Tag Archive for: GEO

LEO

LEO satellite broadband connectivity’s demand has been ever increasing. As of 2020, there were one billion broadband subscriptions including Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable, or fiber-optic broadband services. Telecoms have been working to replace low-speed DSL broadband with fiber-optic broadband service. In 2020 alone, there were 42 million fiber-optic broadband net additions.

Cable network operators also continue to upgrade the networks to DOCSIS 3.1 to support Gigabit speed broadband access. Despite the advancements in different broadband technologies, only around half of total households in the world are connected to a type of fixed broadband. Among the households which are not connected to fixed broadband access, mobile network is the primary connectivity for internet access since many populations use internet via their mobile phones. Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband services using mobile networks and proprietary technologies have also been filling the broadband gap across different markets. Satellite has been an important technology to provide broadband in remote areas where it is challenging to deploy other terrestrial broadband networks.

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the importance of broadband connectivity in both social and economic aspects of work, learning, communication, shopping, and healthcare. Although network operators have managed the traffic surge contributed by home broadband networks well, governments around the world have witnessed that populations without efficient connectivity faced challenges to navigate through the pandemic. While households in the areas with limited fixed infrastructure need to rely on mobile network to access internet, it should be noted that 8 percent of the world’s population is still outside the mobile internet coverage according to the GSA. There is clearly a digital divide across different markets which needs to be addressed.

The Role of Satellite Broadband

Internet access via satellite networks has been a crucial solution for use cases such as emergency response, maritime, aviation, and broadband access in remote areas. Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite systems are the primary platform to provide broadband service, but only at a limited speed, between 5 Megabytes per second to 100 Megabytes per second, and with high latency, around 500 milliseconds, compared to other broadband platforms. Hardware and installation cost, usually above $300 is relatively high for consumers in emerging markets to get satellite broadband service. It is estimated that satellite market is providing around 3.5 million subscriptions worldwide as of today with the highest subscriber concentration in North America, followed by Europe.

Although satellite networks cover almost everywhere around the world, high cost of receiver hardware, low speed, and high latency have been a barrier for satellite broadband services to gain mass adoption. Recent Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite development by SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are expected to change market dynamics since shorter distance from Earth’s surface enables LEO satellites to support latency as low as 30 milliseconds.

What is the Outlook for LEO Satellite Broadband in 2022?

LEO satellite broadband is still a niche market. According to SpaceX, which launched LEO broadband service Starlink in late 2020, it has now achieved around a 90,000-user base. It recently gained license to operate StarLink service in Mexico and is now trying to secure license to operate in India, one of the markets with lowest fixed broadband penetration. OneWeb, another LEO platform which aims to enter broadband market, has launched over 300 satellites in late 2021 after securing agreement with AT&T to provide broadband connectivity for AT&T business customers. Amazon provide a new progress regarding Project Kuiper as they announced that they have secured up to 83 launches from three commercial space companies—ArianespaceBlue Origin, and United Launch Alliance (ULA)—to provide heavy-lift capacity for the program..

Although LEO platforms supports low latency, high terminal cost is possibly a key challenge to expanding the customer base. Considering majority of the market opportunity existing in emerging market, heavily subsidized terminal cost of $500 is beyond the reach of most consumers. Despite attempts by industry players to reduce terminal cost, the current adoption rate which needs only low hardware volume, terminal cost deduction cannot be done enough yet. Furthermore, LEO platforms face inevitable competition from terrestrial broadband platforms. Especially the expansion of LTE networks and future 5G roll outs in emerging markets will continue to compete against LEO broadband services. Due to mass adoption, terrestrial networks tend to achieve faster ecosystem development which brings wider choice of hardware and software and lower cost to develop cost per user.

LEO platforms will need other players coming into the market soon since competition is expected to increase adoption rate and create a force to lower the terminal cost. Considering current market dynamics, there is a potential to of LEO broadband market to grow in 2022, however at the limited pace. LEO broadband services are likely to gain subscriber base from both consumer and business segments in advanced markets. However, business and government user base are likely to be major drivers of LEO broadband market in emerging markets. Initial target of LEO platforms is not to replace wired broadband services, but to connect the unconnected population. To achieve their goal, the ability to support enough capacity in targeted market is crucial. As competition arrives, improvements in hardware cost and features are expected to speed up accelerating the adoption in the residential market in the next few years.

Space

Commercial space is booming with possibilities.

