The artificial satellite system has three operational components space segment, user and ground segments). Space segment comprises the satellite or satellite constellation and the uplink and downlink satellite links. A ground segment consists of all the ground-based elements of a spacecraft system used by operators and support personnel.
The ground segment enables management of a spacecraft, and distribution of payload data and telemetry among interested parties on the ground. The primary elements of a ground segment are Ground (or Earth) stations, which provide radio interfaces with spacecraft; Mission control (or operations) centers, from which spacecraft are managed; Ground networks, which connect the other ground elements to one another; Remote terminals, used by support personnel; Spacecraft integration and test facilities and Launch facilities.
In order to communicate with satellites, ground stations are necessary. Located in various parts of the world, they support different types of satellites, depending on their inclination and orbit. For example, polar orbiting satellites need to connect with ground stations in the poles (e.g. Inuvik or Kiruna in the North Pole and Punta Arenas or Dongara in the South Pole), which provides rather long duration passes, enabling increased amount of data downloaded.
The ground stations are made of one or more antennas, that enable satellite operators to communicate with the satellite, sending telecommands and downlinking telemetries (e.g. mission data, satellite status). This communication is performed all along satellite lifecycle, from Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP), going through commissioning, routine and critical operations, up to satellite end-of-life and decommissioning.
Ground Segment value chain
In order to ensure such operations, a typical GS entails various infrastructure and activities that can be depicted using a value chain, made of three main blocks: upstream, midstream and downstream.
The three blocks are detailed as the following:
– The upstream involves all the hardware and software components that enable mission operations. It encompasses ground stations (e.g. antennas, modems, radio, etc.) construction and maintenance, development of data systems (for ground station control, spacecraft control, mission planning and scheduling, flight dynamics, etc.), and the ground
networks (i.e. infrastructure necessary to ensure connectivity among all operations GS elements),
– The midstream is composed of all activities that support mission operation. More specifically, it encompasses the operation of the ground stations, performs spacecraft and payload Telemetry Tracking and Control (TT&C), and the signal downlinking and data retrieving,
– The downstream encompasses all activities performed once the data is retrieved on Earth, that include data storage, pre-processing (e.g. error corrections, timestamps, etc.), and all services based on data analytics.
GS activities require investment and time
In order to perform ground segment activities, significant investment and efforts are required to build and maintain a dedicated ground segment, but also to deal with licensing issues. On the one hand, building, operating and maintaining a ground segment is an expensive endeavour that requires many resources including ground stations (i.e. antennas, modems, land) and dedicated personnel with specific skills. Building ground stations is particularly costly for high-frequency bands (requiring more expensive antennas) or satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Indeed, satellite operators having satellites in LEO usually require a global network of ground stations installed in multiple countries, in order to download data when and where they need it without having to wait for the satellite to pass over a desired location. In addition, investments in specific infrastructure (i.e. servers, networks and power) are required to process, store, and ensure transport data. In the end, the cost of ground segment over the entire satellite lifecycle can reach one third of the total cost for large programmes and can represent between 10 and 15% of satellite operators’ OPEX, according to industry experts. Consequently, such important expenses can make it difficult for satellite operators to invest in a wholly dedicated network.
On the other hand, building a dedicated ground segment involves dealing with important regulatory constraints, especially to get licensing for both space and ground segments. Licensing is key to ensure that Radio Frequency (RF) interferences do not negatively impact satellite operators. Indeed, satellite signals can be overridden by a rogue or unlicensed system, which can jeopardize satellite operators’ activities and business. In order to ensure such situation does not happen, licensing procedures are inherently demanding. Satellite operators not only have to deal with licensing of the space segment from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – in charge of spectrum assignment – but also to deal with licensing for the ground segment with the country in which they want to build and operate their ground station.
Considering all the efforts required to ensure ground segment activities, satellite operators have already been outsourcing their activities to GS experts like SSC or KSAT for decades. Over time, these GS service providers have developed large networks of ground stations across the world, including in harsh environments, such as polar areas. These networks enabled them to offer comprehensive services to a wide variety of customers – whatever their satellite inclination, orbit (e.g. polar, LEO, GEO, etc.) or mission type.
GS providers could support their customers all along the mission lifetime (e.g. routine, LEOP, decommissioning), providing support not only for TT&C and data acquisition services in various bands, but also for many other services spanning hosting and maintenance services (i.e. install, operate and maintain a ground station on behalf of a satellite operator), licensing support (for space and ground segment), and data handling. GS service providers would thus provide their customers with a “top assurance level” offer. In exchange, satellite operators would agree to commit for various years, and pay relatively high price.
New Space requirements for Ground stations
Space is becoming more dynamic than ever with mega-constellations, multi-orbit satellites, and software-defined payloads. The world’s demand for broadband connectivity has created a new generation of high-throughput satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and now low Earth orbit (LEO).
