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New Space and New Leo Satellite Constellations

by Bill Ingle, Senior Analyst

February

 

Anyone who hasn't been paying attention to satellites and the space launch business in the last few years may not have heard of "new space."

The terms refers to a new era characterized by the miniaturization of space technologies, the rise of "smart" antennae, and greatly reduced launch costs as commercial companies have entered the space launch business.
 
Typically, space technologies change more slowly than what happens back on earth. Satellites, once in orbit, stay in orbit, often for many years. Terrestrial technology trends may have little immediate impact.
 
Eventually, though, these do impact the space business – new satellite constellations will eventually be launched at reduced cost compared to older constellations. The new satellites ("nano," "micro," and "cube") are smaller – sometimes much smaller – than existing satellites, taking advantage of the perpetual miniaturization of electronics even as processing and communications capabilities have increased. 
 
New LEO Constellations
Quite a few LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite constellations have been planned and/or approved in the last few years; Beecham Research has counted eighteen, and there may be more. If all of the satellites in these constellations end up in orbit (assuming the companies intending to place them in orbit survive; many are start-ups), the total number of satellites will be in the thousands.

Twelve of the eighteen constellations are focused on providing connectivity for M2M/IoT applications. The other six offer more bandwidth and are focused primarily on providing Internet access. One, Kepler Communications, will offer broadband connectivity but is focused on IoT and other services, including telecommunications.

Those in businesses requiring M2M/IoT satellite network access are familiar with the existing constellations, including Iridium, Globalstar, and Orbcomm LEO constellations. How do "new space" LEO constellations focused on IoT differ from these?  To get an idea of this, this article focuses on one of the twelve  - Astrocast. 
 
Astrocast SA, founded as Else in 2014, is headquartered in Ecublens, Switzerland. It is a planned network of Nanosatellites providing global L-band machine-to-machine (M2M) services. The satellites will orbit in a polar orbit, which allows the creation of a global network covering the entire globe, including the poles. Thanks to a dedicated frequency band, the constellation can scale without fear of noise generated by other devices. Astrocast estimates it can build, launch and operate a 64-cubesat constellation for less than $50 million to provide low-data-rate communications. The constellation will consist of eight operational satellites per orbital plane, the eight different orbital planes in sun-synchronous polar orbits. It is an ultra-narrow band, very small data packet, low data rate system. This matches LoRa and Sigfox in unlicensed LPWA and NB-IoT in licensed LPWA, so highly complementary to those technologies.  Airbus did the system design for the satellites, including the multi-access protocol scheme and also the ASIC that handles all of the satellite RF components. 
 
Three key features stand out:

  1. The system is a low latency, two-way system (true duplex).  Most of the other players are one-way (simplex).
  2. The ASIC is very power efficient; peak power on transmit is under 500 milliwatts.  By comparison, traditional LEO peak power in transmit mode is up to 7 watts. That has a dramatic impact on the design of the transmitting device  - it uses a lot less power.
  3. Astrocast has partnered with Thuraya to utilise L-Band.  The other players use 400 Mghz UHF systems.  UHF requires much larger antennas that are much more difficult to incorporate into very small form factor devices. 

 
The full constellation will consist of eight satellites in eight different polar orbits for a total of 64 satellites. If all goes well, Astrocast's reduced costs and smaller, more power efficient devices will mean reduced prices for Satellite IoT connectivity covering the nearly 95% of the earth’s surface not covered by cellular.

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