Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin on April 4 released the technical specifications of a docking adapter that could be used by manufacturers to make satellites interoperable and easier to update on orbit with new technology.

The technical data for the Mission Augmentation Port (MAP) can be used by designers to develop their own docking adapters, said Lockheed Martin.

The company used the MAP standard to design its own docking device, called Augmentation System Port Interface (ASPIN).

“With this technology, we’re able to upgrade operational spacecraft at the speed of technology,” said Paul Pelley, senior director of advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Space.

“Just like USB was designed to standardize computer connections, these documents are designed to standardize how spacecraft connect to each other on orbit,” he said.

On-orbit satellite servicing usually is associated with refueling. That is just one aspect of life extension, Pelley said. There is also a need to keep satellites technologically up to date, especially large geosynchronous spacecraft that stay in service for decades. A standard docking port interface could facilitate the insertion of new processors, data storage devices or sensors, and some satellite components could be replaced with new hardware.

“What Lockheed Martin is envisioning goes beyond ‘filling up the tank’ to extend mission life,” he said.

Eric Brown, senior director of military space mission strategy at Lockheed Martin, said the company has tested the ASPIN adapter in simulations and plans to fly it to space to get it qualified. “We have multiple partners, both commercial and government, that are interested in taking that next step,” said Brown

He said Lockheed Martin decided to develop the docking interface standard and release it to fill a need in the industry.

Many satellites that are in operation today have 20 or 30-year old technology and there is no means to update them in orbit, he said. One answer to that problem is to go to cheaper, smaller satellites that are more disposable and launched more frequently. But that solution doesn’t work for everybody, Brown said.

Some missions require large satellites that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, “and we still have to solve that technology refresh, these satellites are not disposable,” he said.

The vision that led to the MAP standard is that it could help create an aftermarket space industry that doesn’t exist today because satellites are not serviceable like airplanes, he said. In aerospace and defense, the aftermarket had created huge opportunities for a whole ecosystem of companies.

“Space has suffered from not really having an actionable aftermarket. And so by introducing the idea of satellite augmentation and enhancements we can also bring in the maintenance, repair and overhaul type of ecosystem that the air domain has enjoyed for years and years, and has introduced a lot of companies into aerospace and defense.” A space aftermarket “could be beneficial for Lockheed Martin but also beneficial for a variety of new companies that maybe aren’t in a position to build the next generation of GPS but may be able to go and fly sensors that can augment a GPS vehicle.”

High Throughput Satellites are entering a new era of accelerated and drastic transformation, wherein global HTS capacity supply is predicted to grow at a torrid pace over the next five years (45% CAGR) surpassing 60,000 Gbps (60 Tbps). This comes after helping reshape the satellite communications industry through their ever-improving capacity volumes and cost per bit.

Facilitating this growth are non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) broadband constellations, which are projected to account for nearly 90% of capacity supply in 2026, a marked contrast to the historically dominant market share of supply held by GEO-HTS systems.

Recent NGSO momentum has been underpinned by the aggressive launch campaign of SpaceX’s Starlink LEO constellation, which nearly single-handedly led to a 350% expansion of global HTS capacity supply in 2021 alone after entering initial operational status. While other NGSO constellations have faced a mixture of development and launch delays, OneWeb and SES (O3b mPOWER) are poised to enter initial service in 2022. The NGSO supply figures, despite being adjusted to reflect sellable capacity (as opposed to notional aggregate constellation capacity), must be treated with caution as not all projected capacity can be immediately exploited due to lagging national market access authorizations and gradual gateway deployments.

Faced with the on-going shift in capital towards NGSO broadband constellations, the GEO-HTS segment will continue its growth, albeit at a more moderate pace. In response to market uncertainty caused in part by NGSO and large-scale GEO-VHTS systems such as Viasat-3 and Eutelsat Konnect, GEO-HTS operators have responded by adopting software-defined satellite architectures to help reduce market risk and improve agility. Fully software-defined satellite platforms from manufacturers such as Airbus, Thales and new entrant Astranis have accounted for over 50% of GEO-HTS orders over the 2019-21 period and more than 80% of GEO-HTS orders in 2021 alone.

High throughput satellite technology has never been better positioned to assist bridge the rural digital divide through a combination of innovation and scale, notably through NGSO (non-geostationary) constellation architectures,” said Brent Prokosh, Senior Affiliate Consultant at Euroconsult. “This in turn will drive significant improvements in the value and performance of satellite broadband services”.

Overall, Euroconsult’s comprehensive analysis suggests that business is booming for High Throughput Satellites. Global capacity demand is projected to average 28% on a compound annual basis through 2030, with the consumer broadband segment poised to account for nearly 60% of net capacity growth globally.

Next-generation HTS technology is driving material improvements to the performance and value of satellite broadband offerings that will not only disrupt legacy satellite services, but expand the addressable market for HTS by improving competitiveness against rural terrestrial alternatives such as mobile hotspots and aging DSL infrastructure.

