Tag Archive for: Space

Optical Ground Stations, use laser light to encode data and transmit it back and forth between satellites in orbit and the network on the ground.

The story of optical satellite communications is a tale of the search for more bandwidth. Physics defines the terrain of the search — communicating across vast distances of space can only be accomplished using the electromagnetic spectrum, or EMS, where the higher the frequency (and the shorter the wavelength), the more data is encodable in the waveform. From S-band through C-band, to X-band and K-band, radio frequency, or RF, satellite communications have evolved from low-frequency dial-up speeds to today’s multi-gigabit per second very high throughput satellites using wavelengths under one centimeter.

But the highest frequencies of all in the electromagnetic spectrum are in the visible light end of the spectrum, up to 10,000 times higher than even the highest frequency Ka-band RF. The technology has existed to encode data in visible light since the development of fiber optic communications in the ‘70s and ‘80s. By that time, lasers were already a mature technology, used in consumer electronic devices like laserdisc or CD players.

The use of lasers to communicate data from satellites — sometimes called free-space optical communications, or FSOC, — has been a theoretical possibility for more than 40 years. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency demonstrated the technology in 1995, successfully achieving 1 megabit per second data download speeds from its engineering test satellite KIKU-6 to a ground station in Tokyo.

Today, a dozen or so companies, from startups to aerospace giants and major defense contractors are developing and selling free space optical technology, either to communicate with ground stations or between satellites in orbit or other spacecraft, with speeds up to 100 gigabits a second. Several test or demonstration projects are launching this year and if they are successful, the next two to four years could finally see the start of broad-scale deployment of FSOC technology in military and commercial constellations.

Time will tell us whether satellite-to-device services will emerge as a winning bet for an industry eager to establish a foothold in the lucrative wireless broadband market.

At any given moment around the world, 15 percent of the planet’s 5.2 billion mobile phone users are not connected, according to research conducted by Lynk, the first company to demonstrate a satellite-to-device satellite constellation.

What if those disconnections – from being in a remote area far from terrestrial signals or cut off from cell service following a natural disaster – were a thing of the past?

That reality is coming as satellite-to-cell service emerges as a viable service, first by startups and soon by major telco and handset players. The lifesaving and efficiency benefits of connecting satellite-to-device, especially directly to unmodified cell phones is clear – people will no longer be out of touch or require a specialized device to connect.

While satellite-to-device startups, Lynk and AST SpaceMobile, already enjoy early market advantage, with Lynk just receiving the FCC’s greenlight to offer service internationally, the market could scale faster following a wave of partnering agreements between T-Mobile and SpaceX, and Apple and Globalstar.

T-Mobile, the second-largest wireless carrier in the U.S. with 110 million customers, is working with SpaceX so that the second generation of Starlink satellites can connect directly to the carrier’s phones at no cost.

“The reality is that terrestrial cellular tech has limitations. It just can’t cover everywhere due to land use restrictions, topography, or technical limitations. This allows us to bring coverage a step farther to these remote areas,” Karri Kuoppamaki, senior vice president of Radio Network Technology & Strategy, T-Mobile, tells Via Satellite.

The company plans to begin a beta program late next year, initially offering text, picture messaging and participating messaging apps, “with a goal of enriching the service with voice and data coverage in the coming years,” Kuoppamaki stated. The carrier added that no extra equipment will be needed because the vast majority of smartphones already on T-Mobile’s network should be compatible with the new service.

Apple just announced that its emergency SOS messaging service via Globalstar’s satellite network is now available on all iPhone 14 models for customers in the United States and Canada. The company serves about 23 percent of all smartphone users worldwide, or 1.2 billion people, with Android users accounting for the remaining market of 7.26 billion. According to Apple, iPhone 14 customers can access the SOS feature free for the first two years.

Striving to make a cell phone work over satellites isn’t new, with early efforts in the 1990s led by Iridium and Globalstar and later, by TerreStar, with disappointing results.

“The service didn’t live up to expectations…you had to be out in a field. You couldn’t be under a tree or inside a building or even in a car,” recalls Tim Farrar, president of TMF Associates. He notes that Iridium’s first satellite phone users were journalists in war-torn Kosovo in early 1999, who quickly discovered that the phones didn’t work inside during rainy or wintry weather.

The stigma of Iridium’s failure in particular slowed progress of the market, say several sources, but today, the picture is much brighter, with many technical hurdles overcome, especially in the handset itself.

Tackling Spectrum and Technology Challenges

Wisniewski contends that the key to ubiquitous global coverage is flexible technology that can support multiple frequencies, given that there are very few globally aligned frequencies. “In order to tap into phones, you need to have a range of frequencies to offer,” he says.

While many market entrants depend on the spectrum from MNOs or mobile satellite service (MSS) providers to reach consumers, the field of potential partners is limited. They include LEO providers Globalstar and Iridium and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) players Inmarsat and EchoStar. OmniSpace is a new category of company, with its 5G hybrid mobile network that will rely on telecom operators’ mobile networks on the ground.

