The traditional satellite network architecture mainly consists of the space segment and the ground segment. The space segment is composed of satellites distributed in the global air, and the satellite has inter-satellite links to form the satellite network. The ground segment is a ground core network, which consists of a satellite network control center and a lot of gateway stations. The current satellite network has little flexibility. The resources of satellite nodes are strictly limited. It permits slow configuration.
The configuration of the satellite network is configured by the ground station, and when the satellite is flying over the ground station, it can be configured, which makes the configuration of the global network take a long time. Although the number of new services and applications continues to grow, new satellite loads can not identify different types of new services.
The ongoing New Space revolution has planned up to 50,000 active satellites to be in orbit over the next 10 years. All these satellites have complex and variegated sets of orbits and waveforms that satellite communication (SATCOM) networks need to support. This drives the need for SATCOM operators to create flexible and adaptable networks capable of operating on a myriad of different waveforms, orbits, and constellations—while simultaneously maintaining service quality and profitability. The need to promptly evolve the SATCOM network architecture leverages Virtualization technologies or software-defined satellites and software defined earth stations.
Where conventional satellites were earlier tailored to comply with single mission requirements, satellite developers are gradually adapting the vision of software-defined satellites which can be reprogrammed and reconfigured, to allow a satellite to take up new applications and expand its performance. Instead of viewing a satellite as monolithic piece of hardware and software, designed to perform a specific mission, one can see the same satellite as a platform capable of running multiple different missions (defined as software applications) on the same hardware platform.
Virtualization refers to the abstraction of computing resources from the specific hardware to create a virtual computing environment. Similar to virtual reality, multiple independent virtual computing systems are instantiated to behave like independent computers or servers. These virtual computing environments can share the same physical hardware resources. With virtualization, a panoply of applications and functions is consolidated onto common hardware. Most importantly, virtualization separates application and hardware vendors, which eliminates the need for purpose-built hardware. Leveraging virtualization, SATCOM network operators can reduce TCO, increase terminal/network agility, and, most importantly, accelerate the speed of innovation by separating applications from hardware.
“Software-designed” is defined as any traditionally implemented hardware components replaced by software to configure a function dynamically and programmatically. This definition follows the same approach as other “software-defined” entities, such as “software-defined radio” transceivers that can be reconfigured for a variety of RF tasks or “software-defined networking” appliances that can support a wide range of telecommunications applications.
Currently, any party that is interested in deploying any kind of satellite in space, they have to go through the multi-step process of designing the satellite itself, finding a launch or mission provider, building or buying the necessary hardware, obtaining the regulatory permits, and telecom licenses, and so on. Multi-year and multi-decade projects were common in the space industry. But with the “software-defined” approach, deployment of software code to an existing satellite can be done over a single day and operations can begin immediately afterward.
The introduction of software-defined technologies is considered a major technological trend to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of operations. On one hand, the shift from hardware functions to software enables mass and cost reduction. On another hand, software solutions support the automatization of operations and make systems more flexible and scalable as configurable with a simple file upload.
The opportunities for software-defined satellites are seemingly abundant. In Geostationary Orbit, having the ability to refresh and adapt the footprint and spectral power of a satellite that stays in space for 15 years before it’s de-orbited is a potential game-changer. Flexibility and the ability to reconfigure a satellite that is already in orbit, is something operators have been asking for years. Especially for operators of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, which usually have lifespans of 15 years or more, the ability to adjust the spacecraft to the changing needs of the market is essential. A flexible satellite uses a Software-defined(SD) payload to reconfigure the antenna beam on-demand that is programmable by sending a new program in uplink communication.
Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in a lower altitude, on the other hand, benefit from the beam steering and shaping capabilities that software-defined satellites can provide.
Essentially a software-defined satellite should offer the ability to dynamically modify the coverage beams and the capacity and power distribution. That might include moving a satellite into a different position or even switching its functionality from TV broadcasting to internet connectivity — something that would be impossible with traditional hardware-defined satellites. SDR solutions can potentially increase communication reliability by adjusting the frequency in jamming areas or adapt satellite solutions to highly dynamic terrestrial competition or new frequency regulations in a country.