Aeronautical engineer Austin Link entered his post-graduate career amid the initial SpaceX Falcon 9 launches, dreaming about a future on orbit where, as he puts it, “we could sail the stars, and explore new things and provide value to humanity.”

And while Link isn’t sailing the stars — at least not yet, literally — he is fulfilling his dream to provide value to humanity through his two-year-old start-up venture Starfish Space.

The Kent, Wash., company, which he cofounded with engineer and former Blue Origin colleague Trevor Bennett, secured $7 million in Series A funding in September to build a prototype of the Otter space tug, a versatile satellite servicing vehicle that will provide life extension and end-of-life services for satellites in Geostationary Orbit (GEO). The goal, says Link, is to ensure satellites leave behind as little footprint as possible, and don’t add to the estimated 6,000 tons of space debris circulating in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

“That’s important right now because five times as many satellites will be launched in the 2020s as all of human history,” says Link. “That changes the game, in that space debris is no longer just a nuisance or a good Sandra Bullock movie. It’s really a threat to these constellations we’ve put in this orbit.”

Meanwhile, legacy space and satellite enterprises have upped their commitments to sustainability through both investments and innovations in the areas of space debris removal, space situational awareness, and space traffic management. These range from the rollout of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV), which have provided refueling services for Intelsat GEO satellites, to the endeavors of communications leaders like OneWeb, which recently installed Astroscale’s next-generation ferromagnetic docking plate to its satellites to enable more efficient servicing.

In one of the most telling signs of sustainability’s relevance in the new space economy, the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), an industry organization funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has grown from a six-member organization to 51 in the span of three and a half years.

“Space sustainability is a holistic endeavor that involves multiple companies, multiple countries,” says Chris Blackerby, group COO of Astroscale, which launched in 2013 with a focus on space debris removal and has expanded its business to on-orbit servicing solutions. “Just like we have road traffic monitors, and roadside services like the AAA in the United States removing vehicles on our highways, we need to have a similar set of parameters and services in space.”

There are still many uncertainties around the governance of space-traffic management activities, and whether industry coalitions can agree on standards for responsible space development. But while these questions linger, organizations in the business of space sustainability say they’re mostly optimistic that today’s innovations will ensure utopian visions of New Space materialize, and that connectivity on Earth isn’t compromised by free-floating debris.

Preventive Care for Good Space Health

Within 10 years, satellite manufacturing and launch order volumes are projected to reach 24,700, according to a July 2021 report by satellite market research firm NSR.

That’s why companies like LeoLabs are focusing on prevention — specifically, on helping organizations launching satellites protect their million-dollar space assets and improve decision-making.

The six-year-old company, a venture-funded spinout of SRI International, recently raised $65 million in Series B funding to expand its LEO mapping and space situational awareness services. The organization uses radar technologies and predictive analytics to monitor orbital debris and assess the risk of collision. Current customer partners include SpaceX, which uses LeoLabs’ services to track its newly launched satellites, as well as Earth Observation (EO) organizations Maxar, Planet, Spire, as well as government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“There have always been hurricanes, going back millions of years. Because we have so many buildings and structures on the coastline, we care a lot about hurricanes — and it’s the same in space, where collisions wreck the value of infrastructure,” Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs co-founder and CEO, tells Via Satellite. “A lot of people talk about these mega-constellations as if they’re causing the problem. But they’re not the cause of the problem — they’re the victim of the environment they have to operate in. If you’re launching into space, you’re more likely to be hit by debris launched decades ago that you are by a satellite in one of these [new] constellations.”

The organization’s global network of ground infrastructure, including ground-based phased array radar systems in Alaska, Texas, New Zealand, and Costa Rica, generates data feeds and real-time alerts that inform decision-making, such as whether to move a satellite in another direction to avoid collision. It’s not unlike clinical-decision support technologies used by hospital physicians to assess the risks of performing a complex medical procedure.

“We’re talking about predicting a close approach,” says Ceperley. “We’re talking about tens of feet of difference, like ‘You’re going to pass 50 feet apart after you’ve completed 100 more laps around the earth.’ We have to be able to predict days into the future to provide an effective service.”

Boosting the Life of Legacy Investments

While protecting satellites in LEO is foundational to the notion of space sustainability, so is ensuring existing legacy investments are as healthy as possible.

