Technology Drives New Satellite Communications Capabilities

The democratization of space is underway in orbit above the Earth.

The next era of satellite communications is upon us in the form of low-earth-orbit constellations aiming to revolutionize personal connectivity, according to satellite experts. These new satellite swarms are being driven by technology innovations simultaneously with the growth of less-expensive launch services. The result will be an explosion in the number and type of orbiters serving their earthbound hosts while raising the bar for support technologies on the ground.

With the overall satellite communications (SATCOM) field becoming more dynamic, companies are compelled to be more flexible as uncertainties increase. Accordingly, they are hedging their bets and exploring the use of orbiters that can be replaced or upgraded relatively easily, as opposed to complex and expensive platforms that last many years but take just as long to design and, if necessary, replace.

The result is a spurt in the number of low-earth-orbit satellites that introduce new capabilities for SATCOM services. Their constellations in turn will spawn innovative technologies that can be applied both on orbit and on the ground. Both the military and the private sector soon will have at their disposal large constellations of communications satellites offering a variety of capabilities.

“Low-earth-orbit megaconstellations will disrupt legacy providers and bring new services online to connect the unconnected world,” says Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development at Spaceflight, a rideshare launch services company based in Seattle. He notes a downturn trend in the traditional geostationary satellite communications market. While that downturn has recently reversed, no indication has yet emerged as to whether that reversal will turn out to be a true rebound. He also sees a reluctance to invest long-term in the satellite sector when technologies and application areas are changing so rapidly.

“The changes are coming,” says Bonin’s colleague Philip Bracken, vice president of engineering for launch services at Spaceflight. “It’s actually quite a vibrant mix between the traditional geocommunications [firms], the smaller geocommunications startups and the low-earth-orbit constellations trying to gain market share. The next two to five years are going to be very interesting to watch.” The likely outcome is a mix of all of these types of systems, he offers.

Bonin relates that their launch services company sees increasing interest in small geocommunications satellites as well as in pathfinder or demonstrator missions that can secure frequency or reduce risk for low-earth-orbit constellations. “The uncertainty in how SATCOM is going to evolve is actually making it one of the most exciting times to be in the services business, getting satellites of all sizes up there,” he states. The pressure on buyers to be more agile is generating interest in smaller satellites that can be replaced more easily as conditions warrant.

Bracken emphasizes that satellite technology is the greater driver of the orbital revolution, not launch services. Satellite buses aren’t changing to match new launch vehicles as much as the vehicles are adapting to the surge of new orbiters.

Bonin reports that the miniaturization of technology and the prevalence of software-defined capabilities have enabled the rapid building of satellite hardware. More spacecraft are being built in a way that allows them to be reconfigured across the board by software—a development that Bonin describes as exciting.

These capabilities also compress the talent pool necessary for satellite development. What used to take 10 engineers now takes only one, he says. And an increased emphasis on production also is changing the state of the art. “Most of the history of spacecraft has been the story of the bespoke spacecraft that usually are extremely labor-intensive,” he recalls. “They required a very high degree of talent and engineering, and they were usually one-offs. You built one or two, and then you launch the next highly tailored design.”

This stands in marked contrast to what companies such as SpaceX are doing with its StarLink, which is defined by a volume-produced spacecraft, Bonin continues. “More and more companies are placing an increasing emphasis not on their R&D [research and development] capabilities but on scaling and on producing.

“The nice thing about having textbook problems is they have textbook answers,” he notes. “More and more, lessons from other industries are being pulled into the satellite world.”

Bracken points out that the supply chain also plays a crucial role. In less than a decade, the satellite industry has moved away from bespoke spacecraft with vertically integrated subsystems built along strict lines from limited suppliers at significant expense. Instead, the industry has seen that model disrupted by small startups creating systems that can be used in a number of different areas. The result is a robust supply chain fed by versatile companies able to maintain their niche production at high rates. Even testing costs are coming down, he adds.

“You used to have to wait a year or longer and spend an exorbitant amount of money to go out and buy a radiation-tolerant processor that would have all the capabilities of your calculator,” Bonin says. “Now, you can go [online] overnight and buy something that has all the capabilities of your smartphone.”