European Space Agency (ESA) launched ‘Eutelsat Quantum’, the world’s 1st commercial reprogrammable satellite into space aboard Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in August 2021. A reprogrammable satellite allows the user to repurpose it even after being launched into orbit. It can be reprogrammed in real-time to suit the changing purposes of the user.
“Eutelsat Quantum will have the capability to modify its coverage in real time to specific regions depending on customer needs. Traditionally Geostationary satellites are configured during construction to illuminate a specific region. This new-generation satellite will enable customers to pinpoint and then configure a precise route in order to track an aircraft or a shipping vessel, using ground control. This service is highly sought-after by governments and defense ministries as they can tailor the satellite’s features to suit their needs,” said Pascal Homsy, chief technical officer at Eutelsat.
While the nature of applications is defined by the instruments available for the users, the common Earth observation and communications ones, such as imaging cameras and spectrometers already allow a wide range of different usage scenarios. Using the model where multiple satellite missions can share access to resources of the single satellite and applying “pay-per-use” billing model to the users, a lot more people would be able to afford direct participation in upstream space segment.
In a similar manner, access to space technologies is often behind the industry or government barriers, often requiring security clearance or being a citizen of select few countries with well-established space agency and aerospace industries. By comparison, modern software development is a lot more open and accessible to the global community of programmers. By taking the same approach, satellite mission development and operations can become a lot more accessible and therefore allow a lot more business concepts to be implemented and tested in the environment of a real space mission.
“With the cost of launching satellites going down via reusable rockets, you need manufacturing costs to go down via mass production of generic satellites,” explains NSR analyst Carlos Placido. In a recent white paper, NSR noted the shift from traditionally CapEx-heavy investments of satellite ground infrastructure to an optimized OpEx-driven virtualized network environment that is flexible and open. “When you shift customization capabilities to software, you have the ability to reconfigure generic satellites, which is a huge cost advantage over having a satellite that is rather statically configured for many years,” says Placido.
Discussing the future, Spire’s Condor draws comparisons between the satellite industry and the automotive industry. Tesla in particular uses software to control what the car can do, which enables the owner to upgrade capabilities over time through software purchases like buying an auto-park feature. “Satellite capabilities can be upgraded in a similar way using software, improving data collection, data processing, operations optimization, or download capacity through software improvements,” she says. “This is where the entire market has to go.”
The new NSR Global Space Economy report finds a cumulative space and satellite market revenue opportunity of more than $1 trillion between 2019 and 2029. There is an expanding need for space-based services to satisfy needs in orbit and on earth fueled by expanding requirements for everything from space-enabled Big Data Analytics missions, to commercial crew missions to the ISS, to “classical” connectivity use-cases.
“Classical/traditional connectivity requirements are the largest revenue source for the NSR Global Space Economy analysis,” said report author and NSR Principal Analyst Brad Grady. “Right now, the entire sector is in a period of transformation – from largely complex, bespoke technology to a proliferated, distributed, serialized technology stack. Software-defined and software-centric, mass-produced, and a network-of-networks are proliferating across all segments of the Space Economy.” Grady added.
US DOD requirements of software defined satellites and Networks
The Pentagon is also working to take advantage of new technologies weather it is higher resolution camera or a better propulsion system as they become available. This is especially important given the increasing threat landscape. The DoD is beginning to take a larger role in seeking out commercial technology and innovation that could be used in space.
Furthermore, the U.S. Space Force, in a recent vision document, expressed the requirement for agile SATCOM networks and modem terminals—i.e., the ability to seamlessly transition between different SATCOM waveforms, orbits, and constellations
Challenges of Software-defined Satellites and Networks
So far, only the recently launched Eutelsat Quantum hosts a fully reprogrammable payload based on SD-technologies. Two SD-satellites from Inmarsat should follow this year with steerable spot beams and dynamic power allocation. With the exception of some military systems, the development of software-defined satellite is essentially driven by commercial operators willing to provide flexible communication services. The civil government expects a slower adoption, starting with commercial services and potentially ordering proprietary systems in the second part of the decade.
