Next-Generation Satellites: From Loners in Space to Network Nodes

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11 Jan 2022
5 min read
Next-Generation Satellites: From Loners in Space to Network Nodes

The 4th of October 2023 marked the 66th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite.

The 84kg spacecraft, launched by the USSR, settled into an elliptical orbit, which took the satellite as close to Earth's surface as 228km and as far away as 947km. The satellite zipped around Earth every 96 minutes and eventually re-entered the atmosphere a few months later. Its architecture was, at most, rudimentary: its batteries weighed 51kg, it was equipped with a 1-watt transmitter which encoded telemetry in low-frequency pulses, and it was pressurised with nitrogen. It’s safe to assume that Sputnik’s architecture was exclusively crafted for this history-making project. Sputnik was a massive technological achievement, and it paved the way for an industry which changed forever the way we communicate with each other and the way we observe our planet, ourselves, and our Universe.  

Since Sputnik, nearly 10,000 satellites have been launched. At the start of 2024, the satellite tracking website “Orbiting Now” lists 8,377 active satellites in various Earth orbits. Most of them do not precisely look like Sputnik; they are surely more sophisticated. Not only in terms of the obvious more generous computing resources and data rates, but also in the way they communicate to their home bases. They do not, in most cases, unsystematically broadcast radio energy anymore, but they communicate using point-to-point encrypted links from space to ground.  

At the same time, the sad truth to admit is that satellites are still loners in space. They are largely unaware of the existence of other satellites, let alone being capable of sharing data between each other. Space systems are not interoperable and are rather uncomfortably disconnected. Think about how the Internet changed our lives by connecting computers together. That hasn't happened in space yet.

While Sputnik-1 itself as a milestone should be celebrated, Sputnik-1 as a paradigm of a lonely and disconnected space must serve as a compass of what needs to change. What are we still missing? How do we improve the use of satellites and make them meet the demands of today?

Some satellites generate high amount of data—a single acquisition from a camera or a radar can account for several gigabytes of raw data, creating terabytes of payload data per day. The real challenge is how to make sure this amount of data gets to the right hands as fast as possible. Onboard storage is not infinite, and more importantly, customers are having problems that are waiting to be solved with the help of geospatial data.

On the other hand, we have critical secure communications and the fact that they have become of paramount importance to the global society. Today, global communications mostly rely on terrestrial network solutions that tend to be more and more integrated. A failure of one element has the potential to create a major service disruption to the entire network. This in turn could impact essential governmental or institutional services or operations that are deemed crucial in various fields. Bringing space into the picture can significantly help to avoid concerns of security and efficiency.

Space-Internet-of-Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) has dominated the world by creating smart systems and applications. It is predicted that the number of connected gadgets in IoT will increase from 17bn in 2024 all the way up to almost 30bn by 2030 (sources: Transforma Insights; Exploding Topics).  

It is, therefore, essential to address the key challenges, such as scalability, ubiquitous global coverage, and real-time connectivity, that arise due to this immense growth of IoT devices. However, exclusively relying on the existing terrestrial networks to achieve scalability and global coverage is not a cost-viable solution. A hybrid solution that would encompass space, on the other hand, can act as a suitable platform to solve the majority of existing and upcoming problems in the IoT domain. Adding appropriately customised secure satellite communications components to telecommunication infrastructures can bridge the gap, help to connect the unconnected and ensure the secure components operate uninterruptedly to channel the most sensitive and critical communications services.  

Following the described trend, it is safe to assume that employing space technologies for IoT applications will create so-called Space-Internet-of-Things (Space-IoT), a concept that involves a satellite, or a network of them, to address the main challenges in terrestrial IoT deployments – global coverage, scalability, and real-time connectivity.

End users at large will still be located on the ground segment, and the space domain will provide new data routes, as well as complete the existing solutions that are less efficient. The space networks will also be used to connect all orbiting space objects to the internet, revolutionising access to space assets. With routing, server and edge computing1 functionalities on the platforms in space, a new era of next-level smart and powerful networks could be unveiled.