The pace of technological change has led some to question whether the ground segment can keep up and avoid becoming the bottleneck between innovations in space and terrestrial networks including 5G. This is particularly important given the technological shift from the world of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) to a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) world, where satellite’s relative motion throw up additional challenges.
The New Space non-GEO constellations — in Low- or Medium-Earth orbit (LEO or MEO) — move across the sky, requiring multiple ground stations across the globe to stay in touch. “All these new constellations, these enormous numbers of new space vehicles, all need ground stations to service them, stay in contact, provide direct-to-Earth communications,” says John Heskett, the chief technology officer at Kongsberg Satellite Services ( KSAT).
And it’s not just the orbits. The new services that non-GEO constellations are getting into — like low latency communications, ubiquitous Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, or near real-time Earth Observation (EO) — also require globally dispersed ground stations, so that data can be downloaded in real-time.
In the new multi-orbit world, says Carl Novello, CTO of NXT Communications Corp. (NXTCOMM), an Atlanta, Georgia area-based startup, the biggest challenge on the ground will be flexibility. Traditionally satellite operators have been tightly vertically integrated, with terminals designed to work with a single constellation across a relatively narrow portion of the spectrum. With operators adopting a multi-orbit approach, that increasingly won’t cut it.
“The challenge is how do you move from being a product that is relatively fit for a single purpose to becoming the Swiss Army knife of antennas?” Novello asks. “One that will work in GEO use cases and LEO use cases and MEO use cases, with different requirements for frequency bands, uplink power, different regulatory requirements to meet, and so on.” In other words, concludes Novello, “How do we build a better antenna fit for this brave new world of satellite connectivity?”
But advancements in technology are shifting the ground system from purpose-built, proprietary hardware architectures to software-defined, cloud-centric, and extensible virtual platforms that support multiple satellites, payloads and orbits on demand. This is being enabled by a series of innovations in antenna technology, waveform processing and system design, quietly starting a “New Ground” revolution down on Earth, as well.
NSR, a market research and consulting firm, estimates that cumulative revenues for the entire ground segment through 2028 will total $145 billion. The market will generate $14.4 billion annually by 2028, the firm states in its recent report, Commercial Satellite Ground Segment, 4th Edition (CSGS4). The user terminal will command a substantial portion of this spend.
Ground Segment as a Service
With New Space, the needs of satellite operators evolved: missions were shorter, satellite development time was dramatically reduced, and the budget dedicated to GS was much smaller. The GS services offered by incumbents were thus not adapted, deemed too complicated (notably because of international standards) and costly.
But most startups don’t have the resources or the time to build out their own ground segment, explains Heskett. “These startups are on a very tight runway. They have six months to a year from the time they get their VC funding until they have to put something on a rocket,” he says. Even if they could afford to build out their own ground station network, they wouldn’t have the time to prototype, test, and integrate the technology.
In order to fill in the gap between supply and demand, new GS services providers entered market, with the objective to offer New Space satellite operators a simple, elastic and cost-effective way to communicate with their satellite: GSaaS was born
The model “as a Service” (aaS) initially stems from the IT industry, and more specifically from cloud computing. Software as a Service (SaaS) is a well-known example of “aaS” model, where infrastructure and hard, middle and software are handled by cloud service providers and made available to customers over the Internet, on a “pay as-you-go” basis. “aaS” offers various benefits to the customers, as it helps them minimize upfront investment while avoiding operation, maintenance, and other ownership costs.
Customers can thus transform their capital expenditure (CAPEX) into operational expenditure (OPEX). Instead, they can choose the paying scheme that suits their needs the best, opting either for “pay as you use” or subscribing on a monthly/annually-basis.
Borrowing concepts and methods of IaaS and cloud computing, GSaaS abstracts GS infrastructure. To do so, it mutualises GS infrastructure, relying on a single network of ground stations in order to enable satellite operators communicate with their satellites. Thus, GSaaS acts as a lever that enables satellite operators to launch their business faster and to focus on their core business, which is, in essence, the provision of data. Acknowledging these advantages, new users, including public entities, have started expressing interest in utilising this service.
The interface and API are designed to be easy to use, to enable all types of satellite operators (e.g. universities, public and private) control their satellites. The API enables satellite operators to interact with the ground station network, determine their satellite parameters and constraints, retrieve the schedule of operations, as well as all the data collected.
When it comes to satellite mission types, most GSaaS users are EO and Internet of Things (IoT) satellite operators. EO satellites usually need to download as much data as possible and depending on their business, they look for near-real-time images. They however do not necessarily need low latency (i.e. maximum time between satellite data acquisition and reception by the user). For example, Eumetsat EO satellites in LEO have a latency of 30 minutes, which is enough to provide adequate services to their customers.
As compared to EO satellite operators, IoT satellite operator’s priority is more about number of contacts, and they look for low latency (down to 15mn for Astrocast for example). They thus tend to select highly reliable GS that ensure satellite connection in a timely manner.