The implementation of Software defined satellites and satellite networks stronger investments in more capable hardware, and new considerations for security, interoperability, and communications. Different technologies such as reconfigurable payload, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing, and software-defined radio, embedded in the satellites allow them to be reconfigurable and flexible.
Over the next few years, Eutelsat’s Homsy suggests satellite communications will start to look more like the terrestrial telecom industry, with software-defined networks (SD-WAN) blending connectivity across LEO, GEO, and MEO orbits. This will necessitate inter-satellite links for LEO constellations to connect one point of presence to another and communicate with the ground network. Satellites will require more advanced processors and software to route signals accordingly.
Still, technological hurdles remain to be solved before fully software-defined satellites can truly take off. “Amplification is one of the bottlenecks for these software-defined satellites,” says Leboulch. “Software does not amplify the signal so at some point you need to go out of the software and the computer to amplify the signal to go down to Earth.” Solid-state power amplifiers that are being used in active antennas on board of software-defined satellites are still less efficient than traditional technologies, says Leboulch.
“Due to the technological inefficiency of the solid-state power amplifiers, if you just plug a software-defined payload into a normal satellite, you would have less power on it,” he says. “That’s why, usually, if you want to have efficient software-defined satellites, you don’t need to change just the payload, you need to change the full platform to deliver more watts and more dissipation capability to your payload in order to equal the performance of conventional satellites.”
Building out a tapestry of software-enabled satellites will require stronger investments in more capable hardware, and new considerations for security, interoperability, and communications.
American satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin is developing a wide breadth of applications for LEO as well as GEO with SmartSat, its first software-defined satellite, which completed its initial demonstrations in 2020 and moved into the pre-launch phase in 2021. First unveiled in 2019, SmartSat can change missions in orbit, powered by a processing computer (Xavier) that can access payload data. Previously, data had to be downlinked and then uplinked.
Lockheed Martin’s Johnson suggests advancements in AI and machine learning technologies could enable smarter, software-defined satellites that can communicate more effectively. “We’ve started [moving toward] more advanced autonomy and Artificial Intelligence [AI],” says Johnson. “The key for Machine Learning is training [ML]. It requires a lot of data and processing and storage of that data. That’s where the challenge is on a satellite. We’re training artificial intelligence on the ground. We’ll be doing machine learning training onboard … the algorithms will self-update. And that’s the biggest challenge. On the ground, terabytes of data are easy to store. You have to have a piece of hardware on the satellite that stores that data and that’s where the weight and power consumption comes in, and limits things very quickly.”
Further advancements in technology will allow capabilities to gradually improve and eventually power sophisticated AI algorithms. “Hardware that allows greater processing on-orbit for AI machine learning will become very important,” says Johnson. “GPUs are heavily used for AI machine learning on the ground and eventually having that capability in space could unleash a whole new world of opportunities.”
According to Lockheed Martin’s Johnson, new technology that would fully unleash the potential of software-defined satellites is just reaching maturity. “The availability of the multicore processors is the first step and that’s the step we are taking right now,” he says. “A regular desktop computer on the ground could have something like eight cores or even more. But we have only just recently started to get multiprocessors from our suppliers that are radiation tolerant and radiation-hardened and can survive in space.”
The convergence of innovation in satellite communications, 5G terrestrial systems and cloud technology promises a ubiquitous networking solution, which offers a wide range of features, including but not limited to: universal multiaccess coverage at extraordinarily high speeds & capacity, multi-tenancy, fixed and wireless access network convergence, software-controlled, agile service provisioning, on-demand service-oriented resource allocation, and highly orchestrated.
In order to consider an end-to-end software defined and optimized network, the ground segment also needs to adapt to the new requirement in fleet and capacity management. A software-defined solution on the ground can be seen as a way forward to align gateways with the changing communication requirements of a GEO flexible satellite and the management of the increasing traffic. Indeed, the satcom industry being increasingly data centric with more than 9 Tbps of traffic to manage by the end of the decade with a 5-fold increase compared to 2020.
