The extraordinary diversity of the smallsat sector makes it unlikely that standards can solve challenges for its ground systems, but many of the same objectives can be achieved through virtualization, ground tech experts said at SATELLITE 2022 on Monday.
“While I think that [standards] is a laudable goal, I've seen it discussed over the last 25 years, ad nauseam, and it never seems to work, unfortunately. I think it's incumbent upon software to handle that problem at a higher layer,” Brad Bode, CTO of ground-station-as-a-service (GSaaS) startup Atlas Space, said during the session “Redefining Smallsat Ground Systems and Infrastructure.”
“There are already plenty of standards out there,” noted Tom Pirrone, CEO of Infostellar US, another GSaaS startup, “Why are they not applicable? Well, they are applicable to some families of missions. But what we're doing here most of the time is cutting-edge work. [You can’t have best practices, because] the best work hasn't been done yet.”
Bode said Atlas’ smallsat customers vary from well-funded enterprises that can afford to commit to longer term contracts, all the way to customers trying to prove a business model, or university smallsat projects that lack an engineering team to do the work of integration with ground systems.
Sith antennas, explained Bill Milroy, chairman and CTO of antenna manufacturer ThinKom Solutions, smallsat ground infrastructure run the gamut from very small antennas to very large ones. In Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) particularly, he continued, “There's this classic trade between expense and complexity on the ground side versus complexity on the satellite side. Some people take different extremes in that area. Our goal is to try to cater to all.”
This ballooning diversity of the smallsat sector creates real challenges, added Jai Delani, U.S. managing director of Leaf Space. “Each spacecraft is designed differently for its mission. And it depends on the application. Earth observation would require a very high rate data dump. So we have to handle that on the ground side. But the same ground station has to handle communications with an amateur smallsat over UHF [ultra high frequency] where the user’s aim is to minimize data to keep within budget.”
Different missions make different demands on the ground infrastructure, Delani explained. “For example, on-orbit servicing missions will require that we talk to multiple satellites at a time, so there's different types of applications. But just one ground station, we need to handle all those different applications pass after pass. That makes it really, really challenging.”
Bode said Atlas focused on making the process of renting ground stations as easy as possible for small newcomers. “They don't have to do machine to machine integration, they can use our user interface. Then we have the customers who might focus primarily on APIs. But above all, you have to have the onboarding process to be smooth and simple.”
He added that “I think that's one of the problems with the industry — it's very complicated. In order to scale that needs to become easier and more abstracted away from all of the difficulties with the low level ground systems.”
As an example, Bode said, a customer might come to them with an existing integration with a single modem vendor. “They don't want to do the extra work of integrating with the 12 different pieces of hardware that we use, so we just translate it in the cloud for them. There's a layer in the cloud that makes sure [all of those 12 different pieces of hardware] look the same, and they don't have to do anything. I think you're going to see more of that in the smallsat world so that customers can get integrated faster and easier.”
Bode said software developments will help simplify the customer experience. “Things are going to be driven towards software as we've seen in networks and in practically everything in our daily lives.” VS