That’s why in June 2020, Astroscale acquired Effective Space solutions, an Israeli company focused on the servicing, repairing, and life extension of GEO satellites. The financial benefits of servicing are clear: Launching satellites costs money, and through satellite launch extension services, an operator can remain flexible as it rolls out new market offerings and can hold onto its spectrum longer.

“This underpins everything we’re doing,” says Blackerby. “We’re able to move from a throwaway culture of single-use space assets that regularly increases risk and decreases ROI in orbit to a servicing culture that benefits all space actors and the overall orbital environment. The space sector must grow on a foundation of sustainable orbital infrastructure and on-orbit servicing is at the center of that infrastructure.”

Clearing up the Mess

The business of clearing junk — while not as sexy as other missions — is even more essential than it was eight years ago, when Astroscale launched. Space junk is a growing threat, as evidenced by incidents such as the recent debris-induced damage of the International Space Station’s robotic arm.

As such, the market for space debris monitoring and removal market is projected to grow by $610 million between 2020 and 2024, according to a report by Technavio.

“It’s still a low-probability event that we’ll have an accident today or tomorrow or next week, but the impact of an event that does happen will become significant,” says Blackerby.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), which tracks debris objects through its Space Surveillance and Tracking networks, more than 22,000 objects are currently floating around space as of January 2019, but the number could double. Events such as Russia’s surprise Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon test this month, which resulted in an explosion of debris, have amplified the problem.

Nevertheless, Blackerby seems encouraged by some of the milestones his organization and others have achieved. For example: In August, the company completed a demonstration of its ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration) using a magnetic capture system to quickly capture a client spacecraft after releasing it.

During the release-and-capture period, Astroscale’s Mission Operations and Ground Segment teams checked out and calibrated the rendezvous sensors and verified relevant ground system infrastructure and operational procedures. In the coming months, the organization is preparing for a more complex “capture without tumbling” demonstration, in which the client will be separated to a greater distance.

Meanwhile, Swiss start-up ClearSpace, a private company formed in 2018, recently signed a debris removal contract with the European Space Agency to help capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram piece of an Arianespace Vega rocket left in orbit in 2013. The ClearSpace 1.0 mission, scheduled for 2025, will attempt to use a spacecraft equipped with four robotic arms to capture the debris, and drag it into Earth’s atmosphere.

“Our first mission will remove a piece of debris which was not designed for capture, is uncontrolled, and tumbling,” says Tim Maclay, ClearSpace CTO. “These characteristics present a number of unique challenges that require the development of particularly robust solutions for rendezvous, proximity operations, and robotic capture. These elements will then form a solid foundation for addressing a wide variety of services in the future — such as inspection, disposal, mission extension, and repair — for both government and commercial customers.”

Rules of the Road

Given the uptick in space traffic, coupled with sustainability and debris removal missions, questions as to who has the responsibility to manage space traffic loom larger. But while progress with innovation and rulemaking is slower than some might desire, it is still being made.

As Politico reported in May, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the world’s largest aerospace technical society, is stepping up its efforts to ensure the commercial air traffic system is coordinated with expanding space traffic. The organization reportedly established a committee to consider the integration between space traffic management and air management, and to establish (at least in the U.S.), who is responsible for overseeing space debris/space traffic management.

And in June 2021, the European Space Agency announced plans to roll out a space sustainability rating system, which will score space operators on the sustainability of their missions, to increase transparency and recognize responsible behavior.

Meanwhile, the Space Data Association (SDA) is working alongside space situational awareness software company Comspoc to provide governments in the U.S. and Europe with the understanding and tools they need to develop their own space traffic management capabilities, which will ultimately improve space safety for all operators.

“We are continually looking at ways to improve our systems and processes, as well as driving change within the industry as a whole,” says Pascal Wauthier, SDA chairman and executive director.

The SDA also worked with Comspoc to conduct a study to demonstrate the importance of fusing different measurements data and satellite information to improve the accuracy of alerts and collision warnings.

“As the use of space increases, so does the complexity of aggregating the data available,” says Wauthier. “The existing data-sharing solutions certainly reduce the risks associated with in-orbit collisions. However, with the number of satellites increasing, there is a distinct need for development. Beyond advances in systems, we also must review what data we are collecting to support effective data fusion. Could we share information regarding maneuverability? Do we know a satellite’s future movements? Data sharing the relevant information is critical.”

