Taking the friction out of doing business in space
While space is full of cosmic voids, some measuring a billion light years across, closer to home lower-Earth orbit is humming with activity. Space is becoming big business, and it’s getting pretty crowded up there. As the next decade brings scaling on a potentially massive level, humans might be sending thousands of satellites up each year. If you’re launching constellations, you want them to be able to communicate with each other and to change their directives without them having to come back down to Earth. And it would be nice if there were some standardization so everybody’s on the same page and the industry can grow together.
Whatever you send up into space, you need a ground station back on Earth to communicate with it. As the number of satellites in space increases – it’s possible we will send 10 times more up in the 2020s than we have in human history – there’s an urgent need for more efficient ground communication. The windows for that can be small, often leaving only a few minutes to send signals up each time a satellite swings back above a small patch of Earth before going for another trip around.
“There’ll so many satellites that the dishes that are there will struggled to keep up with them, so they’ll miss passes,” Quasar Satellite Technologies CEO Phil Ridley told BOSS. “It’s a real challenge getting the ground sector to keep up. We’re hoping our technology will alleviate a lot of those bottleneck problems.”
Quasar’s technology is a phased array antenna that allows one ground station to communicate with up to 100 satellites simultaneously. The ground stations are fully digital and cryogenically cooled to prevent overheating while taking care of so much business. That will make select spots on the Earth capable of taking down more bandwidth and communicating with more spacecraft, enabling growth in the space sector.
As space gets more “congested and contested” as Ridley put it, what goes up will eventually have to come down. Some space junk consists of incapacitated satellites that can’t maneuver anymore and so are accidents waiting to happen. To be responsible users of space, companies need to make sure their spacecraft can maneuver throughout their life cycles and come down safely when it’s time to retire them.
“You need to be able to decommission and intentionally burn things up and bring them back down into the atmosphere,” Tom Barton, co-founder and CEO of Antaris told BOSS.
Antaris has developed a first-of-its-kind SaaS platform for satellites, with complete life cycle management, from conception to sustainable decommissioning.
The Cloud in Space
So far, building and launching has worked on an everyone for themselves basis, with no common set of software tools to guide owners from design to simulation to manufacturing to operations. This makes for a very siloed industry with closed analog systems that will struggle to scale and reach its full potential. Open standards-based software definition can remove a lot of that friction and drive costs down.
Think of it like bringing cloud computing to space. For example, Antaris’ True Twin technology is like a digital twin, only better. Customers can run a complete virtual representation of their satellites before they build them, much like with a digital twin. Once the satellite is up in orbit, operators can test software upgrades in a cloud-based simulation first. Assuming they get the results they want, they can then send those changes to the orbiting spacecraft.
“These are very basic concepts in enterprise computing, but nobody’s applied them to satellites before,” Barton said.
With a recently announced partnership, Antaris and Quasar will team up to make that technology available to all players in space starting in early 2023. Antaris will provide the software platform and Quasar will beam it to as many as 100 satellites at a time. The open APIs can provide a framework for different companies to cooperate and upend the industry with the kind of innovation national space and defense agencies love.
“In effect it provides a bit of a roadmap in terms of thinking through how they can have local industry but still fit into something that has the potential to be an open global standard,” Barton said.
The Next Decade
As universal agreement on core open-source standards drove growth in the terrestrial computing industry, it’s likely to do the same in space. Currently, the top-tier satellite manufacturers producing a few dozen satellites per year. As costs come down, they’ll be able to make more and dominate the industry.
“The winner is going to be that develops the capabilities to produce 1,000 spacecraft a year or maybe even 10,000 spacecraft a year if you look a decade out,” Barton said. “Anyone that wants to be a big player 10 years from now is going to have to move toward open standards and they’re going to have to figure out how the hardware side becomes much more scalable.”
Companies like Quasar and Antaris hope to be there providing ground support and software to keep business humming and making space truly accessible.
“We’re really looking forward to launching our system,” Ridley said. “If this thing does what we hope it will, it’ll make a gigantic difference to space. It’s like going from 2G to 5G.”
This era of space commerce is really just getting started.
“What we expect to see is a whole lot of new business cases coming up in space that weren’t there before,” Ridley said. “There’s a whole lot of downstream industries that will suddenly come out of nowhere from this wider connectivity to objects in space.”