【GSTC 2023】Will 2023 Be the First Year for Commercial Optical Ground Stations?
The Global Space and Technology Convention (commonly known as GSTC), one of Asia’s largest space business conferences for over 15 years, was held again this year in Singapore from February 15 to 16.
GSTC covers various topics in segments such as transportation, satellite manufacturing, earth observation, satellite communications, and on-orbit services. Among them, Warpspace’s CSO Mori, who attended the event on-site, recalls how the “ground station” field was changing.
What is GSTC, Asia’s largest space business conference?
GSTC is one of the largest space business conferences in Asia, along with “SPACETIDE” in Japan. In the Asia-Pacific region, where many island countries are located, the space business has developed due to the high demand for satellite communications. Singapore, in particular, is a place where many Western companies have their Asian bases and where many interested parties gather.
Although there were no lectures or panel discussions that generally focused on optical communications this year, three major ground station operators were exhibiting at the exhibition booth, and they were promoting the fact that they have begun construction of “optical ground stations,” which use laser beams to communicate between satellites and ground stations.
Three Major Companies in the Ground Station Business
The company with the largest market share in the ground station industry is Norway-based Kongsberg Satellite Services, commonly known as KSAT. It currently owns more than 280 antennas in 26 regions.
The next largest share is held by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), which is involved in a wide range of satellite-related businesses, including transportation, satellite manufacturing, satellite operation, and ground station operation. The ground station business is well-known worldwide, and SSC operates 10 antennas and 8 partner stations.
KSAT and SSC have one thing in common: they are both Nordic-based companies. Since most satellites orbit over the North and South Poles, known as “polar orbits,” constructing a ground station at the North or South Poles allows the satellite to communicate each time it makes a complete orbit around the Earth. Ground station operations require power grids and optical fiber to deliver data downlinked from the satellite to customers. The geographical conditions have been a significant factor in the expansion of KSAT and SSC’s ground station business.
And one company that has been gaining momentum in the ground station industry in recent years is CONTEC of South Korea, which reportedly plans to operate 12 antennas in 10 regions worldwide by the end of 2022.
Breakthrough in Optical Ground Stations
Conventional ground stations use radio waves to communicate between satellites and ground stations, but the top three companies in the industry, KSAT, SSC, and CONTEC, have all begun constructing optical ground stations. Optical ground stations for research purposes have been built and operated by space agencies and advanced technology research institutes in many countries, but this is the first commercial ground station.
Laser beams cannot communicate with clouds in the sky, so a device to compensate for the communication is necessary. Still, conventional devices are expensive and large-scale, and it was challenging to construct and operate optical ground stations for commercial use. However, with the advent of communication compensation software developed by private companies, optical ground stations can be made smaller and more energy efficient, making the commercial use of optical ground stations a reality.
Communicating between satellites and ground stations using laser beams will enable fast and secure downlinks of large amounts of data. Furthermore, ground stations for radio communication require large antennas, which are expensive to construct and operate. However, the cost of installing optical ground stations will be much lower than radio stations, and demand will grow.
Nevertheless, the use of ground stations will only progress if there are multiple ground stations to ensure communication timing. Whether technological breakthroughs will facilitate deployment, the status of construction and quality of operation of optical ground stations by each company will likely attract attention.