Demand for optical communication is not just about security — Optical communication could be the key to a new technology that will revolutionize earth observation.
2022 was a historic year for optical communication technology in space.
The U.S. Space Development Agency (SDA) announced the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA*1) concept, which aims to transmit information to the ground using a constellation of large-scale military satellites. The critical technology used for the constellation is optical communication technology in space. A considerable budget has been allocated to the optical communication terminal market, and the practical application of optical communications in space is now moving into high gear.
(*1: In January 2023, the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA) was renamed the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA), which is understood from an article published by the U.S. Space Command to clarify the objective of “supporting the entire military (The joint warfighter) from space with a large constellation of military satellites (Proliferated Warfighter).)
The background to this change is the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago, on February 24, 2022. Still, at this time, Russia has never shown any intention of retreating against the West, and Ukraine has been showing its will to fight back to reclaim its territory. Amid the fierce fighting between the two sides, on March 19, 2022, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had destroyed an underground ammunition depot of the Ukrainian military using hypersonic missiles. Conventional missile defense systems are developed on the premise of intercepting ballistic missiles that fly in a parabolic trajectory. However, hypersonic missiles fly in a lower trajectory than ballistic missiles, making interception by conventional missile defense systems extremely difficult. Therefore, there is an urgent need to implement a constellation of large-scale military satellites to detect and track hypersonic missiles.
The market for optical communication terminals in space is growing at an accelerated pace due to the strong driving force of “security.” In this environment, Warpspace will continue accelerating in 2023 as the world’s first private-sector provider of data relay services using optical communications in mid-Earth orbit.
The question will be about the trend of this optical communication in 2023. To grasp this, our Chief Strategy Officer, Hirokazu Mori, attended the “SmallSat Symposium 2023,” an event for small satellite operators held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, USA, from February 7 to 9. The event was sponsored by SatNews, a media company that covers a wide range of satellite-related news.
Unlike the 24th Global MilSatCom held last November, SmallSat Symposium 2023 has less security-related content and is attended by many people involved in management and industry. In this interview, Mori, who participated on-site, introduces to you the latest technologies and market trends in small satellite applications.
Optical communication terminal operators begin to gather in the U.S.
In addition to a large stage on which keynote speeches and panel discussions are held, there were 40–50 large booths set up by businesses. Key people from industry and business development were holding business meetings and conferences at various locations. From Japan, Pale Blue, a company that develops water propulsion technology for small satellites, exhibited at the booth, showing their ambition to expand their business overseas.
On the other hand, as for the contents related to optical communications, the panel discussion on the theme of “Optical Comms for Inter-Satellite and Satellite-Ground Operations” was noteworthy. Top executives from Mynaric, Skyloom, Cailabs, SA Photonics, and Tesat Spacecom, all frontrunners in developing optical communication terminals in space, discussed the importance of optical communications.
As mentioned at the beginning of this interview, optical communication has gained much momentum from the perspective of national security in 2022. But this year, so many operators gathered at this symposium, which has less of a security flavor. The optical communication technology in space can handle large volumes of data quickly and safely. We realized once again that there is demand for this technology beyond security, not only for earth observation but also for space station-related businesses.
On top of that, many of the optical communication terminal operators gathered at this year’s event were based in Europe, which was not seen in a series of previous U.S. events. Until last year, only a few companies, such as Mynaric of Germany and SA Photonics of the U.S., were seen. This year, European optical communication terminal operators such as Tesat of Germany and Cailabs of France are beginning to gather in Silicon Valley.
“In the past, the U.S. space development strategy has focused on geodetic and radio communication using laser beams, but the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in the optical communication business.”, Mori explains. He further analyzes that “In this respect, the U.S. may be trying to supplement its lack of optical communication technology by investing resources in this way and attracting foreign private operators to the U.S.”
In response to this trend, major European space agencies such as ESA are selecting optical communications as a vital development item, and even though their budgets are not as large as those of the U.S., the competition between European and American optical communication terminal operators is expected to become more intense.
SpaceX’s solo victory? What are the risks facing the small satellite launcher industry?
