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Leaf Space Building 20 Ground Station Network for SmallSat Market

By | December 16, 2015
      Leaf Space Leaf Line

      The Leaf Space executive team. Photo: Andrea Scaringello

      [Via Satellite 12-16-2015] Leaf Space, an Italian startup company, is building a network of private ground stations tailored for the growing small satellite market. The company received a grant from the European Commission’s Horizon’s 2020 fund, and is currently building the first ground station in the network, with more to come over the next two years.

      Giovanni Pandolfi, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of Leaf Space, told Via Satellite that the company identified ground operations as a strong area of need for nano and micro satellites, and one that the company could address as a startup itself. Given the growing popularity of small satellites in remote sensing, telecommunications and academia, Leaf Space is not alone in this pursuit. The company joins others such as Spaceflight Networks, which is also building a network of ground stations, and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), which recently completed a SmallSat-dedicated ground station in Panama. Not unlike the growing number of companies developing new launch services for small satellites, companies both established and new are also beginning to introduce new ground segment services tailored to this market.

      Leaf Space originally got its start focusing on the launch market, but Pandolfi said it became apparent it would be difficult to find the funding to do a new launcher in Italy. The company shifted instead to the ground segment, deciding to build a ground network for burgeoning small satellite operators. Pandolfi said that though some companies such as Spire and Planet Labs have invested in their own ground segment networks, many small satellite operators either do not want to, or lack the means to allocate extensive amounts of their own resources to operational functions. Leaf Space’s network, known as Leaf Line, targets these satellite operators as customers.

      “What we thought about with Leaf Line is a ground station network that could increase this visibility time of the satellites. We have at this stage plans to have four ground stations operating in the first half of 2016, and eight ground stations working at the end of 2016, and then having 20 working by 2017. With this step we can assure — at the end of this plan — up to six hours of visibility time per day per satellite,” said Pandolfi.

      Leaf Space is designing and testing the first of these ground stations in Italy today. Pandolfi said the full 20-station Leaf Line network will be able to download as much as seven terabytes of data everyday from space. At this stage, future customers are helping Leaf Space evaluate the system. Pandolfi said Leaf Space desires to have four ground stations running and operational before actively selling the Leaf Line service, at which point customers would have up to one full hour of visibility with their spacecraft.

      “We have the first one here in Milano, Italy, one probably in Bulgaria, one in Scotland, and one in Spain. From that point we plan to have the other four ground stations in 2016 in Europe too, and the other 12 to complete the ground station network will be located in South America, Japan, Australia and India,” he said.

      Pandolfi expects the first four stations needed to initiate service will be ready in July 2016. He said Leaf Space is currently finishing the work necessary to establish ground stations outside of Italy. Pandolfi said Leaf Space’s ground segment has attracted investors to help fuel the company and, in addition to the H2020 grant, more financial support is on the way.

      “We are now finalizing an investment from a private fund that is good for us to sustain the plan,” said Pandolfi.

      Regarding spectrum, Pandolfi said Leaf Line will use X band, S band, Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF), with VHF and X-band operations conducted for downlink exclusively. The company is also planning to use Ka band in the future.

      “Since we are a private company, we cannot use radio-amateur frequencies. A lot of commercial providers of CubeSats and nano-satellites actually use radio-amateur frequencies that fill up the bandwidth, so it is kind of a mess to communicate in this spectrum. We use only commercially available frequencies or experimental frequencies, and in this way we can solve this problem that really affects the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). That’s why we don’t use VHF in uplink,” he explained.

      Pandolfi said Leaf Space is offering two different payment systems: a monthly fixed fee or a megabyte-based system. The fixed price targets operators of larger constellations of satellites, while the data-dependent option is primarily for academia or experimental satellites. Leaf Space customers can use a web-based interface to interact with satellites and contact scheduling, and data goes directly to a cloud or other intended server. With the number of small satellites rising and their data needs experiencing a concurrent increase, Pandolfi expects the service will find a meaningful position in this new ecosystem.

      “We are trying to get to the market with something new for microsatellites,” he said.