New opportunities have made it possible for companies of all sizes to launch their own spacecraft into orbit and share information via satellite data – but challenges remain, and one of the biggest oversights is not having a plan for the ground element. And that’s a mistake, because not accounting for the physics of getting the data from the satellite to the ground puts the entire mission’s chance for success at risk.
Say you engineer a well-designed flight profile of your sophisticated spacecraft, as well as a sensor that can collect a large amount of data to satisfy the needs of your mission. That’s all great stuff – but if you didn’t plan for the transmission of all that data into a calibrated receiver, as well as map out an appropriate cadence of data transmissions, you’re only going to be able to access small snippets of data at a time. Think of trying to pour five gallons of cola through a soda straw, and you’ll get the idea.
Another issue is when companies do realize the importance of the ground element, but don’t plan for it early enough, instead designing everything else first and leaving the ground until the last minute. Contracting with someone for ground communications after everything else is decided and designed is like asking a plumber to install a bathroom after the house is completely built – you’ll have to tear down some walls and incur some extra costs, and it still might not end up quite what you wanted it to be.
The ground element is more complicated than people think for a few reasons. For starters, most of the Earth is covered by water, and where ground technology exists today dictates where a company places its antenna, so geophysical barriers must be considered.
Another reason is that ground communications are bound by regulatory bodies and laws. This means one needs to consider the agreed-upon laws for how radio spectrum is allocated and how each nation governs use of it. Many countries do not authorize use of certain frequency ranges – and this information is certainly publicly available, but if you don’t know where to look, it complicates things.
Additionally, governing bodies must issue licenses granting permission to operate ground stations in a specific area, and these can take quite some time to file and process.
When you think about designing your mission, keep the ground element in mind in order to build a system that aligns data transmissions, data receiving, and data deployment and exploitation.
When partnering with companies launching commercial satellites, ATLAS recommends these best practices to ensure they’re set up for success:
Plan far in advance. You’ll need to determine what type of radio and what frequencies to use, as well as what licenses you’ll need, and all of that takes anywhere from six months to multiple years to acquire and test.
Don’t look at the ground solution like a commodity; instead, look at ground infrastructure consultants Like ATLAS as another partner. Engage these advisors early on – in the proposal stage – to ensure they can consult on the best options for what the overall launch plan and mission purpose require for success.
Be thoughtful for where you accept risk – because while there always will be some risks in a mission, some can be controlled, and it’s important to test for and attempt to eliminate as many risks as possible, as early as possible. For example, don’t skimp on the final test, because that’s where you find out if all of the pieces you put together actually will work correctly, or on access to your data, because access to good data was likely your whole reason for the launch in the first place.
Keep it simple and standard when it comes to building out the ground elements for space communication. Non-traditional schemes will drive businesses toward niche solutions that necessitate significant engineering time and equipment modifications. That will pull your allotted resources – time and money – from what should be your priority: your spacecraft and its data.
The ground element impacts the entire mission, and companies need a plan for how to get data down to earth and distributed – because good data is useless if it just gets to Earth and stops.