Bringing Space Data Down to Earth: David Bettinger Talks SpaceLink Plans
Just before the end of the year, Electro Optic Systems (EOS) announced a new company called SpaceLink to establish a data relay satellite service. The venture is led by David Bettinger, who designed OneWeb’s first generation satellites. Bettinger is an industry veteran who has also worked for iDirect and Hughes Network Systems, but this is his first time taking the helm of a company. With this role, he is moving from a communication-based Low-Earth Orbit system, to a service targeting sensing satellites in LEO instead.
In this interview with Via Satellite, Bettinger shares more detail about SpaceLink’s plans, and how the company will establish a constellation of three satellites in Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) to help Earth Observation (EO) and other sensing satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) improve data download. SpaceLink has priority spectrum in MEO, originally secured by startup Audacy, which EOS acquired in May 2020. Bettinger talks about how the EOS vision has evolved from Audacy’s plans, and the opportunity in a satellite data relay service.
VIA SATELLITE: In layman’s terms, talk to me about SpaceLink’s plans for the data relay constellation, and how it will work.
Bettinger: We are interested in serving the vast amount of data that is coming from space. Most of the LEO satellites that are going up are not communication satellites, most of them are Earth Observation, radar satellites, or weather — something that is collecting information. Right now, the only opportunity for those LEO satellites that are collecting information is to store the data and to download it every 90 minutes when they pass over one of their gateways.
We’ll be launching four satellites — three operational, one spare — into Medium-Earth Orbit, which are always in sight of the LEO satellites. We can provide them with continuous coverage or immediate download. We can provide connectivity all the way back to a secure gateway that will be placed around Earth. With our inter-satellite links between the MEO satellites, we can always get the data back to the gateway that the customer prefers. For instance, if we’re serving the U.S. government, which is one of our key target markets, we’ll always be able to land our traffic in the United States.
VIA SATELLITE: What kind of links will be between the satellites?
Bettinger: They are RF [Radio Frequency]. We have over 21 GHz of ITU [International Telecommunications Union] priority spectrum, which is amazing for a satellite company. A lot of that capacity is dedicated toward inter-satellite link connectivity. We have a special Ka-band that goes between the LEO and our relay satellite, and a much higher frequency, a V-band frequency, that goes between the MEOs. Our downlink to the ground will be a traditional Q- and V-band gateway connectivity.
Our ultimate goal in a couple of years is to use optical links. That’s what our parent company EOS brings to the table, the expertise to do space-to-ground and ground-to-space laser communications.
VIA SATELLITE: What would be the benefits of moving to optical links in the future?
Bettinger: There’s several key benefits. One is to be able to move beyond the limits of RF in terms of bandwidth. We want to be able to serve the growing sensor satellites and other types of satellites with bigger and bigger links. By using the optical links, we can increase the per link connectivity speeds, and bring a much bigger pipe down to the ground right. It’s all about capacity.
For certain customers that don’t want to have their traffic snipped, an optical communication link provides an extremely narrow beamwidth that is almost impossible to pick up. It’s a very secure way of providing connectivity.
VIA SATELLITE: You mentioned Earth Observation satellites as customers you want to target. Who are your primary target customers?
Bettinger: It’s across the board. Certainly with the U.S. government, we have both military applications, and intelligence applications, which extend across the Five Eyes community. Those are very sensitive types of applications that we are building our network securely to be able to serve. In addition to that, [we are targeting] civil aerospace, such as NASA. We hope to get our first terminal either on the International Space Station [ISS], or perhaps a private company that is looking to add modules to the space station. And there’s human spaceflight, launch providers, and the whole world of commercial LEO satellites including Synthetic Aperture, and Earth Observation.
VIA SATELLITE: Do you have a goal set to work with a LEO broadband provider in the future?
Bettinger: It’s not really our target market. I just came from OneWeb and I know very specifically what they need — they need a very low latency, always-on connectivity. Whether it’s Kuiper, OneWeb, Telesat, or SpaceX, generally they want to serve their own customers with their own gateways. With LEOs, you’re not always over a gateway where you can get fiber connectivity. There is a possibility that there’s areas of the South Pacific, South Atlantic, and South Pole that are going to be very difficult for some of the LEO providers to connect to. They could be a target market for us, but it’s a lower priority.
We think the real value is customers that have critical data. [Customers that] can actually get more value from their data if they can get it into their customers hands quicker. It’s not really a comms play, or an internet play, it’s a data download play.
VIA SATELLITE: How large do you think the addressable market is for this service?
Bettinger: We have a lot of good data from both NSR and an Australian-based company L.E.K. The number of satellites out is in the thousands. We’re not initially targeting things like cubesats and smaller applications, which are not in the market for this type of always-on connectivity. But we certainly see potential revenues in the multiple billions.
VIA SATELLITE: And where do you see your position in that market?
