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Spaceflight Teams with Spire, Radio Developers on SmallSat Ground Communications

By | July 14, 2015
      Spaceflight Networks Ground Stations

      Spaceflight Network’s projected ground station map in 2017. Photo: Spaceflight Networks

      [Via Satellite 07-14-2015] Approximately one year after establishing its Spaceflight Networks division, Spaceflight Industries has teamed up with four other small satellite companies to double its number of active ground stations by the end of this year and to expand the range of spacecraft radios SmallSat operators can use to communicate with the network. These companies include: Spire Global, Tethers Unlimited, BitBeam and Syrlinks.

      Spire, a satellite data company that has raised more than $80 million from investors, is building a global receiving network of 20 ground stations in 2015, with a goal of 50 stations in two years time. The company is building the ground stations to support its own constellation of remote sensing satellites for weather and maritime services, and will allow Spaceflight to offer ground communications services through its Ultra-High-Frequency (UHF) and S-band stations. Tethers Unlimited, BitBeam and Syrlinks are manufacturing spacecraft radios for end-to-end communications with Spaceflight’s S-band, X-band and UHF ground stations. The goal of the partnerships is to provide a solution for SmallSat operators to build and operate their satellite constellations without having to own their own ground network, or include the level of complexity associated with larger spacecraft.

      “In many ways, the communications needs of small and large satellites are very similar,” Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight, told Via Satellite. “The difference really comes down to cost and approach. For example, larger satellites require a lot of customization, including the customization of its ground station, which increases overall costs. We developed our ground station network specifically to serve the needs of the growing small satellite community and to enable access to space.”

      By partnering with Spire, Spaceflight grafts nine existing ground stations into its network. Andrews said the company has 12 stations in operation or under development. Spaceflight Networks combines its own stations and partner stations in a single user interface. By the end of 2015, the company plans to have 24 stations online, and by the end of 2016, more than 45.

      “We deployed our own network of ground stations because nothing like it existed when we began, and we knew that low-latency is essential to capture the real value from a constellation of small satellites,” Chris Wake, head of business operations for Spire, said in a statement.

      The radios are already being marketed to customers that can choose between a dedicated antenna lease and monthly payment, or ad-hoc access and pay-by-the-minute data plan.

      “We have customers that have committed to using our ground network, some of which have signed up for long-term usage, and we are actively signing other customers,” Andrews added.

      Tethers Unlimited, BitBeam and Syrlinks have the capability to produce multiple radio models compatible with Spaceflight Networks. Andrews said the company already has several different types of radios to offer and continues to identify additional models to increase its selection.

      Small satellites, due to their size, require smaller radios to fit within the spacecraft. Though there are significant similarities to larger satellites, the unique requirements of working with smaller units influenced both the radios and the ground systems.

      “Because of their size, SmallSats have a lower power capability than other larger satellites, which makes data transfer speeds slower. This is one of the reasons we want to have a large number of ground stations in our network. We sight our stations specifically to minimize latency, and with more stations online, SmallSats will rely less on power for the transfer of data, as they will frequently pass within range of our stations where download speeds are at optimum levels,” said Andrews.

      Spaceflight Networks has standardized the ground and spacecraft radios and communications protocols in order to streamline integration. The company’s communications services work for CubeSats and larger SmallSats.