[Space Tech Expo] What is the Technology to Accelerate Optical Communication Networks? Breakthrough Possibilities Seen in Europe
The largest conference event in Europe, “Space Tech Expo Europe (STEE),” took place from November 19th to 21st, 2023, attracting over 7,500 participants to Bremen in northwestern Germany. The participants had diverse backgrounds, including private companies and space agencies, covering various topics, from hardware and software engineering to food tech related to space cuisine.
Bram DeVogeleer, the System Manager at the European base of Warpspace, participated and spoke at a panel discussion at this significant European space conference. In this article, we’ll share the highlights of the event and the notable topics presented at STEE.
(See last year’s coverage here)
Factors for accelerating optical communication? The importance of multi-protocol interoperability
In the panel discussion attended by Bram, the theme was “Accelerating Multi-orbit Connectivity and Downlinks to Provide Larger Data Transmission and Faster Communications.”
The discussion was moderated by Torsten Kriening, CEO of Germany’s SpaceWatch.Global, which is an electronic magazine and portal site dedicated to space. Panelists included Francisco García De Quirós, CTO of the Spanish company Emxys; Bellen Andres, European Business Development Director at Kepler Communications; Ashesh Mishra, Client Solution Manager at Aalyria Technologies, an independent satellite communication network business from Google’s parent company Alphabet, Anagnostis Paraskevopoulos from Fraunhofer HHI in Germany, known for pioneering research in mobile communication and optical communication networks.
The focus of this panel discussion was on the challenges faced during communication between different orbits (Multi-orbit) and during downlinks from satellites to the ground. The challenges include various aspects such as weather conditions and scalability. This article will particularly delve into the interoperability among operators.
Multi-orbit Connectivity refers to the interconnection of communication satellites positioned in different Earth orbits, including Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Orbit (GSO) as well as the Space to Ground dimension. Currently, several high-speed communication network plans utilize space, such as SpaceX’s Starlink project. To provide a blanket, generic coverage for communication from LEO to the ground, a large constellation of satellites is needed. However, despite the relatively easy access to LEO, the higher population and debris density lead to higher collision risk and it recently has led to a change in space debris policy. Logically this has a clear impact on the operations too, increasing the need for monitoring and fast operation response.
Therefore, when multiple companies collaborate to provide communication services by deploying communication satellites in MEO and LEO, the interoperability to achieve communication between different orbits and operators becomes crucial.
A challenge in this scenario is the potential difference in communication protocols among the operators providing the network. For instance, while communication standards are defined by the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) for space agencies(*1), these standards are not necessarily binding or unique. Therefore, individual countries’ space agencies or projects like the HydRON-ds project(*2), part of ESA’s ScyLight program, which aims to demonstrate high-performance optical communication technology, may develop standards optimized for their respective operations. Currently, it is difficult for satellites equipped with different communication standards to communicate with each other. Regarding this issue, Bram stated,
“Indeed, it is ideal for all space agencies and operators to have a common or compatible standard. However, the key to accelerating the optical communication network market is providing users with software-based multi-protocol Interoperability.”
This establishment of interoperability through multi-protocol is precisely what Warpspace is addressing (*3).
(*1 [JAXA] Consultative Committee for Space Data System (CCSDS), Japanese page)
(*2 [AIRBUS] HydRON-DS Phase A/B1)
(*3 [WARPSPACE] Warpspace, adopted for NEDO’s fiscal year 2023 Research and Development Type Startup Support Project “SBIR Promotion Program”, Japanese page)
Crucial technology for multi-protocol development: eFPGA
Bram, involved in such engineering, found interest at STEE in the topic of a software-based platform based on embedded Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (eFPGA).
Firstly, an FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) is a type of circuit element that processes these signals through logical operations such as AND or OR and outputs the result after receiving several signals from the circuit. The logical operations at the processing time are programmable by the user in the field, making it a one-chip breadboard.
A CPU is often compared to an FPGA in integrated circuits. The circuit configuration of a CPU is fixed from the beginning and cannot be changed, but it is specialized for versatility. It executes programs placed in memory for calculations and processing, using the circuit of the CPU to perform operations.
In contrast, FPGAs are commonly used circuit elements when designing circuits optimized for a specific purpose, especially in cases requiring high performance in communication and data processing (*4). Due to this background, FPGAs are also embedded in Onboard Computers (OBC) for space exploration, playing a crucial role in maintaining systems, including data processing.
In recent years, various electronic devices have been miniaturized and lightweight, leading to System on a Chip (SoC), where different circuit elements are integrated into a single chip to function as a standalone system (*5). The eFPGA, embedded in this digital SoC, is the evolution of FPGA (*6). Bram mentioned,
“For the development of components that exchange data, such as modems and routers, for interoperability through multi-protocol, the development of software-based platforms like eFPGA is crucial. Additionally, when operating such software-based platforms in space, addressing damage caused by radiation is also a critical consideration affecting the lifespan, which I find interesting and am paying attention to.”
Through panel discussions at STEE and discussions on various technological backgrounds, Bram and others exchanged ideas on the potential and challenges of optical communication between different orbital regimes, highlighting the importance of technologies to address these challenges. With the expansion of human networks and the sharing of knowledge, space utilization technologies that could bring revolutionary changes to our daily lives are expected to continue emerging. The development of optical communication networks in space is an area to watch closely.
Bram met with a variety of space-related businesses that gathered at STEE. From left to right, VEOWARE of Belgium, which develops actuators for satellites; Exolaunch of Germany, which undertakes mission management for small satellites; and Charter Space of the United States, which provides a software platform for space project management. Warpspace’s network is steadily expanding.
(Writer: Junichiro Nakazawa)