Jan 14, 2020 - Science

The earthly limit on satellite ambitions

An illustration of a satellite

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios.

SpaceX, Amazon and others have high hopes for launching constellations of satellites that will provide internet to the globe, while some startups hope to nearly continuously beam back images from space.

Yes, but: The industry's growth is limited by the earthly half of the equation: ground infrastructure needed to receive data and control the satellites themselves.

Why it matters: Investments in the roughly $277 billion satellite industry are mostly funneled into space-based assets, not the ground infrastructure needed to keep those satellites functioning.

  • In 2018, investors funneled about $110 million into companies focusing on building ground segments to facilitate satellite communication, while about $845 million was invested in satellite constellations and airborne platforms used to collect data, according to SpaceNews.
  • "We often advise investors to look on the ground segment side for underexploited opportunities," Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, told Axios.
  • "The satellites are usually the flashier, more sexy part of the company, but there's a lot of critical infrastructure that surrounds it," Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet, a company that operates more than 100 satellites, told Axios.

What's happening: A number of companies are looking to build out that infrastructure, including receiving and relaying stations, and capitalize on increasing demand from governments and companies.

  • In 2019, Amazon announced it would start providing ground station services for customers around the world, and last month it added a new location in Sweden. Other players include RBC Signals and Italian ground station operator Leaf Space.
  • Companies hoping to launch hundreds of satellites to beam internet to people all over the planet are also working to develop user terminals that their customers would use to log on from their homes.

The catch: Earth itself comes with a host of challenges.

  • It's covered in water, limiting locations for ground terminals.
  • Each country has its own regulatory framework that needs to be followed.
  • "One of the common challenges is actually the need for greater internet bandwidth on Earth to more rapidly get the data downlinked and buffered at the ground station sites back to the cloud for processing," says Duncan Eddy, space operations lead at Capella Space, a user of Amazon's ground station services.
  • And analysts question whether there will be enough consumer demand to support the satellite internet industry at large even if the ground infrastructure is set up to support them.
"I think the market is a lot smaller than most of these systems anticipate, and the reality is that they're going to run out of customers before they run out of technology."
— industry analyst Tim Farrar told Axios.

The bottom line: As the satellite industry grows, infrastructure on the ground needs to expand and improve to keep those spacecraft healthy and functional in orbit.

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