Interview with Dave Bettinger in Satellite Mobility World
In the Oct. 2021 issue of Alan Gottlieb's Satellite Mobility World magazine, CEO Dave Bettinger talks about how the SpaceLink satellite relay service will use optical intersatellite links to deliver time critical data between Earth and space.
An Optical Relay Network in Space with CEO Dave Bettinger
Reprinted Courtesy of Satellite Mobility World, Oct 2021. Read the article here.
Driven by the proliferation of Imaging and Communications LEO satellites, the demand for optical inter-satellite links is soaring. By incorporating optical terminals into their LEOs, operator scan limit the number of ground stations they need, deliver images in real-time and backhaul bandwidth-intensive data to any location on the planet.
To learn more about SpaceLink and the compelling economic advantages the company offers, we visited with CEO Dave Bettinger.
SMW: I think SpaceLink is an exciting concept. Can you give us some background? How did you and your colleagues develop the idea, and how did you turn it into a company?
Ben Greene, the CEO, and founder of SpaceLink’s parent company, Electro Optic Systems, Australia’s leading home-grown space and defense company, has been interested in space data applications for many years.
As recently as five years ago, he recognized that the new generation of LEO Earth observation satellites spend most of their time out of communications with the ground, limiting the timeliness and value of the data they collect. Around that time, another company, Audacy, had an idea for a MEO-based data relay service but ran short of funding. Electro Optical Systems acquired their spectrum, over 21 GHz, which was originally intended to be the backbone of its MEO space-relay network infrastructure.
EOS founded SpaceLink last fall. When I came on board as CEO, we realized that while the acquired RF spectrum would be required for some key applications, optical data transmission is the future. So, we re-architected our network design to encompass an optical-RF hybrid data infrastructure. That’s how SpaceLink was born.
SMW: The basis of your service is near real-time transmission of high-value imaging and scientific data. A secondary benefit is eliminating the need for a small LEO satellite operator to have ground stations. Are there other benefits?
There are several significant components of our value proposition.
- We can provide access at any time to any LEO spacecraft from 350 km and above. Operators don’t have to wait until their LEOs pass over a ground station. Their satellites are always in sight of one of our optically inter-linked MEOs. At any time, they can download high-resolution imagery, receive tasking, and do TT&C (Telemetry, Tracking and Command).
- Optical user terminals provide much higher data rates, consume less power, and are smaller and lighter than their RF counterparts. These efficiencies make them much more attractive to users than, for example, the 256 Kbps L-Band relay developed by Inmarsat and Singaporean company, AddValue.
- Using our optical relay, LEO broadband satellite operators can inter-link their satellites with a single optical terminal on each rather than the four typically required, thereby realizing substantial savings.
- Let’s not forget about the ground segment cost savings. Some Earth observation constellation operators have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve only partial global coverage and sacrifice the ability to bring their data down at preferred locations. SpaceLink eliminates this cost and inconvenience.
Cybersecurity is another significant benefit, especially for the military. We can land data at a secure gateway located in sovereign U.S. territory, eliminating the risk of data transmission over unsecured terrestrial networks.
SMW: I understand your target market is any LEO satellite with massive date transmission requirements and the need for real-time access to the data, for example, optical, infrared, and hyperspectral satellites, civilian and military. Is that correct? Can you give some examples of typical target customers?
The demand for real-time data goes across multiple segments. In addition o the military, satellites monitoring fires, floods, and other natural disasters, companies like Astroscale and Momentus that manage space debris and extend the life of satellites, and those involved in human spaceflight, need continuous connectivity to monitor their activities. Other potential users include the International Space Station and Axiom, building a module to connect with the ISS, and even aircraft. Typically, our market is any activity that requires real-time connectivity to the ground.
SMW: Can you say more about the Space Development Agency Network. Isn’t the Agency one of your target customers?
