Jul 18, 2019 Aerospace & Defense

From Sputnik to SmallSats: Three Factors that Have Changed the Satellite Industry Forever

By Wind River Intern Ranjan Sikand

Multi-national corporations and startups alike have begun to tackle the emerging sector of commercial spacecraft. Known as “new space,” it is the sector where companies are introducing new designs that propel them to the forefront of technological advancement, in areas such as 5G networking and imaging. As the new space race heats up, Wind River brings you a podcast series that recounts some of the disruptive changes that may transform the industry forever.

“The New Space Race” dives down into the changing scope of the space industry. In the first episode, “Satellite Technology Today: From SmallSats to Launch Vehicles,” our host, editorial director for Military Embedded Systems John McHale, sits down with Anthony Jordan of Cobham and Alex Wilson (@AlexAtWindRiver) of Wind River to forecast incoming paradigm shifts for the space and satellite industry. Here are three ways in which our experts think the new space designs are moving the industry forward.

New Hardware

The advancements in terms of size and scope of computing technologies have been a significant factor. Satellites have been enabled to become smaller and more cost effective, making their use more widespread. When the satellite evolution began, no one could have dreamt of launching satellites the size of a lunch box, at a tenth of the cost.

In 1957, the very first satellite launched into orbit, known as the Sputnik 1, measured 23 inches in diameter and weighed 184 pounds. The Russian-made space craft, resembled a small diorama of the “Death Star,” and had four long antennae trailing behind it. The satellite was battery powered, and broadcasted a radio signal back to Earth for three weeks before it died; the powerless corpse continued on its turbulent course through orbit for another two months, completing an estimated 1440 revolutions before falling low enough to be destroyed by the denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

This marked a new era in human achievement. Since then, modern satellites have gotten significantly larger, such as the TerreStar-1, a 106 foot, 15,233 pound satellite that provides data for mobile phones, and have grown to carry exorbitant price tags, with GlobalCom estimating the cost for a single satellite launch at between 50 and 400 million dollars.

Recent advancements in satellite technology change these parameters. In June 2017, six small satellites, called “Sprites,” were launched into the atmosphere as part of an international interplanetary exploration project known as the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. The satellites were 1.4 inches to a side, weighing less than a nickel, at 4 grams each. Despite their diminutive size, the satellites were packed with solar panels, and were powerful enough to be able to communicate with.

Abraham Loeb, professor of Astrophysics at Harvard and chair of the advisory committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, states that “each of [the sprites] is only tens of dollars in cost.” Because of their size, massive numbers of the Sprites could be launched at once, and be spread throughout orbit by the vessel they are transported in. This could significantly reduce the cost of a single satellite, from the current estimates of $50,000,000 to as little as about $460 each.

Flexible, Deterministic Software

An increased emphasis on space efficiency coupled with advanced hardware have pushed satellite developers into a search for more advanced and complex software to support their machines. As the field has developed, operating systems have evolved as well, from home-grown operating systems that support and protect their hardware, to commercial-off-the-shelf software that withstands the test of tens of programs, maturing along the way.

For example, a satellite’s operating system may have multiple requirements to meet over the duration of its mission. If we examine a weather satellite, it is required to monitor weather changes in the atmosphere, translate the input into data (even performing on-board local analysis at the edge), and communicate the results back to a data center on Earth, as well as scan its environment and control its own functions. With the explosion in the number of satellites in the atmosphere, it would require a complex navigation system to avoid a multi-million dollar fender-bender. All of these functions would be required of a single computational system. If one process encountered a problem as simple as a looping script, or dividing by zero, the system would traditionally need to be rebooted, and the navigation system would be down for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes; long enough that the satellite could be demolished by space debris.

However, with newer software developments in areas such as virtualization platforms, satellite developers are able to reboot one process without needing to shut down the entire system. They are also able to use real-time systems in coordination with non-deterministic operating systems, depending on the requirement of the specific task, on the same computing core. These developments have helped to foster the growth of the commercial space industry and expand the potential of satellite technology.

Innovative New Purposes

During its short flight, the Sputnik 1, progenitor of the modern satellite, beamed out a radio signal that consisted of a series of shrill beeps. The signal was receivable from the Earth’s surface on a frequency 20 MHz, and people all around the world tuned in to hear the eerie broadcast that signaled the start of a new age of human enterprise. However, that was all Sputnik could do: broadcast beeping noises. Comparatively, modern satellites are incredibly complex, multi-faceted machines that receive and transmit data of all kinds, from traffic information to weather data to surveillance footage to television broadcasts. Often, their purpose remains in the transmission of information, but the breadth and depth of information has expanded, and the methods in which the data is collected has expanded even further.

The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, for example, was not a mission that was meant to further satellite research. While their findings were remarkable and indicate a new step in satellite technology, their project is designed to allow deep space travel with micro-spacecraft that would be launched at high velocities towards distant solar systems. Similar to satellites, these spacecraft would gather and relay information. With new technological developments, satellites may soon be used for much more than that, such as serving as intergalactic modems and mesh networks.

Companies such as SpaceX, Google, and Amazon have announced plans to launch a total of over 19,000 internet-providing satellites into orbit, with others soon to follow. The goal is for the companies to be able to provide fast, cheap internet service to 95% of the Earth’s surface, removing the need for companies to spend thousands, or millions, of dollars to lay fiber optic cables to catch remote communities in the intercontinental web of oversharing.

With modern innovations and the increasingly available avenue into space, the expectation is for more companies to find more reasons to launch their own technology into space. The final frontier is progressively becoming a burgeoning commercial space, and the number and types of satellites orbiting the planet is rapidly increasing. Coupled with the technological expansion, the new possibilities are endless.

Wind River is proud to have played a significant role in the space and satellite industry for over two decades, and we are eager to see how the industry will continue to develop.

I know as an intern here at Wind River I’m learning more than I can have imagined about the role of software in space. If you’re like me and want more on the changing face of the space industry? Check out Wind River’s podcast, blogs, and newsletter: The New Space Race.

Previous Get the Insider’s View on Satellite Technology Today
Next The Case for Easier Installation, Operations & Maintenance at the Edge