In addition to optical communications, Virgin Orbit’s growing presence in the small satellite launcher industry was also noteworthy.
Although there are currently many players in the satellite launcher industry, including startups, the industry as a whole has been struggling with a lack of success in launching satellites. Astra’s Rocket 3.3, which develops small rockets, has failed twice out of four launches. The first flight test of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket resulted in the vehicle spinning midair and exploding. Not limited to startups, the launch of Arianespace’s Vega C medium-size rocket failed last December. In Japan, the failure of the Epsilon 6 launch vehicle last fall and the failure of the launch of the H3 rocket this March are also fresh in many people’s memories.
Against this backdrop, Virgin Orbit failed to put a satellite into orbit with the launch of “Launcher One” in January of this year, but it did reach an altitude of more than 100 km in space. “It was impressive that the company had a large booth here at SmallSat Symposium 2023,” says Mori.
In particular, the panel on “Achieving Optimal Affordability in SmallSat Launch Missions” has seen Mansat, Virgin Orbit, Arianespace, Avio, Rocket Lab, and Firefly Aerospace, all of which are in the launcher business. Mori felt a unique tension and atmosphere in the hall, which may come from the results of their most recent launches.
“One well-known launcher company (probably SpaceX) has launch prices so low that other small satellite launcher operators can’t compete.”
This was explicitly highlighted in the session and is an opinion that has been expressed many times before. But with the recent string of launch failures, it is becoming louder and louder. The payload providers fear launcher failure more than anything else. That is why payload providers enroll in insurance to receive cash coverage for their payload in case of failure. However, once a launcher fails, the insurance premiums become higher for further launches, making it more challenging to provide inexpensive launch opportunities. This will likely ensure SpaceX’s stable position in the space launch market.
“The satellite launcher industry is immature, not only in terms of technology but also in terms of management. If this situation is left unhandled, other than SpaceX will be eliminated, leaving no competition within the industry.”
Panelists shared this idea. Everyone in the market will have a closer eye on how they will change this situation.
Expectations for Optical Communications Grow Along with the Potential of Hyperspectral Cameras
The topic that attracted particular attention at SmallSat Symposium 2023 was the “hyperspectral camera.” Until now, satellite observations of the earth have mainly used infrared bands in addition to visible light (red, green, and blue), but the hyperspectral camera will observe in more than 100 bands and acquire various physicochemical data on the ground. Examples include nitrogen and sulfur oxides in the atmosphere, the amount of carbon dioxide and moisture present, and the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil. Based on these considerations, observation with the hyperspectral camera is a technology that could dramatically improve the qualitative resolution of Earth observation satellites. It is noteworthy that satellites using this technology are beginning to be used by commercial earth observation satellite operators.
(For more information on hyperspectral cameras, please refer to this page. KLV Corporation HP: Difference between a “hyperspectral camera” and a “multispectral camera”)
Although mentioning as such makes hyperspectral cameras sound like a dream technology, there is a drawback. It renders an enormous amount of data. The fact that the number of bands used by hyperspectral requires another digit than that of conventional earth observation means that the volume of data collected is also larger by a digit. In addition, while it is possible to analyze the well-known red, green, and blue bands in orbit, reduce the amount of data, and downlink to the ground using “onboard processing,” no analysis method has yet been established for the hyperspectral camera. Therefore, when using a hyperspectral camera, it is necessary to downlink a massive amount of raw data to the ground. However, despite the current data volume, the slow downlink of data from earth observation satellites is a severe problem due to the lack of ground stations and limited communication rates. With hyperspectral camera technology, this becomes even more critical. It is essential to establish optical communication technology to solve these communication problems for hyperspectral cameras.
Although the panel on hyperspectral cameras at SmallSat Symposium 2023 did not go into the importance of optical communications, the demand for optical communications will increase if more attention is paid to missions using hyperspectral cameras in the future. In 2022, optical communications attracted attention from the perspective of missile defense, which is closely related to the military. But further in 2023, it may come into the limelight from another angle to deliver information that enriches people’s lives.
(Writer: Junichiro Nakazawa)