Why is moving data in space of utmost importance?

IoT sensors and edge processing on satellites can enable further breakthroughs in civil applications. With the Internet expanded into space, end users could transport their data through new paths, complementing or completing existing data routes, since high performance edge computing will help commercial solutions with the autonomous processing of advanced analytics and algorithms at the edge, for more timely delivery of information. Initial use cases might include emergency services, satellite backhaul, connecting remote locations, military operations, maritime and aviation connectivity. Looking further, the increasing availability of faster data sources via 5G/6G, such as Earth Observation (EO) and mobility data, will unlock the potential to analyse and understand issues previously considered too complex, building new use cases and demonstrating the value of geospatial data.

EO applications and technologies are used in a wide range of applications. Sixteen downstream market segments have been identified by EUSPA, in which applications powered or enabled by Earth Observation play an influential role. The sectors range from Agriculture to Urban Development and Cultural Heritage to Climate Services, Energy and Raw Materials, and address end users across public and private sectors, including individual citizens. With EO sensors in Space-IoT, EO downstream markets will be redefined where direct access to data has a profound impact. Real-time access to sensors and equipment by connecting space assets to the internet will change the way users demand and apply data for various purposes, such as enhancing crop growth, battling climate change, responding to emergencies etc.

Software-first satellites at the forefront

As the satellite industry evolves towards an increasingly interconnected, data-driven environment, software plays a key role in ensuring full satellite flexibility, and enabling more integrated, higher-performance and more resilient software-defined networks.

Space is no different from other major industries, all of which are being transformed by digitalisation and the consequent predominance of software. The automotive and aeronautics sectors offer striking parallels to current developments in the space industry.

For example, “software-defined vehicles" have become a new standard in the automotive industry, as the value of software in a vehicle exceeds that of hardware. Moreover, it reflects the gradual transformation of cars from essentially mechanical and electronic platforms to intelligent and upgradeable ones. Cars become pre-integrated with advanced hardware that will be progressively enhanced via Over-The-Air systems throughout the lifecycle of the vehicle. According to the reports by Deloitte, BCG, and Ericsson, more than 50% of a car value is now related to embarked software, while more than 90% of innovations in the car industry are related to software.

While satellites have been operated almost manually for years, the advent of constellations, which require real-time management, together with interconnected satellites and terrestrial networks, are revolutionising the way satellite systems are operated. Previously human-intensive applications, such as surveillance and maneuver decision-making, will be performed autonomously by AI as a key supporting tool to mission planning and management, increasing the precision and speed of these operations whilst reducing human interaction.

Advances in AI and onboard processing are key to reducing TT&C operations, which is of primary importance in a constellation architecture. Onboard processing enables almost fully automated management of constellations, whilst enabling greater efficiency, improved lead times and reduced costs. With advances in AI, satellites will not only be able to run their daily operation and process their own health check but also to predict future trends, including self-diagnosis of failures, and act accordingly to avoid them.

In addition, the modularisation of space systems implied by a full software approach and the use of generic components for these modules, means greater interchangeability and, therefore, opportunity for higher volume production. This is especially true for the payload modules, which stand as the most expensive element of the system.

Download the full report on why software plays a key role in ensuring full satellite flexibility, and enabling more integrated, higher-performance and more resilient (software-defined) networks

ReOrbit spearheads the digital transformation of the industry towards software-centric systems that enable a next generation of more modular, more inter-connected missions. Our focus is securing data connectivity in space for commercial, civil and defence applications and seamlessly integrating those systems with terrestrial networks. ReOrbit's flexible and intelligent satellite platforms can cost-efficiently adapt to any mission and function as network nodes in space, solving customer needs for faster and more reliable data access, required for enhanced situational awareness and value-driven decision-making. For a more secure, resilient, and connected tomorrow.

1 - Edge computing is a distributed computing framework that brings enterprise applications closer to data sources such as IoT devices or local edge servers (source: IBM)

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