Software-Defined radio on board of satellites
San Francisco-based start-up Astranis believes that using a software-defined radio on board of its satellites would enable economies of scale in the manufacturing process and thus considerable cost reduction. “Each satellite will essentially be identical to the other satellites,” says Astranis CEO John Gedmark. “The payload of the satellite can be configured very late in the production process or maybe even once it’s already on orbit.” Astranis hopes to build a constellation of 350 kg geostationary satellites that would provide patches of connectivity to areas in need. Each of these satellites would have just a fraction of the transponders typical for a regular geostationary satellite and have a much smaller footprint.
“You can think about it as disaggregation,” says Gedmark. “We are taking the capacity or the capability of a very large traditional GEO satellite and essentially breaking that up to smaller chunks and deploying one chunk at a time where it is most needed rather than doing it all at once.” Gedmark said that analogue repeaters that are traditionally used on board of GEO satellites greatly limit what can be done with the payload. The software-defined radio enables digital signal processing, which allows the operator to adjust frequencies, coverage and bandwidth based on the actual needs of the customer.
“You can even adjust the waveforms that you are supporting as industry standards evolve,” he says. “When there is a new waveform that customers want to use, you can apply this new wave form. There is a whole range of things that you can do.” The company has flown a prototype, called DemoSat-2, in 2018, and successfully tested the software-defined radio to uplink HD videos to the spacecraft, process the signal in real time and downlink it to a ground station in Alaska. The team is now working on its first commercial mission, which promises to triple the satellite internet capacity available to the U.S. northernmost state.
“We will have about 7.5 gigabits per second of capacity,” Gedmark says. “That’s a lot of bandwidth, so the digital processing power in the software-defined radio has to be able to handle all of that simultaneously. The second challenge is qualifying the electronics to survive in the radiation environments of space.”
AImotive and C3S take self-driving car technology from the road to space
The new generation of satellites will be equipped with highly specialized artificial intelligence algorithms to enable on-board computations opening new horizons for services and use-cases.
AImotive, the automotive supplier of automated driving technologies, and C3S, the satellite and space technology provider, announced in July 2020 a collaboration to create a prototype hardware platform for the efficient execution of artificial intelligence (AI) onboard satellites by H2 2021. C3S will adapt AImotive’s aiWare NN hardware acceleration technology in its space electronics platform to enable high performance AI capabilities in small, power-constrained satellites. The results of this collaboration are expected to accelerate the commercialization of a wide range of services for both specialized and mass-market applications, such as telecommunications, Earth and space observation, autonomous satellite operation, docking support, asteroid mining etc.
Autonomous, intelligent operation has always been expected of satellites to a certain extent. However, currently widespread solutions are highly dependent on ground stations. Typically, satellites collect business or scientific data and downlink them to the ground in full without pre-processing. This is insufficient in use cases that require immediate action, for example natural disasters, precision agricultural solutions, remote sensing data-based forecasting and alerting, cargo tracking.
The use of AI for automated operation in many perception and decision-making tasks is widespread in the automotive industry. However, significant processing capabilities are needed to compute the large amount of data needed for neural networks (NN) and AI intensive workloads. AImotive has been developing automotive NNs on automotive-grade hardware platforms for over four years. The company has realized that the lack of optimal hardware is one of the biggest limitations of automated driving and is pioneering development in this area.
AImotive has a deep understanding of many of the challenges of deploying AI in highly constrained embedded environments, such as ensuring all data movement is tightly controlled to minimize power consumption and maximise system robustness for high reliability. However, the requirements of the space industry are even more demanding than for automotive, requiring the best minds from both automotive and space industries to come together to identify new approaches.
”AImotive’s vast experience in deploying AI in highly constrained embedded environments is why C3S chose to adapt its aiWare NN acceleration platform for use in space”, said Gyula Horváth, CEO of C3S. “Adapting automotive or military grade tools and technologies for the space industry is not uncommon. The strong experience C3S holds in working with both cubic and large-scale satellites is an enormous advantage for this process and we are excited to be joining forces with AImotive to make sure our space electronics platform will be the most robust on the market.”
Intelligent Ground Segment
The innovation doesn’t stop with the satellite. Thales Alenia Space CEO Jean-Loic Galle said the company is looking to develop digital ground infrastructure that would be able to automatically interface with the digital assets in space and manage the digital payload. SES is moving in the same direction and has recently announced its partnership with Kythera Space Solution to develop a software system called ARC (Adaptive Resource Control) that would dynamically synchronize the space and ground-based assets.
