes, from McKinsey. “This includes designing for modularity and incorporating new manufacturing processes.”
Advancements in technologies including 3D printing and digital twins will continue to help producers optimize satellite designs, while improvements in processing power, data storage, cameras technology, miniaturization, and other systems are helping companies build systems that are cheaper to build, and easier to launch and troubleshoot.
In order to scale up manufacturing, Belgium-based manufacturer Aerospacelab is buying components meant for the automotive industry, and “up-qualifying” those components, like magnetic sensors, for the radiation environment in space.
Doing so means the company isn’t limited to a narrow supply chain of providers for many electrical, electronic, and electro-mechanical (EEE) components, says Tina Ghataore, CEO for the company’s U.S. subsidiary Aerospacelab Inc.
With the advent of proliferated LEO architectures, satellite manufacturers are trending away from the 16U cubesat mode, Ghataore observes. As companies are intent on contributing to the SDA’s PWSA and commercial broadband constellations, manufacturers are moving toward larger satellite platforms that can be tailored to the varied mission needs.
“We’re not forcing payloads to fit in a platform; we’re wrapping the platform around the payload,” Ghataore says. “Power is the driver for our satellite and launch vehicle accommodation.”
Space Debris Removal Gains U.S. Government Interest
U.S. Space Force officials have warned of the increasingly challenging nature of tracking orbital debris, as the expanding amount of satellites in orbit prompt concerns about where all of those systems will go at the end of their lifespans. And while satellites based in GEO have traditionally been moved to “parking” orbits, and LEO-based systems are pushed into Earth’s atmosphere to disintegrate, more needs to be done to explore debris mitigation for systems in Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), stakeholders say.
The U.S. government is showing its interest in space debris mitigation across multiple entities. The Air Force is investing in active debris removal technology via the SPACEWERX Orbital Prime initiative, recently awarding Kall Morris Int. (KMI) $4.75 million to further the startup’s tech development and commercialization efforts. In early November, the Senate passed the Orbits Act, which if enacted, would launch a program dedicated to debris mitigation, and establish orbital debris standards. The Commerce Space Act of 2023, introduced that same month by House Republicans, also requires any U.S. mission to include a debris mitigation strategy.
Technology to Support Sustainable Space Operations
Alongside spade debris mitigation, satellite operators and manufacturers are seeing an increased interest in space system sustainability, via in-space servicing technology that can extend the service life of a given satellite.
“As space becomes increasingly congested and our space assets face greater risk of collision, the decades-long satellite cycle of launch, discard, and launch again is an unsafe, uneconomical, and unsustainable model for the future of space,” says Northrop Grumman’s Schellpfeffer.
Northrop Grumman currently has two Mission Extension Vehicles in orbit today, and Mission Extension Pods scheduled to launch, all intended to extend the lives of satellites that were designed without prepared interfaces for servicing. In the future, new satellites launched could be built with interfaces or plug-in ports, ideal for refueling, power, and data upgrades, she notes.
An increasing number of satellites are now equipped with thrusters, says Melissa Quinn, general manager for Seradata, a Slingshot Aerospace company. The onboard propulsion is giving satellite operators “a new tool to keep their spacecraft safe during flight – and to sustainably de-orbit their satellites at the end of their lifespan,” she says.
GPS-Denied Navigation Technologies
GPS, completely ubiquitous and indispensable in our modern world, has become extremely vulnerable in the age of satellite jamming and spoofing. Since China’s BeiDou Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) reached full global coverage in 2020, Beijing is encouraging foreign nations to incorporate its system for civilian usage. Chinese reports indicate that BeiDou products are being used in over 120 countries as of 2022.
As the DoD and other militaries develop next-generation weapons and aircraft systems, sensors that can provide accuracy and guidance in GPS-denied environments will become more essential. NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), established in 2022, cited GPS-denied environments as a key technology hurdle it seeks to tackle, as it connects to dual-tech startups and nontraditional actors across its member nations.
Many proliferated architecture leaders are developing or considering an alternate-GPS path or forwarding timing signals within the constellation, using both ground- or space-based techniques, or a combination of the two, notes Lightridge’s Gattle. Advancements in artificial intelligence and machine-learning, along with the use of 3D mapping and onboard sensors could help make strides in this sector in 2024. Companies like Saab and Maxar are introducing new anti-GPS navigation systems that combine onboard electro-optical sensors, AI-driven algorithms, terrain navigation systems, and 3D databases to allow pilots to navigate without using any GPS signal.
While perhaps a paradoxical trend for the satellite industry, the ability to conduct operations in a GPS-denied environment will continue to be a national priority.
A Tighter Budget Environment, Thanks to U.S. and Global Politics
The state of satellite technology in 2024 will unquestionably be impacted by ongoing and intensifying conflicts around the globe, as well as partisan politics on Capitol Hill. As of this article’s writing, the U.S. fiscal year 2024 budgets remain constrained by a continuing resolution approved in November to keep the government funded until the new year. While continuing resolutions always cause headaches for budget planners, the Space Force in particular has its hands tied as it sought to increase its procurement spending by 13.5 percent in FY ’24, and earmarked several billion dollars for the SDA’s PWSA, along with its next phase of launch programs under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.
Space operators, particularly in the military domain, should brace themselves for tight fiscal constraints and reduced budgets going into 2024 and beyond, says Charles Beames, executive chairman of York Space Systems, and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and Pentagon official. Service leaders, including Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Frank Calvelli, have called for increased firm fixed-price contracts, and for setting caps on satellite unit prices to keep costs low.
“The salad days of lots and lots of defense spending are over,” Beames says. “The Frank Calvelli/Frank Kendall approach is the right strategy for this fiscal environment.” VS
Vivienne Machi is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.