“We also feel that governments have a responsibility for space traffic management,” he continues. “The use of space and satcom is critical to many aspects in day-to-day life, and there must be a coordinated approach to its management. Input from governments would ensure that all space users are adhering to standards to prevent in-orbit events which could have a detrimental effect on all space users.”

The Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) industry is entering its fourth year of a downturn. It is well understood in the market that there is an over-supply of capacity and that prices are falling. Due to the rapid expansion of terrestrial networks and applications, our customers are reconsidering their future commitment to geostationary (GEO) satellites. We have seen customers such as DirecTV announce that they will shift all their future traffic to fiber and they will no longer be purchasing satellites. The “Big Four” (Intelsat, Telesat, SES, and Eutelsat) and regional operators are continuing to report a reduction of revenue.

Aside from our own oversupply of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) capacity, we see competition from the rapid expansion of Fiber, 4G and soon, 5G networks. This incredible explosion of bandwidth has led to the growth of Over-the-Top (OTT) and online video systems lead by YouTube to dominate the global internet traffic and viewership hours taking advertising dollars away from traditional broadcast media. Meanwhile, we are experiencing a wave of upcoming Low Earth Orbit (LEO) projects that are squarely aiming for our industry. While most of these systems have dubious business plans and face enormous financing, technical and regulatory challenges they nonetheless add to the dissonance on the future viability of our industry.

While things look bleak for GEO FSS operators, there are some signs of hope — a new application will emerge that could potentially ignite the growth of our industry. Thus, I say it is not time give up but to double down on our sector because there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The rapid growth of fiber and 4G systems have indeed occurred around the world, but investments of these systems require one key aspect — a minimum level of population or subscriber density. Fiber will only be rolled out in dense environments. For broadband 4G and 5G wireless to work, sufficient subscribers must exist to justify the cost of the equipment, monthly rental charges, and the large electricity bills run up by these power hungry networks.

If there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of users in a city or suburban area, then the CAPEX and OPEX of running broadband wireless system can be justified. However, if the areas to be covered are very sparsely populated, then the economics of deploying cellular networks cannot be justified, meaning vast areas will go unserved.

It is estimated that more than 10 million homes in the United States do not have access to any form of broadband connectivity. Addressing this unserved market, both Hughes Network Systems (HNS) and Viasat both reported double-digit growth in top-line revenues and EBITDA. During the crisis in the FSS GEO market, these companies are the shining beacons able to generate significant growth because they are serving a market niche that is uneconomical to be served via wireless or fiber.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of homes in the USA being served by High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems and this is definitely one of the key applications which will drive the next growth phase for GEO systems. To point to the success of Viasat and HNS would be too simplistic because the market opportunities outside of the United States aren’t compatible with the same business model. Any company today purchasing a $300 million to $600 million HTS satellite to indiscriminately cover Africa and Asia with spot beams will find it extremely difficult to achieve success without carefully considering the local conditions in these emerging markets.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there are about 3.2 billion people still unconnected to the Internet at the end of 2018. Most of these people live in rural areas of developing economies. There are three recurring patterns of rural communities in emerging markets: the income levels are very low; the population density is also low; and the availability of electricity is very low, non-existent, or very expensive.

Pacific Island nations and African countries have the highest electricity tariffs in the world. Aside from the lack of fiber backbone, the cost of sourcing electricity is the main cost driver of wireless network deployment. Most mobile operators in emerging market countries supply diesel to generators that power their wireless systems. Since diesel fuel is very expensive and logistically cumbersome, I don’t see mobile operators easily addressing the rural digital divide any time soon.

As an example, let’s consider an LTE base station equipped with 2 by 2 Multiple-Input and Multiple-Outputs (MIMO) and three sector antenna systems. This type of station requires about 4 Kilowatt Hour (kWh) to 5 kWh of electricity. Supplying diesel fuel to power to rural cell sites could cost well above $1,000 per month. The range of mobile systems are relatively short range, so unless there are thousands of subscribers in a given area, even if they could receive low-cost backbone via satellite, mobile operators will not deploy LTE stations to rural areas. In essence, unless we do something about it, the lack of power in emerging markets is what will slow the growth of adoption of satellites. Saving power in all forms will be the key driver of growth for our industry.