From a regional perspective, based on this analysis it’s expected that HTS demand growth will be spread more evenly rather than the more concentrated and localized historical expansion, notably due to the ubiquitous nature of NGSO constellations which serve all regions. For example, North America, which accounts for 50% of HTS capacity demand as of 2021, is projected to account for just 33% of global demand by 2030.

Interestingly, the report also highlights that because of falling capacity pricing, the entire HTS capacity revenue, while still significant, is projected to be lower than demand growth. Operators are therefore moving towards end user services as a means to combat expectations of intensifying pricing pressure in wholesale leasing markets.

“High Throughput Satellites: Vertical Market Analysis and Forecasts” provides both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the growing market and strategic landscape. It is an essential tool for satellite and telecommunications executives, companies competing in the HTS markets, as well as investors in both upstream and downstream services.

To keep pace with this evolving market, Euroconsult have for the first time introduced a quarterly update on NGSO constellations which tracks progress in the space segment, ground segment and commercial and market developments for each of the main operators, as part of its Premium subscription service. “This report comes at an opportune time as HTS platforms are poised to be by far the leading type of space infrastructure from the perspective of commercial growth potential over the next 10 years with wholesale capacity revenues projected to top $100 billion in aggregate from 2021-30”, said Prokosh.

Small satellites have opened exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond

Small satellites have opened exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond. This month, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft made the first fully-private, crewed flight to the International Space Station. The going price for a seat is US$55 million. The ticket comes with an eight-day stay on the space station, including room and board—and unrivaled views.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer cheaper alternatives, which will fly you to the edge of space for a mere US$250,000–500,000. But the flights only last between ten and 15 minutes, barely enough time to enjoy an in-flight snack.

But if you’re happy to keep your feet on the ground, things start to look more affordable. Over the past 20 years, advances in tiny satellite technology have brought Earth orbit within reach for small countries, private companies, university researchers, and even do-it-yourself hobbyists.

Science in space

We are scientists who study our planet and the universe beyond. Our research stretches to space in search of answers to fundamental questions about how our ocean is changing in a warming world, or to study the supermassive black holes beating in the hearts of distant galaxies.

The cost of all that research can be, well, astronomical. The James Webb Space Telescope, which launched in December 2021 and will search for the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, had a final price tag of US$10 billion after many delays and cost overruns.

The price tag for the International Space Station, which has hosted almost 3,000 scientific experiments over 20 years, ran to US$150 billion, with another US$4 billion each year to keep the lights on.

Even weather satellites, which form the backbone of our space-based observing infrastructure and provide essential measurements for weather forecasting and natural disaster monitoring, cost up to US$400 million each to build and launch.

Budgets like these are only available to governments and national space agencies—or a very select club of space-loving billionaires.

Space for everyone

More affordable options are now democratizing access to space. So-called nanosatellites, with a payload of less than 10kg including fuel, can be launched individually or in “swarms.”

Since 1998, more than 3,400 nanosatellite missions have been launched and are beaming back data used for disaster response, maritime traffic, crop monitoring, educational applications and more.

A key innovation in the small satellite revolution is the standardization of their shape and size, so they can be launched in large numbers on a single rocket.

CubeSats are a widely used format, 10cm along each side, which can be built with commercial off-the-shelf electronic components. They were developed in 1999 by two professors in California, Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, who wanted graduate students to get experience designing, building and operating their own spacecraft.

Twiggs says the shape and size were inspired by Beanie Babies, a kind of collectable stuffed toy that came in a 10cm cubic display case.

Commercial launch providers like SpaceX in California and Rocket Lab in New Zealand offer “rideshare” missions to split the cost of launch across dozens of small satellites. You can now build, test, launch and receive data from your own CubeSat for less than US$200,000.

The universe in the palm of your hand

One project we are involved in uses CubeSats and machine learning techniques to monitor Antarctic sea ice from space. Sea ice is a crucial component of the climate system and improved measurements will help us better understand the impact of climate change in Antarctica.

Sponsored by the UK-Australia Space Bridge program, the project is a collaboration between universities and Antarctic research institutes in both countries. Naturally, we called the project IceCube.

Small satellites are starting to explore beyond our planet, too. In 2018, two nanosatellites accompanied the NASA Insight mission to Mars to provide real-time communication with the lander during its decent. In May 2022, Rocket Lab will launch the first CubeSat to the Moon as a precursor to NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon by 2024.

Tiny satellites are changing the way we explore our planet and beyond.

Tiny spacecraft have even been proposed for a voyage to another star. The Breakthrough Starshot project wants to launch a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft each centimeters in size to the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light-years away. Propelled by ground-based lasers, the spacecraft would “sail” across interstellar space for 20 or 30 years and beam back images of the Earth-like exoplanet Proxima Centauri b.

Small but brilliant

With advances in miniaturization, satellites are getting ever smaller.

