Vital downlinks for a growing satellite industry

Ground Segment as a Service a key element for satellite operators without their own Earth antennas

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Commercial satellite imagery showing the movements of Russian troops in and around Ukraine would never reach government or news agencies without a ground connection for the satellite. For smaller players that don’t have their own ground system, there’s a way to provide them with one: Ground Segment-as-a-Service (GSaaS).

It’s a fast-growing industry in which Viasat is playing an ever-larger role.

For satellite operators without their own ground network, GSaaS allows them to download to Earth the data their satellites collect, then disseminate that information to those who need it.

The service can connect satellites in any orbit, but typically serves those in the rapidly developing low-Earth orbit (LEO) region of space.

As demand grows for data that services satellites help provide, the number of LEOs launching into space is growing rapidly.

LEO satellites — which include Earth observation, communications, and imaging satellites — orbit at an altitude typically between 500-1,500 km, and they do so quickly: LEO satellites travel at about 17,000 mph, fully orbiting the planet in about 90 to 120 minutes.

As they zip across the sky, all those satellites require multiple global ground stations to which they transmit their data.

“Many satellite companies don’t want to build out a global ground network,” said Aaron Hawkins, director of Viasat’s Real-Time Earth (RTE) service. “They want to focus on their satellites and missions. And that’s where Viasat and other GSaaS providers come in.”

Viasat provides that connection through its RTE service, helping fill an industry need by providing a way to get data from space to Earth.

Because Viasat builds antennas for its own needs and other clients at its Duluth, GA facility, it has a leg up on most of the competition.

“We one of the only GsaaS providers that builds and fields their own technology,” Hawkins said. “As a technology company, we’re able to provide a cutting-edge service, updating and upgrading along the way.”

While before many satellite operators had to rely on just a few ground stations around the world — meaning data could only be downloaded when the satellite passed over — Viasat’s expanding global network allows for much faster downloads from more locations. More locations means less time between data downloads and the ability to receive information in real time. That’s a must for certain use cases, such as monitoring wildfires, disaster zones, or other situations where things change rapidly.

Viasat has RTE antennas in the UK, Sweden, Ghana, Australia, Argentina and the U.S. state of Georgia. Another RTE antenna is expected to be deployed in South Africa within the next couple of months, followed by Japan by the end of the year. Sites are also planned in Alaska, Canada, and the Middle East.

“We’ll be in about 14 sites when we’re at full growth,” Hawkins said. “From there, we’ll just expand the number of antennas at each site as needed.”

In addition to its global coverage, Hawkins said Viasat’s system has other advantages.

“We provide larger aperture antennas than most out there, as well as high-rate modems tailored for Earth observation, so you’re able to get more data down in a pass,” he said. “For customers, that translates to a better value.”

A “pass” is the slot of time in which data is downloaded while the satellites is in view of the antenna.

With each new RTE antenna, Viasat is steadily decreasing the amount of time it takes to transmit data from collection to distribution and delivery.

“We’re getting better and better with each new antenna we deploy; the locations are strategically placed to reduce delays,” Hawkins said. “And our global network has its first polar site.”

That’s important, he explains, because while a satellite may pass over Atlanta three times a day, it will pass the pole 14 times a day, allowing for more frequent data downloads.

Real-Time Space

Satellites using GSaaS can currently only downlink when they pass over a ground station, so it generally takes about 45-90 minutes or more to transmit data from collection to distribution and delivery. That’s the same for all current GSaaS providers.

But, with the upcoming ViaSat-3 satellite constellation in geostationary orbit (GEO) that delay is expected to diminish dramatically. That’s because the ViaSat-3 GEO constellation will be global — within view of just about any LEO satellite at any time — so sending the signal from the LEO to the GEO can shorten the trip. Furthermore, with a one-to-many approach, the RTE Space Relay provides scalability that is difficult to match.

“We are integrating our Real-Time Earth service with real-time space relay,” Hawkins said. “Satellite operators will be able to take imagery and transmit on the ViaSat-3 network in real time where necessary. Satellite operators will still have access to our ground network for missions that can tolerate some amount of delay.”

That means operators will be able to switch between space relay and RTE direct-to-Earth depending on their needs.

“It’s very exciting,” Hawkins said. “We’ll likely be the only GSaaS provider that builds our own antennas and has our own space-served network. We also have the heritage of working with U.S. government and allied forces while providing the necessary level of security — including cybersecurity.

He added that Viasat provides among the highest commercially available cybersecurity protocols, and that the same team that provides security for our global internet service and in-flight connectivity also provides it for RTE.

How it works

Each pass requires careful management to avoid interference with other satellites. Viasat’s RTE service relies on an automated scheduler to accommodate demands for data downloads.

“Passes can be scheduled over a machine-to-machine interface with no human interaction required,” Hawkins said. “Once a pass is scheduled, nothing else needs to be done.

“When a satellite goes overhead, the antenna tracks it, downloads the imagery, and sends the data to where the customer needs it to go. That could be the cloud or their own operations center.”

Viasat also provides real-time reports: information sent to a customer with each pass that gives them basic data on the status of that transaction.

Each pass typically takes 10-15 minutes, with a firewall separating each customer’s pass data from the others. Viasat RTE customers pay by the minute and are only charged for time they actually use.

Because an individual antenna is fully occupied with each pass, Viasat plans to add additional antennas to accommodate growing demand.

“We’re seeing such huge growth in space with more and more and more satellites,” he said. “And they all need a way to downlink.”

While Viasat is not the only GSaaS provider, the demand for the service is so great that every provider should have ample business.

“We have competition but there are a lot of customers, and everybody brings something unique to the table,” Hawkins said. “We are firm believers in the win-win philosophy, and that this is a long-term game.

“We’ve never tried to be everything to everybody. We are seeking a very specific customer set that is interested in the higher performance we can provide with Viasat RTE — those that need a U.S. company or that need the cybersecurity assurance that Viasat can provide.”

Hawkins noted that Viasat not only collaborates with other providers, it encourages its customers to do so as well.

“We’ve established close relationships with many other GSaaS providers, and we strongly encourage companies not to go with just one provider,” he said. “For a fraction more, you can have two providers, essentially doubling your resilience. If one network stumbles, you’ve got backup.”

Listen to a recent webinar about GSaaS with Via Satellite Executive Editor Jeffrey Hill and Aaron Hawkins, John Williams, and Erik J. Eliasen at Viasat.

Jane Reuter was a Colorado journalist for 20 years before transitioning to Viasat as a corporate communications writer. A mother of one, she lives in Golden, CO and is an outdoor enthusiast.