factory in space

Catching the Data Deluge


In a recent post we discussed how to move towards software defined satellites has the potential to significantly improve their efficiency and flexibility. This technological shift had already had a dramatic impact on the efficiency of earth based telecoms networks, as switching and routing moved onto a software defined architecture, and it has a similar potential for satellite operation. While this revolution is widely understood in the industry, it is also quietly taking hold in another, less sexy aspect of space; the ground station.

Often overlooked, the ground stations are a vital link in the satellite data chain and are a clear bottleneck for the surge in data that is now being produced in orbit. The high costs of building, manning and maintaining the earth bound dishes means that they have propagated more slowly than the satellites they serve. A recent document from Viasat, a large and successful player in this sector, summed up the issue – “While satellite design and launch services have advanced significantly, the ground segment has lagged behind. The inability to command, downlink, and rapidly disseminate valuable earth observation and remote sensing data in a timely and secure manner is a business constraint to operators.” (Viasat are cleverly addressing the issue in the near term by using their GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit) satellites to act as staging posts for LEO (Low Earth Orbit) data to improve the frequency of downlink communication).

Operating ground stations requires a different skill set to designing and launching satellites, and it is this difference that has allowed independent operators to begin offering the ground station ‘as-a-service’. Two of the largest and best known of these are KSAT and Leaf Space, both operating a complete suite of services to satellite operators, from the launch phase all the way to tracking and command. Both operate a dispersed network of stations across the world which offer regular points of contact with orbiting satellites. Other well known players have also entered the market, with both Microsoft and Amazon now offering a limited ground based capacity. However, these giants are really focused on driving the data to their vast data centres for storage and processing. The access points are a secondary initiative.

Despite the robust service levels provided by companies such as KSAT and Leaf, satellites still operate with regular ‘dark spots’ while they are between contact points. This causes delays to real-time data and remains an issue for the industry. The reason for this is the high cost of building and maintaining base stations spread around the planet. A possible solution is the development of software defined antennae which removes the need for the large and troublesome dish. As yet no such product is available, but if a small, innovative UK business is right, this may be just around the corner.