Another major technological change is taking place on the ground. Bonin cites the proliferation of user terminals to enable low-earth-orbit constellations as both an opportunity and a challenge. Their progress is bottlenecked by how pervasive the terminals can be after they are miniaturized, made convenient and distributed to end users. This technology has lagged a bit, he offers.

“The miniaturization of technology allows the miniaturization of satellites, and at the same time—historically—revenue varies with aperture,” Bonin allows. “Spacecraft need to have certain parts that are big to make big money. That’s just the physics of radio frequency and earth observation, so it’s an interesting balancing act that a lot of people are trying to play.”

And this is having a ripple effect across the industry. As the megaconstellations of satellites are taken seriously, they are generating market traction that has led to component and device-level suppliers taking the market seriously, Bonin notes. They now are mass-producing radiation-tolerant parts, for example, that benefit the rest of the small spacecraft industry as well as other areas.

One key technology that will improve SATCOM capabilities is flat-panel antennas. Bonin offers that electronically steered phased array antennas with no moving parts can provide high gain with omnidirectional coverage. “It’s a different playground if I can have something like a mousepad on top of my car or on a base station that can scan the sky and interconnect with a satellite,” he says. “That’s a game-changer on the satellite side as well, compared with the way antennas are built and deployed now.”

The military can expect to benefit from these new satellite technologies. “We’re heading down a remarkable near-term future for military communications technology, whether space-to-space or space-to-ground,” Bracken declares. “We’re seeing more RFPs [requests for proposal] and RFIs [requests for information] come out about this … companies are looking at different ways to get military satellites out there quickly. They [the military] are going to benefit a lot from this very unique time, especially as things privatize more.

“It’s a big time for military communications,” he continues. “I think it’s going to be substantial.”

Bonin observes a significant focus on resiliency, which is helped by greater numbers of smaller, more capable spacecraft. Rather than relying on a small number of big assets on which an adversary easily can focus, the space force would have a disaggregated large number of smaller spacecraft that cannot be simply nullified en masse. “The proliferation of smaller spacecraft with a huge amount of capabilities is a fundamental enabler for our U.S. Defense Department and intelligence community customers across the board,” he states.

While Bonin offers that the SATCOM world is like the Wild West, he and Bracken do not expect legacy SATCOM providers to go away. “It really will be the era of the communication megaconstellation,” Bonin states while admitting that no one knows which companies will emerge dominant or even survive. What will remain is the ability of customers to have a variety of choices—such as lower latency or mesh networks—whether in isolated locations or industrialized areas.

These capabilities are likely to spawn many spinoff technologies as part of their development, Bracken adds. Ultimately, as the different types of satellite orbits—low-earth, mid-earth and geostationary—establish their prevalence and respective niches in SATCOM, they will be connected together into a single layer that provides dramatically increased capabilities for their customers. And these capabilities will be transparent to the end user.

Bonin offers that the launch vehicle market is bifurcating into either the Uber and Lyft of the world that can accommodate the individual passenger at greater expense, or subway systems that are wholesalers but not retailers that address the specific needs of a user. His firm sees customers that want to try out ideas more quickly and need help engaging both types of launch providers to obtain either the dedicated ride they need or a ticket on the subway system that will take them to the right place, often with other customers. The goal is to make booking a satellite launch as transparent as setting up cellphone data service, he says.

Bracken suggests that the satellite and launch service manufacturers and providers are changing the way they view the business model and interact with customers. The satellite launch industry, fueled by innovation in both sectors, will transition to where it is less like global moving companies and more of a container ship approach. The subsequent step will be to embrace a model like that of delivery services that are transparent to the customer.

Ultimately, all these advances should lead to an environment in which everyone is connected anywhere in the world, and any spacecraft in cislunar space can be connected at any time, Bonin offers. These capabilities would enable users to have high-bandwidth connectivity that would function transparently.

Bracken foresees high-bandwidth, low latency communications, even with spacecraft heading to the moon. Spacefarers will be able to interact with people on Earth and with other vehicles with links that are better than with today’s cellphones, he predicts.