If the GEO FSS operators are able to provide a power-efficient, satellite-delivered solution to these 3 billion people living in rural and sparsely populated areas, then the global demand for HTS satellites of 100 Gigabits Per Second (Gbps) or more can be over 30,000 satellites (3 billion people x 1 Mbps/person divided by 100 Gbps/satellite equals 30,000 satellites: Assumes each user needs 1 Mbps dedicated). Obviously, most of this demand will be taken up by advancements in other wireless technologies but there will be plenty of room for satellites. Even if we are able to service just 10 percent of that demand, then it will mean that we need to deploy 3,000 GEO HTS satellites.

Since there are less than a handful of HTS satellite deployed currently, there will be plenty of growth to be had in our industry. The main catch is that we cannot use the current HTS satellites that are being used by HNS and ViaSat today to address this market because they are too costly and do not allow power savings on the ground. Yet if replicating the Viasat and HNS model will not work, what will?

First, the income levels of the rural poor will not justify an Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) of $50 to $100 per month. The rural poor cannot purchase $500 broadband Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) requiring electricity to run because they don’t have access to electricity. This means that the monthly tariff has to come down one order of magnitude, the user terminal costs also have to come down one order of magnitude, and the user terminals need to run without commercial electrical power. How is this possible when the satellite terminals still cost $300 to purchase and by the time it’s imported and installed at a cost more than $500?

This seems to be a daunting task because HTS satellites offered by the large vendors cost between $300 million and $600 million to get the cost of the capacity below $1 million per Gbps. Therefore, a complete rethink of the GEO satellite-delivered broadband has to be done in order for satellites to fulfill its potential.

If the consumption of electrical power is what is limiting the wireless networks — and also current satellite networks — then we need to address the power issue. Currently, VSAT terminals consume 50 to 100 Watts of electricity. To reduce the power required by the satellite terminals, we need to improve the downlink power and the uplink Gain-to-Noise-Temperature (G/T) of the beams on the Earth. Achieving plus 60 Equivalent Isotropically Radiated Power (EIRP) in downlink power and plus 25 dB/Ks G/T will result in VSAT terminals needing only milliwatts of uplink power to close the link with a GEO satellite.

This will allow a very low-cost solar panel and battery system to provide reliable power to a VSAT terminal that would perhaps use only 10 to 20 Watt-hours of electrical power. In order to achieve such a high-powered EIRP and G/T, the spot beams on the earth have to be about 0.1 to 0.2 degrees in size. Such beam sizes can be achieved using large antennas in space and a beamforming system. In addition, since rural poor people in emerging markets cannot afford $500 VSAT systems, we have to find a way for the bandwidth to be shared by a community rather than used by a single user as it is today in the USA.

The VSAT system can be integrated with a Wi-Fi access point to deliver the service to a 50 to 100 meters with an Omni antenna or if bundled with a long-range Wi-Fi system like Curvalux (a broadband multi-beam phased array system) it can extend the range of a VSAT system to over 10 kilometers (Km). Curvalux requires less than 3 Watt-hours of energy to deliver 2 to 3Gbps to a 10-Km area. This will enable hundreds and thousands of rural communities to share the same VSAT installation. User devices such as Wi-Fi enabled and low-cost smartphones, tablets, and Wi-Fi Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) can all be charged by the sun using affordable solar cells.

By using these techniques, we can solve expensive terminal and power problems on the ground. Now, how do we solve expensive satellite and power problems in space?

Providing 0.1- to 0.2-degree beam sizes to solve the power issues on the ground means that to cover the entire earth from GEO, a massive satellite with tens of thousands of spot beams would be required. Is this currently feasible, practical and most importantly is it affordable? The answer is obviously no. So, why do it that way? Perhaps one of the solutions is that someone designs a satellite that addresses a smaller area (e.g. coverage of a smaller country) with a sufficient number of spot beams and investment size to make it economical (i.e. $1 million per Gigabit) to offer affordable broadband services to the emerging markets.

Why is $1 million per Gigabit a magical number? For a 15-year satellite, it means that each Megabit costs $5 per month and each Gigabyte delivered to the user costs less than $0.02 per Gigabyte. With mobile tariffs now running well higher than $1 per Gigabyte, certainly, there is room for GEO satellites to play an important role in serving the world’s 3 billion unconnected people.