SDA is creating a mesh network of sensor and communications satellites. SDA standards are driving the development of optical terminals that will be interoperable with multiple constellations. Interoperability will drive higher production and lower cost for optical communications. We see them as a desirable potential partner. That’s why we are making sure that our network is entirely compatible with their optical and Ka-band RF networks.
SMW: In terms of infrastructure, you will be dealing with many different types of satellites. While it’s clear that your four MEOs in orbit will be optically inter-linked, how do you get the data from the client satellites to your MEOs? Do the client LEOs have to have optical terminals, or can they use RF?
We provide clients with either optical or RF connectivity. Looking forward, we expect most users to select laser connectivity because the user terminals provide significantly higher data rates with smaller terminal size, power, and mass requirements. Some legacy users and certain other users will prefer RF, and we provide connectivity for them as well.
SMW: Won’t it be challenging to convince target clients to line fit optical terminals on their future satellites? How do you overcome the cost issues associated with adding these terminals?
The data rate possible through an optical terminal is much greater than through an RF terminal, and the transmission is much more secure.
Optical terminals are also smaller, lighter, and draw less power, making our solution very attractive to any LEO operator who needs secure high-speed, real-time connectivity. Optical terminals are a bit more expensive. However, the customers will experience rapid payback through enhanced utilization of their on-orbit assets.
To hasten the adoption of our optical relay solution, we provide technical support and other assistance to operators that want to integrate the SpaceLink solution. Our objective is to ensure a ready market for us when we launch our service and deliver immediate benefits to users. By the time the SpaceLink network is online, we expect the demand for optical connectivity to be rapidly expanding.
SMW: Can optical terminals from two different manufacturers communicate with each other?
In the past, optical communications technologies have been proprietary, meaning different manufacturers’ terminals could not communicate with one another. However, recently, DARPA and the Space Development Agency have brought together multiple vendors and directed them to implement an optical interface standard, making their terminals interoperable. Mynaric and others have already demonstrated interoperability. The advantage for SpaceLink is that we can now source products from multiple manufacturers without interoperability concerns.
SMW: What are the critical features of an optical terminal, and why did you choose Mynaric and Blue Marble Communications?
We require two optical terminals for our service, one on the client satellite, and one on our MEO. The LEO terminals are available from multiple providers, for example, Mynaric, Blue Marble, SA Photonics, and Tesat. We recently contracted with Mynaric for the client and MEO terminals and Blue Marble Communications for another MEO terminal. Both Mynaric and Blue Marble can meet our performance, programmatic, and cost requirements.
SMW: I note you plan to transmit from satellites to the ground using a traditional satellite VSAT link. Why not use optical?
RF space-to-ground communications ensure the high level of availability, 99.9%, required by our clients, a level of reliability that is not currently achievable with optical technology. We use the Q- and V-bands because they offer sufficient bandwidth to support our 40Gbps data rate requirement. Each ground station operates three antennas placed 100 km apart to provide the diversity necessary to achieve 99.9% availability. Utilizing optical ground stations would require many more gateways and would be significantly more costly.
However, optical space-to-ground communications is the way of the future, and EOS is a leader in this technology. We will test optical ground links with our first-generation system and expect that ultimately we’ll use both RF and optical for space-to-ground communications.
SMW: What is the business model? How does SpaceLink generate revenue? Do you charge by volume of data transmitted?
We plan to charge by either data volume transmitted or time on the system, depending upon the user’s needs. For example, we would charge the International Space Station by time and imaging clients by data volume.
SMW: What is your timetable for launch, and when will your MEO network be operational?
Our system will be launched and operational in mid-2024.
David Bettinger is a business and technology visionary with 30 years of experience in system engineering, focused on innovative satellite communications. He is a strategic thinker with a track record of capturing opportunities. Before joining SpaceLink, Mr Bettinger was VP of the Communications Systems and Advanced Development Group at OneWeb. He was a founding member. At OneWeb he was successful in supporting investment activities and was responsible for the corporate technology roadmap.
This article featured in the October 2021 issue of Satellite Mobility World, published by Lucid Press