JSAT stakes low-Earth-orbit claim with KSAT ground station deal

The LEO smallsat gold rush has Japan’s largest GEO fleet operator looking to fill Asia’s ground-station void with a little help from Norway

Sky Perfect JSAT has been telling investors all year it is looking for new business outside the geostationary arc, where it already operates Asia’s largest fleet of commercial communications satellites.

On Dec. 7, the Tokyo-based company unveiled a partnership with Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services to provide ground network services to a growing field of low Earth orbit (LEO) operators who want to stay in touch with their satellites as they pass over Asia.

The LEO gold rush epitomized by OneWeb is flooding regulators with plans for me-too smallsat megaconstellations and fueling investment in a new generation of small launchers.

Smelling an opportunity, relative newcomers including Audacy, Spaceflight Networks, Spire and others are racing to build private networks to downlink data from LEO spacecraft. Sky Perfect JSAT told SpaceNews that despite such efforts, there’s a dearth of options for commercial LEO satellites flying over Asia.

“As the number and types of LEO satellites in orbit increases, we expect the demand for ground station services in the Asia-Pacific region to grow within the next few years,” said Yutaka Moriai, general manager of business strategy at Sky Perfect JSAT’s space and satellite unit. “As a start, we will construct one station within our control station premises, and launch the transmission and reception of satellite control signals and reception services for satellite observation data in 2Q of 2017.”

Kongsberg Satellite Services, also known as KSAT, already operates a global network of ground stations supporting more than 100 satellites. But KSAT has had a hard time cracking the Asian market on its own. “On our map, we need more support in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s why we need to have partners there,” said KSAT President Rolf Skatteboe.

LEO satellites require different ground station solutions than geostationary satellites, which remain in one spot relative to the ground below. Hailing LEO smallsats requires ground antennas that can quickly lock onto, track and talk with spacecaft as they zip by overhead. KSAT has a network of 20 smallsat ground stations dubbed KSAT Lite, but only two are located in Asia. Skatteboe said the station Sky Perfect JSAT is building at its Ibaraki Network Control Center in Japan will be grafted into the KSAT Lite network. Skatteboe said KSAT will wait to see if demand warrants additional sites.

Sky Perfect JSAT, however, doesn’t plan to stop with the Ibaraki location. “Looking ahead to growing demand, we plan to expand the number of stations and sites,” Moriai said.

Sky Perfect JSAT is considering sites beyond Japan, possibly collocated with other stations used to support geostationary satellites. Setting up smallsat antennas with regional partner teleports, Moriai said, could help bypass local red tape.

Sky Perfect JSAT has ambitions to delve deeper into the LEO market than just downlinking data from other companies’ spacecraft. “In the future, we would like to not only deliver raw data received from satellites to customers, but also address value-added services such as data processing and information analysis,” he said.

Sky Perfect JSAT already has a foot in the smallsat door through a multi-year deal it signed with Planet in 2015 for local distribution of imagery from the San Francisco startup’s expanding fleet of cubesats. Sky Perfect JSAT also invested last year in a Japanese startup, Axelspace, that plans to orbit 50 imaging sats by 2022.