Asked if GEO players might pursue the satellite-to-device market, many industry insiders expressed doubt. Most GEO providers “are not well aligned for the satellite-to-device market,” says Wisniewski, not only because of the latency issues in GEO, but also because of the complexity and the partner ecosystem the market requires.

“No one has all the pieces and that’s why we’ve been at it for so long,” Wisniewski adds.

AST SpaceMobile has worked on its space-based cellular broadband solution since 2017, including teaming up with Nokia for the last two years on core network solutions designed to reduce latency. There is typically a 20 to 40 millisecond delay in LEO, compared to GEO satellites’ 500-millisecond delay.

“While it’s possible to do texting or emergency service over GEO, to work with the five billion cell phones that exist today, LEO is your best solution,” Wisniewski says.

SAIC is partnering with startup Rogue Space Systems to develop small satellites for in-space services, the two companies announced on Sept 20th.

Based in Reston, Virginia, SAIC is a $7.4 billion government services technology contractor. Rogue Space is a two-year-old startup based in Laconia, New Hampshire. The company designed a cubesat known as Orbital Robot for in-orbit services such as inspection and repairs. 

According to the agreement announced Tuesday at the Air, Space & Cyber conference, SAIC will integrate two Rogue cubesats for a planned 2023 mission. Going forward, SAIC will help develop Rogue’s fleet of Orbital Robots for space situational awareness, in-space services, assembly and manufacturing.

“SAIC and Rogue bring unique skills and expertise that will support the growing demand for services in Earth orbit, the cislunar domain and beyond,” said David Ray, senior vice president of SAIC’s space business unit.

Part of SAIC’s space business strategy is to partner with smallsat developers that need access to integration and testing facilities.

Jeromy Grimmett, CEO of Rogue Space, said SAIC’s government expertise will help reach new customers. “We are excited to partner with SAIC as we serve the growing demand for in-space services and space situational awareness,” he said. “SAIC will also help Rogue identify business development opportunities.”

Rogue is one of dozens of small businesses selected by the U.S. Space Force’s SpaceWERX organization for a program known as Orbital Prime. The company submitted 13 proposals and 11 of them won Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I awards, adding up to about  $2.75 million in funding.

Also last year, SAIC joined Space Foundation in announcing the first inclusive space cohort of six companies representing small, minority-owned and women-owned businesses for a joint Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program. The six companies were selected based on diverse capabilities and ability to meet the mission-critical needs of SAIC Space sector customers.

The announcement was made at the Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program luncheon held at The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs in conjunction with the 36th annual Space Symposium, the premier assembly for the global space ecosystem, hosted by Space Foundation. The luncheon featured presentations from SAIC, Space Development Agency (SDA), and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) on high-level objectives and capabilities required for future missions.

The Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program helps small businesses and individuals navigate the global space ecosystem through its Workforce Development Roadmap. The program was first successfully piloted in 2019 in workshops across the continental U.S. by Space Foundation’s Center for Innovation and Education under a U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency grant and today offers live workshops and online programs in collaboration with public and private enterprises, government agencies, universities, accelerators/incubators, and local communities. Entrepreneurs gain key insights that address the most common challenges in conducting business in the space industry. A complementary Junior Space Entrepreneur Program, offered for teachers and students, was recognized by Fast Company with a 2020 World Changing Idea award.

Iceye and Satlantis announced preliminary plans on Sept 14th to work with each other, to launch a constellation of four satellites to acquire high-resolution radar and optical imagery.

Satellites in the proposed Tandem4EO constellation would fly in formation in sun synchronous low-Earth orbit with two Iceye synthetic aperture radar satellites flying in a bistatic formation ahead of two Satlantis satellites designed to gather imagery with a resolution of less than one meter per pixel.

“Earth observation is ultimately about truly understanding what is happening in a selected location — with confidence,” Rafal Modrzewski, Iceye CEO and co-founder, said in a statement. “To achieve robust and fast analysis, combining the strengths of optical and SAR satellites in a single constellation yields incredibly useful insights for stakeholders in Spain and Europe.”

The Tandem4EO program is designed to bolster Spain’s New Space sector. Work would be performed at Finland-based Iceye’s manufacturing and research facilities in Jumilla, Spain, and Satlantis’ headquarters in Bilbao.

“Both companies will continue to increase their investments in their local operations, supporting Earth observation downstream applications in the European Union, and the growth of the local New Space ecosystem,” according to a Sept. 14 news release.

“Spain is in a remarkable position in Europe, with two leading New Space companies established in its territory opening new and unique opportunities in Earth observation,” Satlantis CEO Juan Tomás Hernani said in a statement. “This proposed initiative is the type of aerospace collaboration that would not have been feasible before. We’re in the golden age of New Space, and now is the right time to act on it.”

Flying radar satellites in a bistatic formation would allow Iceye to offer customers satellite interferometry, a product that can reveal millimeter-scale vertical differences in the Earth’s surface or structures. In addition, the combination of high-resolution optical imagery with SAR has applications related to natural catastrophes, security, environmental monitoring and infrastructure development, according to the news release.