By Kelsey Tollefson | Executive Editor John Lenker
For decades, telecommunications experts have been endeavoring to launch entire fleets of small satellites––or satellite constellations––that are capable of providing high-speed data to an increasingly interconnected world. Due to a confluence of political, economic and technological factors, however, plans for commercial satellite constellations have been unduly delayed. The good news is that—thanks to major advancements in both public and private space initiatives in the past few years—this is about to change.
SpaceX, OneWeb, Planet Labs and others will be launching extensive satellite networks in the near future. But the satellites themselves are only a part of a complicated equation. After all, any system needs a capable back-end to fully leverage its potential. Ambitious telecommunications networks like OneWeb and remote sensing constellations like Planet Labs will not function without an effective ground solution; one designed to accommodate the immense amount of data supplied by these large constellations. This great influx of satellites will require innovative, reliable and effective ground support––and a number of pioneering space startups think they’ve got the answer.
The Space Industry Has Big Plans for Small Satellites
As satellites grow more compact and less expensive, the barrier to enter space continues to drop. Over the coming decade thousands of satellites will be launched, by both private- and public-sector players, on behalf of clients across the globe. 2017 is gearing up to be a huge year for satellite launches, and 2016 ended on a high note with NASA’s CYGNSS mission.
CYGNSS is not the only remote-sensing satellite constellation to be deployed recently. Planet (formerly Planet Labs), a Space Angels Network-funded venture, has launched a network of 63 nanosatellites into low-Earth orbit since 2014. This constellation of miniature satellites is capable of imaging huge portions of the Earth’s surface in a single day, and provides a low-cost, dynamic portrait of the face of our planet.
As far as satellite constellations go, Planet’s 63 satellites make it the largest constellation in the world. However, even this is on the small side of the scale when compared to proposed constellations. One day, satellite arrays may be downright enormous. Boeing has announced plans for an extensive telecommunications constellation in low-Earth orbit. This large-scale constellation, which could feature up to 3,000 satellites, would provide broadband connectivity to end users. SpaceX has similar goals, but even grander plans: to build a satellite constellation comprising some 4,400 satellites, and bring high-speed connectivity to the entire globe.
These vast satellite constellations are accompanied by similarly large funding requirements. OneWeb, another telecom satellite venture, recently closed a massive investment round led by SoftBank Group: In November of 2016, OneWeb announced that they had successfully raised $1.2B in series-B funding. This will enable OneWeb to begin production on their fleet of small satellites, which is anticipated to comprise 900 individual units upon completion.
More Satellites Mean Increased Reliance on Ground Segment
Operating and maintaining commercial satellites requires substantial terrestrial support. A reliable infrastructure of ground networks, radio antennae arrays, and mission control centers is a critical part of the satellite industry––and one that will grow more critical as greater number of satellites are launched.
Once the satellites are successfully in orbit, they must be monitored, analyzed and controlled from an operations center. These control centers allow telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) systems to monitor the satellites, and make adjustments as needed. One provider of mission control services is Universal Space Network.
Founded in 1996, Universal Space Network specializes in satellite control, tracking, and telemetry. After significant fundraising success, USN was acquired in 2009 by the venerable Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), and is now a mainstay of the US-based satellite ground operations segment. USN has facilitated communications for scientific research, both in low-earth and lunar orbits. It also powers Sirius XM radio and has other commercial applications in various industries.
According to Northern Sky Research, the commercial ground segment for satellite operations will be worth $100 billion by 2025. And while established entities like the SSC and Universal Space Network currently play a crucial role in facilitating communications with space-bound satellites, there’s room for innovation in the marketplace. Ambitious startups like Analytic Space and ATLAS Space Operations intend to facilitate both data relay and TT&C for the next generation of microsatellites.
As more satellites are launched and more data needs to be handled, a cost-effective and efficient way to transmit that data becomes increasingly essential. Analytical Space, a Space Angels Network-funded venture, is an emerging space communications company based out of Harvard’s iLab. By deploying a constellation of CubeSat satellites with laser downlink capabilities, Analytical Space will provide clients an affordable way to relay a high volume of data from satellites back to Earth. Crucially, the service is available without the need for customers to modify their existing equipment––thereby providing maximum benefit, with minimum hardware investment.
Kepler Communications, another Space Angels Network-funded startup, is pioneering a similarly innovative satellite communications relay. Whereas Analytical Space uses laser-equipped satellites to transmit data back to Earth, Kepler’s CubeSats would utilize radio frequencies to facilitate machine-to-machine communication. For startups like Analytical Space and Kepler Communications, success lies in their ability to offer effective and seamless integration with their clients’ existing satellite technology, while still improving system throughput.
Other startups see ways to improve other facets of satellite operations. ATLAS Space Operations, for example, is developing a unique cloud-based solution for their satellite customers. The application, which ATLAS is calling the Freedom Platform, will provide customers with on-demand access to their satellite’s data, as well as remote operating capabilities. ATLAS also maintains a network of both proprietary and partner antennas in order to facilitate communication with client satellites.
Space Startup Investors Are Actualizing the Dream of Satellite Constellations
It’s taken the international space establishment decades to act on plans for large-scale satellite constellations. And now, as public and private ventures alike prepare to send thousands of nano and microsatellites into orbit, the ground segment and supporting infrastructure are critical to success.
And while the satellites of decades past were large, expensive, and inaccessible to widescale commercial interests, much has changed in recent years. The dream of modern networks of microsatellites are being actualized by commercial interests, which reflect the entrepreneurial spirit underlying the private space startups that are helping make it all happen. As a result, the commercial market for satellites––and therefore, satellite infrastructure––is projected to boom over the next decade. For qualified angel investors looking to make an impact with their portfolio, investing in startups that are driving the satellite industry is proving to be a compelling option.
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