“The new payloads represent a big step in capability but also a big step in complexity,” says Sanders. “It’s no longer realistic to manage that complexity without software components on the ground as well.” More automation of the overall ecosystem is what the players expect going forward. Further changes will come with the development of on-board data processing and satellite crosslinks, which would enable individual satellites to communicate with each other, says Johnson.
“The advent of terrestrial cloud computing enabled many revolutionary applications, such as Uber, for example,” said Johnson. “At that time, no one knew what that would do and we are at a comparable moment in space. It’s much more difficult to create the cloud environment in space and we are only just starting, so ten years from now, we will see what will come out of it.”
Manufacturers rolling out reprogrammable, software-defined satellites worry hackers will find vulnerabilities. “Cybersecurity is probably the only thing that keeps me awake at night,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus Defense and Space. If a hacker was to take control of an Airbus-built satellite, the damage to the company’s reputation would be irreversible, he said. “If the trust disappears, there is no business,” he said. “However innovative you are, it’s gone.”
“One of the key components of SmartSat is the cybersecurity we built in from the beginning,” says Adam Johnson, SmartSat director for Lockheed Martin. As such, Lockheed Martin’s SmartSat-enabled satellites are built to reset themselves faster, diagnose issues with greater precision, and more quickly detect and defend against cyber threats autonomously. On-board cyber defenses can be updated regularly to address new threats.
Lockheed Martin runs internal “hackathons,” directing its own employees to look for ways to break into satellites, according to Guy Beutelschies, Lockheed Martin Space’s vice president of communication satellite solutions. Satellites are increasingly at risk of cyber attacks, making cybersecurity a vital part of building a satellite, Beutelschies said. “Customers are going to recognize that [cybersecurity] is a capability they will absolutely have to have coming into the future,” he said.
Global Software-Defined Satellite Markets
The software-defined satellite market analysis projects the market to grow at a significant CAGR of 14.81% by value and 14.85% by volume, during the forecast period from 2019 to 2030. Europe dominated the global software-defined satellite market in 2018. Major countries such as the U.K. and France are the most prominent countries in Europe in the software-defined satellite market. During the forecast period, the Asia-Pacific is anticipated to grow at the highest rate due to an increasing requirement of the advanced satellite to attain sustainability.
Software-defined satellites are utilized by various end-users such as academic, commercial, and government. Academic end users are mainly the educational institutes and universities, which are developing their own software-defined satellites for space exploration and scientific research. Commercial end-users basically comprise the commercial industries, such as oil and gas, mining, and agriculture, which are utilizing software-defined satellites for their product mapping and earth exploration. Government end users are primarily those space agencies that are operated by governments of different countries.
Software-defined satellites fall in different mass categories which include heavy satellites, large satellites, medium satellites, and small satellites. Small software-defined satellite is currently the dominant segment in the market by volume in the market in 2018. The large-scale market penetration is due to the deployment of Spire global small satellite constellations equipped with software-defined radios (SDRs) and small satellites for technology demonstration purposes.
Types of subsystems included in the scope for software-defined satellites are payload, structure, telecommunication, on-board computer, power system, and attitude control system. The support subsystem, known as the satellite bus, comprises structure, telecommunication, on-board computer, power system, and attitude control system.
However, the payload which is software-defined is considered as the central unit of a software-defined satellite, responsible for providing core functionality and purpose for a particular application. The payload subsystem dominated the software-defined satellite market in 2018 and is anticipated to maintain its dominance throughout the forecast period (2019-2030).
The ongoing research activities around software-defined satellites for LEO is expected to support the software-defined satellite market growth in the orbit. Moreover, launching a satellite in LEO is convenient and suitable in the initial testing period. Companies like Kepler Communications, Iridium Communications, Inc., and Telesat are working on LEO-based models for software-defined satellites in response to Astranis, Airbus and SES, who are actively manufacturing GEO-based software-defined satellites.