“Picosatellites,” the size of a can of soft drink, and “femtosatellites,” no bigger than a computer chip, are putting space within reach of keen amateurs. Some can be assembled and launched for as little as a few hundred dollars.

A Finnish company is experimenting with a more sustainably built CubeSat made of wood. And new, smart satellites, carrying computer chips capable of artificial intelligence, can decide what information to beam back to Earth instead of sending everything, which dramatically reduces the cost of phoning home. Getting to space doesn’t have to cost the Earth after all.

Tiny satellites (CubeSats) can provide useful help in detecting harmful gases from space

Tiny satellites (Cubesat) come into play with an enormous assistance when it comes to monitoring gases of Earth’s atmosphere which is mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, but dilute trace gases, both from natural sources and human activities, also play an important role in the environment, climate and human health. These gases include over 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases the world collectively emits into the atmosphere per annum, including CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and others.

Also many other trace gases are significant, such as nitrogen dioxide, which gives urban smog its familiar brown color; tropospheric ozone, which causes many of smog’s negative health impacts; and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. These are largely produced by human activity, power plants and fossil fuel-based vehicles, but volcanoes and agricultural activities are other sources.

A key piece of successful pollution prevention strategies is identifying sources of those pollutant trace gases and understanding their chemical reactions within the atmosphere as they move downwind. A long-sought-after goal in this area has been to identify sources from space. While some existing satellites can monitor these gases on a coarse regional scale, none have the spatial resolution to identify crucial finer-scale details, like pollutant chemistry within cities, or the early sulfur dioxide emissions from awakening volcanoes. 

Furthermore, satellite instruments capable of measuring trace gases have traditionally been large, heavy and power hungry, requiring large satellite hosts that are expensive to develop and launch. This makes deploying a high-resolution, trace-gas monitoring capability using traditional technology a really expensive proposition.

New technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory may provide an answer to that problem. The NanoSat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System, or NACHOS, is the first-ever tiny satellite, cubesat-based hyperspectral imaging system which will compete with traditional large-satellite instruments in chemical detection applications. Hyperspectral imaging is conceptually similar to color imaging, except that instead of each pixel containing just the three familiar red, green and blue channels that mimic human vision, each pixel contains many of wavelength bands, analyzing the light in great detail in order to identify the unique spectral fingerprint of every gas of interest. 

The system uses spherical mirrors that are easy to manufacture, have high optical throughput (allowing a lot of light for maximum sensitivity) and can fit on a satellite that is roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Its high spatial resolution allows researchers to see gases not at a regional scale, but at the neighborhood scale, and would even see emissions from individual power plants from its low-Earth orbit viewpoint over 300 miles (480 kilometers) up.

Tiny satellites (Cubesat) can be used in a variety of scientific applications, including monitoring tropospheric ozone (one of the most health-damaging components of urban smog), detecting formaldehyde from wildfires and identifying and distinguishing between scattering and absorbing aerosols in the atmosphere, a crucial factor in understanding climate change. 

In addition to pollution monitoring, these powerful imagers captured by those Tiny satellites (Cubesat) can improve public safety. The high-resolution cameras can detect low levels of volcanic degassing and help provide insight into when a volcano might erupt.

The first NACHOS cubesat was launched on Feb. 19 aboard the Northrop-Grumman NG-17 Cygnus resupply vehicle, which is now docked at the International Space Station. In the first tests, which will commence later this year after Cygnus undocks and deploys NACHOS to its final orbit, the research team will be looking at chemical emissions from representative sites, like coal-fired Four Corners and San Juan Power Stations in New Mexico, the Los Angeles Basin, Mexico City and Popocatépetl, the nearby active volcano that looms over that city. The data collected from this project will help to better understand pollution in these regions, improve air quality predictions and provide valuable scientific data to volcanologists.

While hyperspectral imaging is a powerful technique, it produces vast amounts of data that can take hours to downlink in raw form. So, another crucial goal of these tests is to assess NACHOS’ unique onboard image-processing capability, which will drastically shorten the time it takes to downlink.  NACHOS uses newly developed, computationally efficient algorithms that can rapidly extract gas signatures from massive hyperspectral datasets, taking just minutes to do so even on the cubesat’s tiny computer. When combined into a constellation of other cubesats, these imagers could provide atmospheric monitoring with both high spatial resolution and near-continuous observation of key areas.  A second NACHOS tiny satellites (Cubesat) is scheduled to launch this summer. Potentially, these constellations could use an inter-satellite tipping and cueing scheme, in which one satellite detects an irregular event, then signals other satellites with different capabilities to identify the cause. Even more detailed observations are planned, during which the two cubesats are going to be joined by ground-based versions of the NACHOS hyperspectral instrument in simultaneous observations to supply detailed 3D maps of pollutant gas plumes. These inexpensive satellites and the capability to provide real-time data could change the way researchers approach atmospheric monitoring — and help combat global climate change in the process.