7 things you didn’t know about space-based communications that you should be excited about
Space is often associated with being the next frontier for science, exploration and discovery, but it’s also home to a rapidly developing communications industry, not only increasingly the diversity of connectivity options available to us on Earth, but changing the way that data collected in space is processed and communicated to us. These space based communication trends are driven by the increasing commercial activity in space, the insatiable need for data transfer, and the desire to have different and innovative connectivity options, especially for traditionally underserved regions.
1. The launch problem is solved, reducing the cost of putting communication assets in space
Space development is rapidly accelerating due to the ability to undertake low-cost launches. Over the past 10 years, the cost per kilogram of payload (the object you are putting in space) has been cut 7x from $10,000 to just over $1,500, with even more ambitious goals to reduce launch costs in the future. In addition to reducing the launch cost, the business models surrounding launch have changed with customers now able to access to rideshare, a concept where several participants place their payloads in the same launcher. There is still a shortage of launch capacity and we expect this continue into the medium term until newer players like RocketLab and Vector Lab substantially increase operations. While this occurs, Uber-like platforms like SpaceFlight, which connects rocket and launch capacity with organizations needing to launch payload, are being used to more efficiently allocate the existing launch capacity.
Startups in Focus: SpaceX Rideshare Program, RocketLab, ExoLaunch, SpaceFlight
2. The next challenge is to increase the affordability of low latency, high bandwidth communication applications
While the number of assets in space is growing rapidly, further development is needed before space-based communications are a cost effective replacement for mainstream telecommunications and backhaul. To achieve this goal, we expect there to be major increases in the number of user terminals and improvements in handset availability and affordability. Currently, satellite phones cost $800+ and offer very limited functionality compared to even a low-end smartphone. Additionally, major smartphone manufacturers are not interested in adding satellite functionality to their products yet and current LEO satellite communication is focused on the fixed broadband market. However, SpaceX has begun private beta testing, offering a 19-inch satellite dish and Wi-Fi router for $499 and a monthly subscription for $99, and Amazon’s Kuiper initiatives are promising prices 5–10x cheaper than existing offerings. Reducing the cost of CPE equipment and the overall offering is critical to the mainstream adoption of space based communication.
Startups in Focus: SpaceX, Amazon, AddValueTech, SpaceBridge, Kymeta
3. While mainstream use of space based communication networks are limited for the moment, space based connectivity is already perfect for many remote IoT device applications
There is significant demand for organizations to be able to access, control and/or analyze the data gathered from remote IoT devices. Remote devices often lack the terrestrial infrastructure to communicate with the network and many devices only require connections with minimal latency requirements. For example, common agricultural applications, climate studies at the North Pole, buoys that monitor the ocean conditions all need satellite access, but low latency is often not a requirement. Satellite communications are already in use in some more data heavy applications such as providing in-flight connectivity over oceans and are expected to have strong potential as a back up to the built-in telematics and sensors of self-driving vehicles when they are remote areas. The exponential growth of number of IoT devices (which often do not have significant latency requirements) are boosting the demand for satellite solutions in space and on the ground.
Startups in focus: SatixFy, Totum, Swarm Technologies, Kepler
4. Data processing will increasingly occur in space, rather than back on earth
There is a significant amount of data that is being collected by satellites which requires analysis and interpretation. There are currently over 2,500 operational satellites in space and it is expected that there will be 50,000 satellites over the next 5 to 7 years. There is already not enough capacity for all information that is collected by these sensors to be transferred to earth for observation and this capacity shortage is expected to continue. Terrestrial edge computing (placing processing power near the edge of the network to reduce the need for transferring data to central hubs for processing and back to the end user) is being developed as a solution to the global backhaul shortage and is highly applicable to space based communications where processing can occur in space, reducing data that is required to be sent to ground for further processing.
Startups in Focus: OrbitsEdge, Maxar Technologies
5. The growth in space debris is a long term challenge for the space industry
There is strong growth for satellite servicing and life extension due to the high cost of satellite replacement. However, this is currently limited due to a lack of space based maintenance development, with many providers now electing to retire their satellites instead. These satellites can contribute to space based debris if end of life procedures are not completed correctly or if extending their life results in components weakening and detaching from the satellite. Out of approximately 5,000 satellites in the orbit now, around 50% are not operational and more than double that number are unresponsive or unaccounted for. Other objects include rocket stages and even nuts and bolts left behind by astronauts, not to mention millions of smaller, harder-to-track objects such as flecks of paint and bits of plastic. Collision with one of these objects can not only impair a satellite’s functionality, turning it into additional space debris. There are number of companies focused on extending satellite life through proper maintenance (which helps reduce the creation of space debris), but investment in general space debris removal is extremely limited as it is very difficult to identify a paying customer.
Startups in Focus: LeoLabs, Clearspace, RestoreL, Astroscale, Scoutspace
6. The form factor (size) of satellites is becoming smaller, reducing satellite launch cost and increasingly the attraction of satellite “swarms”
Following the reduction in launch costs, satellites are also becoming smaller and cheaper. The most common type of miniature satellite is the CubeSat, with a weight between 1 and 10kgs. Miniaturized satellites are often placed in low earth orbits and are launched in groups called “swarms.” The low cost of production, ease of scaling (increasing the size of the constellation) and lower financial risk (e.g. if a CubeSat collides with space debris) attracts investors and increases competition and further technological development. CubeSats are generally more “eco friendly” — the smaller size allows them to fully burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry, unlike some bigger satellites. ChipSats (even smaller version of CubeSats) are also being discussed, however, they are currently pending regulatory approval.
Startups in Focus: Planet Labs, SPIRE, Astranis, GomSpace, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Loft Orbital
7. Laser communication will be increasingly use for communication between space assets in orbit
There will be a greater need for communication between space assets as the number of constellations and space assets increase. Astronauts in space, deep spacecraft and communications between space assets (i.e. interspace networks) all require reliable connectivity. Laser communications are being developed with ambition of delivering speeds of 1 Gbps and a promise to solve not only space-to-space communication challenge, but also increase space-to-earth data transmission rates. In order to increase network efficiency, we expect to see space backbone offerings appear on the market, increasing the resilience of space based communication network through mesh like network capabilities.
Startups in Focus: Mynaric, Skyloom, Isotropic Systems, Analytical Space, MadeInSpace, LaserLight
Space based communication is an additional communication option that connectivity providers should consider as a complement to their stack of existing connectivity offerings. On the ground, this disruption is likely to rapidly accelerate the connectivity options that are provided to people living in remote areas and IoT devices that do not require high latency. For existing space assets, this is a game changer in how devices connect with other space assets and how they process and analyze the data that is collected in space.
About the Author:
Bradley Kalgovas is a Senior Consultant at Detecon Inc. in San Francisco with a passion for new connectivity infrastructures. He is also part of the Detecon International Networked Infrastructure Practice and is actively working on solving the world’s connectivity issues.