The key players in the global software-defined satellite market, include SSTL, SSL, The Boeing Company, Airbus S.A.S, Harris Corporation, SES, Eutelsat, Intelsat, Inmarsat, Spire Global, AIKO Space, Maxar Technologies, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Thales Group, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Vector Launch, NVIDIA, and IBM, among others, in the company profiles section.
Both space agencies and the space industry are now realizing the advantages of “software-defined satellite” technologies. European Space Agency has been developing the first mission of this kind since 2012, called OPS-SAT . This 3U cubesat has been successfully launched in December 2019 as a secondary payload on Soyuz rocket from Kourou spaceport. Called a “software laboratory in space”, its mode of operation is essentially as defined above, with multiple users being able to upload and run their own software applications on its onboard computer, sharing the satellite instruments and hardware resources.
In November 2013, Spire Global released its first software-defined satellites ArduSat-1 and ArduSat-X (1U cubesats) from the International Space Station and quickly started transmitting data to Spire servers. The company was one of a handful of startups focused on launching small satellites.
Eutelsat Quantum is the world’s first software defined satellite in a geostationary orbit and uses technology from SSTL in the UK
The world’s first geostationary satellite, developed by Surrey Satellites in the UK, has been launched into orbit by ArianeSpace for European operator Eutelsat. The launch marks the culmination of 35 years of technology development for Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) which started in 1985 as a spin out of the University of Surrey in the UK developing small satellites. The successful launch of the Quantum satellite for Eutelsat is SSTL’s first geostationary satellite and the first with a software-defined architecture so that the platform can be reconfigured during operation.
The satellite is the first of a new generation of fully reconfigurable telecommunications satellites and is the first reprogrammable commercial telecommunications satellite to operate in the Ku a high-frequency band. The satellite’s eight beams can be redirected to move in almost real-time to provide information to passengers onboard moving planes or ships and can also be adjusted at the push of a button, so that more data is delivered when demand surges. “Eutelsat Quantum will have the capability to modify its coverage in real time to specific regions depending on customer needs. Traditionally Geostationary satellites are configured during construction to illuminate a specific region. This new-generation satellite will enable customers to pinpoint and then configure a precise route in order to track an aircraft or a shipping vessel, using ground control. This service is highly sought-after by governments and defense ministries as they can tailor the satellite’s features to suit their needs.”
Airbus Defense and Space
The commercial space industry also has started to work on making their satellite more “software-defined”. Airbus Defense and Space is already developing a software-defined platform for their geostationary telecommunications satellites and plans to launch several of them in the next years. In May 2019, Airbus signed a contract with Inmarsat to design, manufacture and build the first in their next generation of geostationary Ka-band satellites, Inmarsat GX7, 8, and 9. The three satellites are the first to be based on Airbus’ new OneSat software-defined satellites.
The three Ka-band satellites, GX7, 8 & 9, to be launched after 2023, feature on-board processing and active antennas, and will be able to adjust their coverage, capacity and frequency. Airbus said the OneSat platform, based on a standardized, modular and design-to-manufacture approach, could be delivered more quickly than existing telecommunications satellites.
In February 2019, Iridium completed the deployment of its NEXT constellation of 75 LEO satellites, manufactured by Thales Alenia Space. The Iridium NEXT satellites have a processor onboard with software that can be reprogramed and upgraded to deliver new, improved services that the old satellite could not provide.
The narrowband constellation, described as the most sophisticated telecommunications system in the world, provides voice and data services to users in remote locations all over the planet. “Iridium Next satellites have a processor onboard with software that you can reprogram,” says Thales’ Leboulch. “We can upgrade the software in order to deliver new, improved services that the old satellite could not provide.”
He adds that in narrowband satellites, such as those of the Iridium constellation, the software-defined approach is easier to implement compared to broadband geostationary platforms. “The more bandwidth, the more throughput you are processing, the bigger the challenge,” he says. “Nevertheless, it is achievable today with the progress of digital technologies.”
American satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin has started launching next-generation CubeSats into the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Lockheed Martin “software-defined satellite” program, called SmartSat completed their first mission: “Pony Express-1” payload experiment on a cubesat launched in January 2020. They will attempt to fly in formations, act like a space-based cloud computing platform, process data on board, and have their functionality changed through software updates beamed from the ground during the mission. The demonstration will present Lockheed Martin’s entrée into the era of software-defined satellites, which rely on rather generic hardware but flexible software to define their missions. Lockheed’s contribution to the nascent technology is called SmartSat. For the upcoming experiments it will be combined with the company’s new SpaceCloud and HiveStar technologies, the latter being responsible for the swarming behavior.
According to Adam Johnson, SmartSat program manager at Lockheed Martin, SmartSat is essentially an operating system, or rather an operating environment, something like iOS for satellites. In the future, the system could run on all types of Lockheed Martin’s spacecraft from the smallest cubesats to the flagship geostationary platforms. The operators could then upload whatever applications they need based on the requirements of their missions.
Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES has been among the earliest advocates of the software-defined technology. The company’s upcoming MEO constellation O3b mPOWER, which is set to enhance the existing O3b, will be based on a partially software-defined approach, which will allow unprecedented flexibility in terms of bandwidth allocation.
“We have reduced the number of analog components, which obviously reduces the size of the satellite, its mass and the cost,” Sanders says. “The biggest advantage, however, is that we can move into complete digitalization of the spectrum and that gives us an enormous amount of flexibility in what we can do with that spectrum.” The channels can be defined flexibly based on the actual needs of customers in any given moment and adjusted based on the changing demand.
“When you couple that with electronic beam steering, which is what we are doing with O3b mPOWER, we can generate a beam specifically for each customer and give them exactly the amount of bandwidth they need.” Traditionally, customers would buy a fixed amount of bandwidth, usually higher than what they actually need, Sanders said, which would mean that a lot of capacity would go unused. The flexible approach enables the satellite operator to use available bandwidth more efficiently and potentially serve more customers. The customers, on the other hand, only pay for what they actually use.
In September 2019, Boeing unveiled new 702X family of software-defined satellites. Based on its pioneering effort for SES’s O3b mPOWER MEO system, the 702X combines Boeing’s most advanced digital payload with transformational manufacturing technologies and innovative resource management techniques.
Activities in this segment are not limited to the established giants of aerospace industry. A number of space start-ups in US and UK are also working to launch their “software-defined” solutions, one of them being the Exodus Orbitals is relying on OPS-SAT mission to test some of building blocks of a “software-defined satellite” technology, with the goal of launching commercially available platform for space applications next year.
Intelsat’s Globalized Network of the Future – Innovation in Software
Satellite networks with their unmatched reach, ubiquity and security can enable connectivity and communications anywhere in the world. But like all hardware-based industries, our innovation cycles have traditionally been longer. Satellites can take three to four years to develop and launch, yet demand patterns are evolving at breakneck speeds. How can we keep pace with technology change while ensuring we have the flexibility to address new opportunities and customer requirements? How can we ease the complexity of our increasingly connected world to deliver services that are so simple, they’re plug and play?
Solving these complexities means moving toward software-based approaches that will give us the massive scale, agility and economics required to meet demand – anytime, anywhere. At Intelsat, we’re already moving in this direction, and our Globalized Network of the future will drive innovation through an entire software-defined (SD) ecosystem, including:
Software-defined satellites, modems and networks – Imagine being able to easily change the functionality of any one of these components on a global basis, with just the push of a button. Modifying the contours of our satellite beams on the fly and swapping our customers’ ground platforms, modems and compression technologies to the latest standard and functionality with a simple software download: that’s where we’re heading – and it will empower customers to transform their businesses with a Globalized Network that can easily adapt to their need and time to market. This is an exciting opportunity for Intelsat, and it means relying more on software to deliver these services – faster and more cost-effectively than ever before.
Hardware that’s simple, reliable and scaled down to size – In parallel, we need to simplify the hardware to enable greater access and dynamic enhancements of networks on the fly. New low-profile, software-based antennas, like Kymeta’s metamaterials antennas, are a real game changer. They feature no moving parts and can be electronically steered to point to any satellite or shape beams to minimize interference. By pairing our Intelsat EpicNG High Throughput Satellites (HTS) with Kymeta’s metamaterials antennas, we’re able to accelerate and simplify access to satellite connectivity for a range of cost-effective mobility solutions. These types of advancements will let us open the door to new markets and applications that were limited by the constraints of traditional solutions.