Up to now, the only publicly available source of a $1 million-per-Gigabit satellite was ViaSat-3 — a ginormous $600 million-plus satellite with more than 1 Terabit of capacity that needed to cover all the Earth. Be that as it may, Viasat-3 does not provide 0.1- or 0.2-degree beams that will enable plus 25 G/T that allow 100 Milliwatt user terminals. Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg is a visionary, and not too many of us in the FSS industry has his courage to take on so much investment, nor do we have access to his level of funding. Thus, there is a need for HTS satellite capacity that can be acquired for $1 million-per-Gigabit that can be acquired in smaller incremental investment sizes for the rest of the industry to participate in the next evolution of our industry.

The key to being able to have an affordable HTS satellite in orbit that doesn’t require a half-billion dollar investment to achieve $1 million per Gigabit is a dynamic beam-forming and channelization system enabled by a digital processor or an Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC). An HTS satellite payload with a digital beam forming ASIC will use significantly less electrical power and will be much lighter than systems that require Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) or analog filters and waveguides.

For example, a 100 Gbps HTS satellite system, if built with analog or FPGA channelization techniques, will cost between $180 million and $200 million. That satellite would require 10+kW of power, weigh between 5 and 6 tons, and require a $60 million launch, with insurance costs of more than $300 million. However, in the near future, all digital satellites using beam-forming ASIC chips will be able to process a similar amount of capacity, requiring only 2 kW to 3 kW of power and weighing less than 1 ton with electric propulsion. Reducing power requirements will also reduce the size and mass of the spacecraft and thereby lower its costs dramatically.

A few companies are already working on all-digital beam-forming systems. Boeing’s digital processor for SES’s mPower (O3B 2.0) and the European Space Agency-funded Quantum platform purchased by Eutelsat are examples of such systems. There are also non-publicly announced private initiatives that are on-going for beamforming ASIC developments. In the near future, I predict these 100Gbp all-digital satellites would cost less than $100 million to be delivered into orbit (including launch and insurance). This may be a bold prediction, but I am certain that all-digital beam-forming HTS satellites will be made publicly available in 2019 for deliveries in 2021.

Combining low-cost satellite capacity and satellite terminals with long-range Wi-Fi is the key to unlocking the rural digital divide. This would result in an explosive growth of the FSS industry that would secure our future and, most importantly, bring knowledge, information communications and wealth to all the emerging markets of the world. The light at the end of the tunnel will be upon us sooner than we think

Satellite manufacturing might be somewhat in limbo right now as operators look to see how the upcoming mega-constellations change the world of satellite communications. For manufacturers, however, there is no time to rest and wait, as they need to be prepared to satisfy their customers’ ever-growing needs, whatever they might be.

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The requirements from customers are always ‘better, cheaper, faster,” says Andreas Lindenthal, chief operating officer and member of the board at Bremen, Germany-based, satellite manufacturer OHB. “For some of our customers — mainly the communication operators — the pressure in the market has increased significantly, therefore, they are not looking just for incremental improvements in this area; they are looking for disruption.”

What exactly that disruption might be is, however, somewhat uncertain. In addition to high-speed technology development, which is forcing operators to rethink traditional approaches based around large, long-lived Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, there is a changing economic environment in which business cases are no longer as clear and stable as they once might have been. The operators need to be able to respond quickly and therefore require satellites to be delivered faster than what would have satisfied them ten years ago. “Satellite operators are telling us that they don’t have such a long term, stable unchanged business cases for 15 years, 20 years of satellite operation anymore,” says Lindenthal. “They are under pressure from their customers to have enhanced flexibility on the satellite from their side, therefore, they want to procure satellites, which are more flexible.”

In 2018, only eleven (or seven) GEO satellite orders have been placed around the world, a continuation of a decline that the industry has been witnessing in the past years. And while manufacturers believe that GEO satellite orders are likely to somewhat pick up in the future as company’s order replacements for their aging fleets, it is clear that GEO satellite orders are no longer set to remain the indicator of the satellite manufacturing industry’s health as they were in the past. “There haven’t been many orders placed. People are waiting to see what the constellation performance is going to be like,” says Aidan Joy, the head of satellite assembly integration and test at Airbus. “The overall market is in a situation now where different business models are being analyzed. But whether it’s constellations, large GEOs or medium-sized GEOs, we will see those different business models mature and as a manufacturer, we will need to be able to respond.”

Whichever the future direction, the manufacturers agree that the drive for more cost-effective solutions, shorter lead times, and increased flexibility is here to stay. The ways to meet the goal can be many, according to the manufacturers, with no one size fits all solution available.

