An Earth-to-LEO comms revolution in the making

An avalanche of commercial spacecraft are bound for orbit. Will they need commercial data-relay networks to keep in touch?  These firms think so.

Ralph Ewig was coordinating communications for SpaceX Dragon cargo flights to the International Space Station when he realized the growing commercial space industry would need its own data-relay network.

As a mission operations engineer working in SpaceX’s mission control room, Ewig was responsible for coordinating communications between the Dragon capsule and SpaceX’s mission operations center, NASA’s mission operations center, the International Space Station, NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) and multiple ground stations. When TDRS was available to provide continuous communications links, SpaceX could monitor the spacecraft round-the-clock, detect problems and quickly resolve them. When SpaceX could not use TDRS because the constellation’s time was claimed by other NASA missions, Ewig had to wait for the spacecraft to pass over one of about a dozen ground stations before he could send or retrieve data.

“Without continuous telemetry, tracking and control, a potentially hazardous trend can occur during a communications gap and go unnoticed,” Ewig said by email. “So you sit and wait for your spacecraft to check in; only when it re-establishes communication at the next scheduled pass (and only if it re-establishes communication), do you suddenly find out what happened.” Then, it may too late to recover the spacecraft, he added.

As part of NASA’s Space Network, TDRS time is used primarily by NASA missions in low Earth orbit, including the International Space Station. It is not designed to serve the growing commercial space industry, which includes dozens of companies planning to launch thousands of communications and Earth-imaging satellites into low Earth orbit in the next decade. Communications for all the new spacecraft will be a billion-dollar market, Ewig said.

Ewig and his two co-founders, who met at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, established Audacy in 2015 in Mountain View, California, to create a commercial version of TDRS to give people on the ground constant access to their satellites and launch vehicles.

“We like to think of ourselves as a cellphone network in space,” said James Spicer, Audacy co-founder and head of engineering.

Audacy is not alone in seeking to claim this potentially lucrative market. Spaceflight Networks of Seattle, and Solstar Space Co. of Santa Fe, New Mexico, also are developing networks to relay communications for commercial spacecraft, spaceflight passengers and launch vehicles, although each company is taking a different approach.

Communications Revolution

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Spaceflight Networks’ 2017 operational sites. Credit: SPACEFLIGHT NETWORKS Graphic/Solstar

Spaceflight Networks, a subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries, already operates ground stations in Tukwila, Washington;  Fairbanks, Alaska; and Invercargill, New Zealand, to downlink data from Spaceflight Industries’ BlackSky Pathfinder-1, an Earth-observation satellite launched in September.

“We wanted to makes sure we had an operational, reliable service before we signed up a lot of other people,” said Jason Andrews, Spaceflight Industries chief executive.

Spaceflight Networks plans to begin providing communications services to “a few early adopters in 2017 and make the service available to the broader market in 2018,” Jodi Sorensen, Spaceflight Industries vice president for marketing and communications, said by email.

By 2018, Spaceflight Networks plans to operate between 40 and 50 high-throughput antennas at 17 locations around the world to offer communication services to companies operating constellations of small satellites.

Because of the wide geographic distribution of the ground stations, customers who purchase compatible radios and Spaceflight Networks data plans will be able to obtain web-based access to their imagery within a few minutes of its capture, Andrews said.

Customers can select from a variety of radios, ranging from low-data-rate UHF devices designed to provide telemetry, tracking and control for cubesats to microsatellite X-band radios to transmit data at speeds of hundreds of megabits per second.

“Ultimately it is about helping customers get their data back,” Andrews said. “We are building the infrastructure for this small satellite constellation revolution.”

Texts to Space

In contrast, Solstar is focusing initially on providing continuous voice and data communications for people and machines traveling on suborbital vehicles. Solstar is a spin-off of Solstar Energy Devices, a division of mobile satellite service provider Satwest LLC.

In 2013, NASA selected Satwest to participate in the Flight Opportunities Program, a space agency initiative that pays launch providers to fly research payloads selected by NASA. An UP Aerospace rocket launched from New Mexico’s Spaceport America carried Satwest’s communications payload to an altitude of 117 kilometers in November 2013.

During the flight, Satwest sent text messages from computers and cellphones on the ground through Iridium communications satellites in low Earth orbit to its payload on the UP Aerospace rocket.

“We used commercial computers and cellphones to send text messages from our commercial payload operations center through commercial satellites to a commercial rocket,” Brian Barnett, Solstar president and chief executive. “That was the first time that had ever been done.”

The success of that experiment prompted Barnett to establish Solstar and begin setting up a company to provide communications for people and machines in space.

Through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, Solstar plans to conduct additional tests in 2017 to demonstrate it can offer voice and Internet connections for suborbital flights. NASA has not yet matched Solstar with launch providers for future experiments, but the company informed NASA that it wants to conduct tests in 2017 on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket.

“We can’t wait to fly again,” Barnett said. “We want to fly as often as we can.”

Barnett’s ultimate goal is to establish a commercial communications service to provide “24/7 access to people and machines in space from people on the ground,” he said. “I could log into my smartphone and talk to a friend or colleague in space or check out what’s going on with my satellite or payload.”

Since the 2013 test flight, Barnett, along with Solstar co-founders Michael Potter, an entrepreneur and documentary filmmaker, and aerospace engineer Mark Matossian, have been raising money and developing communications products, ranging from low-data-rate models for small satellites to more capable devices that could be installed in government or commercial space stations to provide Internet service for passengers.

An Audacious Plan

Audacy also is raising money for its space-based network, which includes three communications satellites roughly the size of Mini Cooper automobiles and three global gateways. The firm raised $2 million in a seed round in 2015 and is currently seeking to raise additional funds to begin building its satellites.

From a medium Earth orbit of roughly 13,000 kilometers, Audacy satellites will be close enough to low Earth orbit to send and receive data from small satellites operating there, including cubesats. At the same time, the Audacy constellation will be distant enough from Earth to allow engineers to maintain continuous contact through only three gateways, Spicer said.

Audacy plans to establish a relay network to offer simultaneous access to thousands of Earth observation satellites, launch vehicles, broadband satellites, and suborbital and orbital human spaceflight vehicles.

Audacy’s unique network architecture enables always on, real-time data access for satellites in non-geostationary orbits. Credit; Audacy graphic

Audacy’s unique network architecture enables always on, real-time data access for satellites in non-geostationary orbits. Credit; Audacy graphic

Although the cost of establishing a space-based communications network is higher than the cost of setting up a ground-based network, Spicer said the expense will be more than offset by the volume of users Audacy will serve as well as by the added value the firm will offer customers by providing them with instantaneous, round-the-clock access to data.

“We want to enable real-time communications so that you can download spacecraft data, for example photos or videos, only seconds after they are acquired by the satellite,” Spicer said. “This real-time satellite imagery has vastly more value than imagery downloaded hours or even days later using traditional ground stations.”

It’s too early to tell whether one or more of the new communications networks will strike it rich providing data links for satellites, launch vehicles and passenger spacecraft, but executives of all three companies anticipate strong demand.

The market to provide communications for the thousands of communications- and Earth-observation satellites scheduled to travel into low Earth orbit over the next decade will “absolutely” be worth a billion dollars, Ewig said.

“The current revenue being generated by commercial satellite imagery already exceeds $5 billion a year, and most companies spend five to ten percent of that on communications solutions to deliver their products to their customers,” Ewig said. “The market for non-geostationary satellite communications services will easily be in the billions by 2020, if it isn’t already.”