Open systems and interoperability – Today the satellite industry has interconnectivity with wireless networks and fiber, but it’s critical to drive more interoperability with both terrestrial and space networks. Through our partnership with OneWeb, we’re building a complementary network of the future, one that delivers truly interoperable services between geo-stationary orbit and lower-earth orbit, with both constellations in Ku-band. Our open-architecture approach will also spur greater innovation and interoperability, enabling us to leverage the research and development from a large consortium of industry players to incorporate new advances as soon as they’re available. Intelsat EpicNG, for instance, is not only optimized for performance, it takes advantage of any developments made in a software-designed ecosystem. It’s backwards compatible, and compatible with future platforms, terminals and software modulations. Customers have the freedom of choice to incrementally build the network they want, while accommodating future requirements and technologies.
Scale and standards – Our industry needs to start working more closely with terrestrial providers and other operators to build standards and business models that enable satellites to plug and play into their solutions.
IntelsatOne® Flex is a prime example of how we can enable network operators to customize, prioritize and contend Mbps so they can differentiate their services and lower their total cost of ownership. In addition, we are working to add automated activation and de-activation features that will allow IntelsatOne Flex to address millions of remote terminals, not just hundreds or thousands. Separately, we are educating regulatory organizations to ensure our target applications, like the connected car, will have the proper licensing framework that can drive the greatest levels of adoption. In that regard, our focus on Ku-band currently gives us access to the cleanest regulatory environment and greatest cost advantage. But we’ll continue to explore new frequencies, including Ka, Q and V bands, and optical links, as these spectrums may provide an economical choice to access our satellites and serve our customers.
We’ve been laying the foundation with our Globalized Network to create an ecosystem with the software-defined satellite networks, modems, antennas, wave forms and interoperability required to realize the full potential of future applications and connectivity needs. This is a far cry from the hardware-centric, closed systems that have characterized much of our industry, but it represents where the connected world – and Intelsat – is heading.
Lockheed Martin Launches First Smart Satellite Enabling Space Mesh Networking
A new era of space-based computing is now being tested in-orbit that will enable artificial intelligence, data analytics, cloud networking and advanced satellite communications in a robust new software-defined architecture. Recently, Lockheed Martin launched the Pony Express 1 mission as a hosted payload on Tyvak-0129, a next-generation Tyvak 6U spacecraft.
“Early on-orbit data show Pony Express 1 is performing its important pathfinding mission very well. Lockheed Martin’s HiveStar™ technology on board will give our customers unparalleled speed, resiliency and flexibility for their changing mission needs by unlocking even greater processing power in space,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space. “This is the first of several rapid, self-funded experiments demonstrating our ability to systematically accelerate our customers’ speed to mission while reducing risk from new technologies.”
Pony Express 1, an example of rapid prototyping, was developed, built and integrated in nine months, and was funded completely by Lockheed Martin Research and Development funding. This orbital proving ground is validating payload hardware and software, and is packed with new technology that fits into a satellite the size of a shoebox. Some of the key technologies being flight-tested include:
HiveStar™ software validates advanced adaptive mesh communications between satellites, shared processing capabilities and can take advantage of sensors aboard other smart satellites to customize missions in new ways previously difficult to achieve in space.
A software-defined radio that allows for high-bandwidth hosting of multiple RF applications, store-and-forward RF collection, data compression, digital signal processing and waveform transmission.
Pony Express 1 is a dual-use payload that enables mesh networks in space through HiveStar™ and a second function that tests space to ground remote sensing. Future research missions this year, like Pony Express 2, will further advance cloud networking concepts among satellites, as well as validating Lockheed Martin’s SmartSat™ software-defined satellite architecture which enables streamlined hosting of flexible mission apps. This mission consists of two 12U cubesats with faster, more capable ultra-scale processors that unlock in-orbit data analytics and artificial intelligence. Equipped with miniaturized cross-link and precision timing, Pony Express 2 is a trailblazer for autonomous teaming in space and true cloud networking.
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