There are two types of GSaaS customers: the ones that own ground stations, and the ones that do not. The first usually want to use GSaaS to complement their ground station network. They can use it in a punctual manner, to answer to specific events (e.g. LEOP, catastrophes, etc.), as backup ground stations (e.g. in case of a problem on one of their ground stations), or to download more data. This is for example the case of Spire Global Inc. that uses AWS Ground Station to satisfy growing demand by flexibly enlarging their ground network capabilities.
The second almost entirely rely on GSaaS to communicate with their satellites. They sometimes partner with various GSaaS providers to guarantee continuity of service (e.g. Astrocast using both KSAT and Leaf Space GSaaS services).
The need for GSaaS also depends on the orbit type. Indeed, as compared to GEO satellite operators that usually need few ground stations. located in their targeted region to perform their mission, LEO satellite operators look for a global coverage. Indeed, as satellites move around the Earth, they need to be able to connect with ground station in different parts of the world. However, in order to offer lower latencies, more ground stations are necessary, which can be a major hindrance. For this reason, so far, a large majority of GSaaS customers are LEO satellite operators.
Ground station as a service suppliers
Many classes of GS service suppliers now exist. Some are new actors that includes new start-ups (e.g. Leaf Space, Infostellar, RBC Signals, Atlas Space Operations, etc.), IT-born companies (e.g. AWS) but also GS incumbents (e.g. SSC, KSAT). Building upon their experience in satellite operation and leveraging their global network of ground stations, GS providers incumbents designed solutions specifically adapted to small satellite operators and large constellations with SSC Infinity and KSATlite for example. ”
To do so, incumbents standardised their ground station equipment and configurations, and developed web based and API customer interfaces, notably to enable pass scheduling.
As such, commercial EO satellite operators with a focus on investing capital in the space segment for launch and manufacture, have an additional path to a partially/fully outsourced ground service model that leverages the technological capabilities and financial strategies of the Cloud era. A satellite operator subject to demand uncertainties will find the scheduled contact via the pay-per-minute pricing means spending less capital compared to procuring ground station antennas priced in the millions.
With on-demand measurability and flexibility in spinning up of services, Cloud-based solutions provide a shift from the traditionally CAPEX-heavy investments of satellite ground infrastructure to a reduced OPEX consideration that is flexible and open. In the case of AWS Ground Station, the service is aimed at offering flexible per-minute access to antennas across eight locations for self-service scheduling. This in turn alleviates the customer’s need to buy, lease, build or manage a fully owned ground segment.
By reducing need for ownership of hardware/software, such solutions also allow satellite players to cooperate with Cloud service providers(CSPs) and deploy their applications/serve their customers with great efficiency. Cloud-enabled ground systems will be a key enabler in opening up the revenue opportunity here across verticals and regions, as technology rises to meet and innovate on the supply of satellite data. With expanded and flexible Cloud Computing capacity close to the processing node, insight extraction is also local to end users, thereby also alleviating unnecessary Cloud costs.
After Amazon, Microsoft now getting into ground station as a service business with Azure Orbital. In September 2021, the software giant announced a preview of the business that enables satellite operators to communicate to and control their satellites, process data, and scale operations with Microsoft Azure Cloud.
“We are extending Azure from under the sea to outer space. With Azure Orbital, we are now taking our infrastructure to space, enabling anyone to access satellite data and capabilities from Azure,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced during his opening keynote at the Microsoft Ignite 2020 conference.
With Azure Orbital, the ground segment, including the ground stations, network, and procedures, becomes a digital platform now integrated into Azure and complemented by partners such as Amergint, Kratos, KSAT, Kubos, Viasat and US Electrodynamics Inc.
“Microsoft is well-positioned to support customer needs in gathering, transporting, and processing of geospatial data. With our intelligent Cloud and edge strategy currently extending over 60 announced cloud regions, advanced analytics, and AI capabilities coupled with one of the fastest and most resilient networks in the world — security and innovation are at the core of everything we do,” Yves Pitsch Principal Program Manager, Azure Networking, wrote in a blog post.
We are thrilled that we will be co-locating, deploying and operating our next-generation O3b mPOWER gateways alongside Microsoft’s data centers. This one-hop connectivity to the cloud from remote sites will enable our MEO customers to enhance their cloud application performance, optimize business operations with much flexibility and agility needed to expand new markets,” Hemingway added.
Earlier in August, Microsoft had filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission outlining its intent to build a network of ground stations and connecting satellite operators to its Azure cloud. On September 2, the FCC authorized Microsoft to perform proof-of-concept demonstrations of the service, which comes with a six-month license allowing for data downloads from Urthecast’s Deimos-2 Earth observation satellite.
Azure Orbital is a fully managed cloud-based ground station as a service that lets you communicate with your spacecraft or satellite constellations, downlink and uplink data, process your data in the cloud, chain services with Azure services in unique scenarios, and generate products for your customers. Azure Orbital lets you focus on the mission and product data by off-loading the responsibility for deployment and maintenance of ground station assets. This system is built on top of the Azure global infrastructure and low-latency global fiber network.