We will effectively be the first ones. There are a couple of choices today, customers can continue to be serviced by ground station providers or on their own. NASA is looking to move toward commercial [capabilities] on the TDRS [Tracking and Data Relay Satellites] system, which is going to leave a lot of applications open to commercial service. Other providers like Inmarsat and Iridium in MEO have very low data rates. We really think we’re bringing something that is unique to the market and hope to have a very good lead. We’ll have our system up and running our initial system up and running and 2023.
VIA SATELLITE: As the company was recently announced, where are you in terms of hiring a team, and what is your timeline?
Bettinger: Before I joined, there were about 15 consultants and contractors for EOS working on the program since [about] 2019. The idea was to acquire the Audacy spectrum rights. As they worked through the process, they came up with the initial system architecture, which was very well-defined when I joined. We’re basically improving upon it, and getting our first launches, and our first service provisions by mid-2023, which will meet our ITU obligations, as well as our FCC obligations, which hit the following year. We have almost all of that team hired on for SpaceLink so far. We have a very strong management team that we’ll be announcing. We have people already working on business development and we have a pipeline of over 240 potential customers.
VIA SATELLITE: Was SpaceLink able to keep any of the customer commitments that Audacy had, and how has the system changed from Audacy’s original plans?
Bettinger: Audacy had a great idea, but they were challenged financially. As part of the due diligence process, we contacted every customer they had listed, they had MOUs that were quite impressive. We’ve been able to maintain communication with all of those that are still functioning.
What’s really different about our system — we’re targeting more of a government [market] in a very secure and extremely high reliability system. This changes the architecture of not only the satellite, but also the gateway locations, and the networking between those gateway locations. We’ve kept the spectrum rights, some of the target markets, and some of the customers that Audacy had. But we’ve changed almost every aspect of the technical system to be able to address the markets that we want to grow into.
VIA SATELLITE: Why would you say something like SpaceLink has not existed previously?
Bettinger: For the most part, you had big players like TDRS from NASA that were providing a service to themselves and launch providers. And there simply wasn’t that much data coming from LEO. As you’ve seen the number of satellites increase in LEO, taking away the communications and SpaceX’s number of satellites, you’ve seen a ramp up in applications over the past seven years. Launch costs have come down significantly, so it’s a lot easier to get your science application into space. And the technology — for example, cameras in infrared sensors or Synthetic Aperture Radar — that’s all becoming possible in space, whereas it probably wasn’t 10 years ago. The whole economics of space have changed.
VIA SATELLITE: You are a founding member of the OneWeb team, and 2021 is going to be a really exciting year for OneWeb. How did EOS get you to come on board for SpaceLink?
Bettinger: It’s been a tough year for OneWeb, to be fair. During my career, I’ve been primarily a technologist. I designed the first generation of the OneWeb satellites, and I’m not sure when they’re going to get to their next generation. There was kind of a lull in excitement for me over the summer. With the bankruptcy challenges, it had me considering other options. To be fair, it’s good to be out of the LEO game. It’s getting to be quite crowded and quite exciting there.
But [SpaceLink] is something that can take advantage of technology that’s available today, whether it’s bent-pipe satellites, or phased array antennas, or digital channelizes on the satellites, and has a roadmap toward some of the technologies on the optical side. It had the technical challenge for me. And, it was an opportunity for me to further my career. This will be my first opportunity to be at the helm of a company that I can help create and help drive in the direction that I see fit.
VIA SATELLITE: What was your reaction to the United Kingdom government being the one to purchase OneWeb’s assets with Bharti Global? Do you think that was a smart play on the part of the U.K. government?
Bettinger: I left OneWeb the day that the deal closed, so I really can’t say much about it. But I can say that it does make sense to me. Sunil Bharti Mittal was already an investor, he had the vision from the beginning. And he continued to support us through this whole period. He has a lot of global networks with his telecom business where he needs this type of connectivity, so it made perfect sense.
As far as the U.K. government goes, I was a little bit surprised. But once I started interacting with the government folks and realized some of the interest they had, it made perfect sense to me. I’m very excited for OneWeb. They will come through this, they already have.
VIA SATELLITE: On the LEO market overall, where do you think the industry is in terms of LEO development, and what needs to be done to realize the potential?
Bettinger: I separate the LEO market into two separate categories — the communications satellite side like Kuiper, SpaceX — and then there is a faster growing segment of the market in terms of the number of satellites and applications that are going up. LEO is absolutely critical for the inhabitants of the Earth to learn more about the Earth. I see the growth in this LEO space continuing to ramp up significantly.
On the communication side, I think there’ll be a number of different LEO comms plays that will be successful. I think the market is big enough. Well over half of the people on the Earth don’t have connectivity. But for me, the exciting thing is what scientists and governments are doing to learn more about Earth. They’re going to continue to improve their capabilities in the sensors and what they are able to collect, and we will be right there to serve them with getting that data where they need it to be. I think LEO is going to take hold in the comms, and grow even faster in the sensor applications.