Full Automation — Not the Way Forward

There have been many lessons learned for Airbus. The company realized that full automation —as used for example in the manufacturing of cars or planes — is not the right way forward. “We are not using a lot of automation as such,” says de Rosnay. “We have some robots and cobots but we didn’t see the case for the level of automation you could see, for example, in [the] automotive industry. While thousands of satellites might be a lot for satellite manufacturing, the volume is still relatively small compared to let say cars or mobile phones.” Instead, he says, digital smart tools assist human operators to work more efficiently and make sure that every screw is as tight as needs to be.

“Every piece of equipment has a bar code and the tooling — which is used to fit the equipment, too — has a bar code, and you scan both and the tooling knows what level of torque should be applied on every bolt,” says de Rosnay. “Once it’s done, the data is recorded and it’s validated through 3D scanning. All this is really adding value to the assembly of the hardware and removing the risk of anomalies because we have to produce faster but still keep a high level of quality.”

Standardization

Airbus’ Aiden Joy believes that flexible payloads are key for future GEO missions, offering customers the benefit of using an asset for a long period of time and at the same time the ability to change the mission’s specifications. “At the moment the operators are in a decision period about what the optimum solutions for them might be,” says Joy. “In general, once you launched a capability, obviously the longer the life can be, the more cost-effective it is. If you can build in flexibility with things like flexible payloads, you can extend the life and potentially be able to use it for different missions.” Airbus hopes to cut lead times for large GEO satellites from three years to 18 months. The way to achieve that, Joy says, is in greater standardization and modularity of spacecraft.

Airbus’ upcoming Eurostar Neo GEO bus has been designed not only to be customizable but also modular so that the mission can be scaled up or down based on the requirements.

Further improvements can be achieved with the implementation of new manufacturing techniques including additive manufacturing, digitalization, and the use of big data to optimize design and manufacturing. And whilst no one knows in which direction the market eventually decides to go, the need for flexibility might in the future apply not only to satellites and payloads but to satellite manufacturing itself.

“We need to be ready to respond wherever the market goes,” says Joy. “We need to have the flexibility in our systems to be able to build whatever the market needs. It’s possible that in the future, we will be building significant numbers of geostationary satellites over a period of a couple of years and then we may need to switch to constellations.”

The world of satellite manufacturing is clearly changing. But where exactly it will go in the future, only time will tell.

3D Printing — An Enabler of a Satellite Manufacturing Revolution

U.S. satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin is on a mission to slash lead times and cost of satellite manufacturing by 50 percent. One of the company’s key tools for achieving this goal is additive manufacturing or 3D printing. Whilst the space industry has been a rather slow adopter of the disruptive technology, Lockheed’s additive manufacturing manager Brian Kaplun says that the technology has made some massive strides over the past few years and is now very much in the mainstream.

Lockheed’s first 3D printed part was a bracket used on Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter, which launched in 2011. Since then, the company’s catalog of 3D printed components has expanded massively with the latest achievement being two large titanium domes for high-pressure fuel tanks to be used onboard satellites. At 46 inches (117cm), the two domes are the largest 3D printed structures Lockheed Martin has ever created for space applications. “We are able to additively produce thermal structures, we can now build entire bus structures for smaller satellites in one fell swoop, we can incorporate electronics into our design and then build them as one cohesive unit,” Kaplun told Via Satellite. “We have additively produced propellant tanks for a range of commercial and governmental customers.”

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What in the past could have taken years to make can be manufactured within months or weeks with 3D printing? The propellant tanks, for example, using the traditional forging technology, would have had lead times anywhere from a year and a half to two years,” says Kaplun. “With additive manufacturing, we have produced an equivalent for the forgings in two weeks.

Additive manufacturing, Kaplun says, allows Lockheed Martin to make preforms for parts that would traditionally take a long time to make or create bespoke tools for traditional manufacturing. Thanks to technology, the company can also experiment with new materials at a faster rate. “3D printing allows for a much more rapid turn,” says Kaplun. “We can get test articles to customers and to our material analysis. It’s really an enabling technology for our material science.”

From metals such as titanium or aluminum to polymers doped with additives with electrostatic and electrical properties, the range of materials Lockheed Martin’s engineers can use to create satellite parts is expanding. Recently, the company developed a printable form of copper that can be used to print antennas directly onto structures.

In April 2018, Lockheed announced it would cooperate with Stratasys to make bespoke 3D printed parts for the Orion spacecraft, which is set to take people to the Moon in the early 2020s.