Economic and Market Trends for Ground Systems to Support New and Future Small Satellite Systems
The history of space applications and especially satellite communications has been significantly focused on the deployment of spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, as first proposed by Arthur C. Clarke. This special orbit uniquely allows ground antennas to be constantly pointed to satellites in GEO orbit that appear to hover constantly overhead. This feature allows the ground stations to be simple in design and, once installed, actually require a minimum of maintenance. This has been a particularly attractive feature for applications such as direct broadcast satellite radio and television services where many hundreds of millions of users are receiving programming from the skies.
The concept of using much lower orbiting satellite clearly could have advantages if there were a low cost and efficient way of tracking such satellites as they passed overhead from horizon to horizon. These advantages include reduced latency or transmission delay, less signal spreading or so-called path loss, and higher-efficiency spot beams that allow more efficient use of spectrum by means of frequency reuse. These new types of satellite systems, in theory, might be able to more closely approximate the effectiveness of cellular telecommunications services.
In short, the choice of GEO systems over MEO or LEO satellite constellations has been driven most powerfully by the cost, technical design complexity, and operational difficulties of ground antenna systems needed for these MEO and LEO satellite systems that require rapid track of spacecraft in these lower orbits as they traverse the skies.
The recent breakthroughs in the design of satellite ground antennas that can be designed to track satellites via electronic means rather than physical tracking processes have been the key to the small satellite constellations. The design of cost-effective flat panel satellite antennas is seen as the answer to ground systems being too expensive because of the need for rapidly moving satellites in LEO orbit. In short these new flat panel systems with electronically steered antenna systems that can be deployed in remote areas and operate reliably will be key to the success of the new smallsat LEO constellations. These new ground systems can be designed to support telecommunications, Internet broadband networking, cellular backhaul, and other services such as IoT messaging, machine to machine (M2M) services, and possibly even broadband Over-the-Top video streaming for news and movie/radio entertainment.
This chapter explores the changes that have come and will evolve in terms of the economics and market trends related to the production and use of ground stations that can electronically track small satellite constellations in LEO and MEO orbits. It examines not only the market for these new type of ground systems but also looks briefly at the many suppliers that are developing the ability to produce these new types of antennas. It also explores some of the emerging strategic partnerships between the operators of these new small satellite constellations and the manufacturers of these flat panel satellite antennas – also known as conformal shaped antennas. It notes that some traditional suppliers of parabolic dishes are adapting to produce these new types of antennas.
Clearly there are many new start-ups that are now also entering this new market. The billions of dollars that are being spent on new small satellite constellations are clearly creating a new market opportunity for a new billion-dollar market for flat panel satellite antennas or what are also called electronically steered antennas with auto signal acquisition. Other conventional antenna suppliers are focused on creating larger units for tracking, telemetry, and control of these large networks, but this will generally not require new technology. Some estimates have placed the market for new flat panel satellite antennas to be as large as $11 billion by 2028. This chapter explores the many factors that might influence the growth of this new market and the companies that are seeking to respond to this new market demand. It also seeks to provide some preliminary information about the strategic partnership between small satellite constellation operators and the suppliers of electronically steered antennas. Some of the biggest operators of small satellite constellations in LEO and MEO systems, however, might seek to build, deploy, and license their own ground systems.
KeywordsAdditive manufacturing Application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) Auto signal acquisition Cellular backhaul Electronically steerable antennas (ESA) Electronic tracking Flat panel antennas (FPAs) Flat panel satellite antennas (FPSAs),Ground systems Link budget Market trends Mobile satellite services (MSS) Over-the-Top (OTT) video streaming services Price sensitivity Small satellite constellation High-throughput satellites (HTS)
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