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Navigating the Dynamic New Space Market in LEO

Navigating the Dynamic New Space Market in LEO

by Dr. Peter Krier, Director of Programs, Filtronic

Low-earth orbit (LEO) has experienced significant growth in recent years, primarily driven by the expansion of satellite constellations for telecommunications, earth observation, and internet connectivity. For companies new to the industry, knowing what to look out for when sourcing components and subsystems for LEO projects is essential.

The need to source new suppliers and partners is rarely an issue for companies operating in geostationary orbit (GEO), as heritage is essential. It’s less about finding the most innovative and groundbreaking products and more about ensuring that the components and systems are evaluated in almost identical applications. However, LEO is a much more disruptive market, often referred to as ‘New Space,’ and can involve hundreds or even thousands of satellites, and this requires a radically different approach.

For LEO, spacecraft companies are turning to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to reduce costs while improving availability and making newer, more capable parts available. One of the main differences between sourcing components and subsystems for LEO and GEO lies in the sheer quantity of components required. While GEO systems may require only a few tens of subsystems, LEO constellations can demand thousands of satellites in a single constellation. Ignoring this discrepancy in component volume and making the same assumptions for LEO as you have done for GEO can cause the entire cost equation to fall apart.

GEO satellites may incorporate multiple redundant subsystems to ensure operation over a 15-to-30-year lifespan, as launch costs for far orbit are exceptionally high. An LEO constellation, by comparison, has much lower launch costs per satellite, and so redundancy can be realized at the constellation level by provisioning in-flight ‘spares.’

The recognition that fully “space-qualified” parts are unaffordable in such volumes has led to a different approach, leveraging the components and processes used by manufacturers in industries demanding volume manufacture in high-reliability industries such as telecoms and defense. It’s important to consider whether the supplier is familiar with making components and subsystems in volume for high-reliability applications that should be demonstrable through field data from real-life applications.

In addition, these components must survive the rigors of the space environment. Established guidelines, such as those provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, offer a baseline for assessing component quality. These guidelines, coupled with thorough testing protocols, can instill confidence in the reliability of sourced components for LEO systems. Proprietary knowledge in this area is a critical factor in achieving an affordable solution as is finding a partner with this background.

At Filtronic, we have field data from similar applications in our telecoms and defense products, and by using the same processes to build products for space, we can guarantee the same quality and reliability level at high volumes. We also have more control throughout the design, manufacturing, and testing processes because they are all performed in our facilities. We have created and continue to update a library of commercial components that have been qualified to meet the harsh environment of space that allows us to offer a very cost-effective design and manufacturing service.

These capabilities led to the company winning a contract with the ESA, after responding to a funding call in the space program for 5G/6G and Sustainable Connectivity. The $3.7 million contract falls under ESA’s Advanced Research and Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program, which capitalizes on a company’s innovative ideas and develops them into a successful commercial deployment to keep Europe at the leading edge of the fiercely competitive global satellite communications market.

More recently, Filtronic has secured a long-term partnership and commercial agreement with SpaceX that includes the ongoing supply of solid-state power amplifiers (SSPAs) along with collaborative efforts in developing and delivering comparable products across multiple frequency bands core to SpaceX’s Starlink platform.

Filtronic’s roadmap is to develop advanced millimeter-wave products for satellite payloads and gateway links from satellite to ground stations, to provide ubiquitous broadband connectivity as a critical component in future telecom networks. With more than 40 years of history in the microwave industry, we’re well placed to exploit the opportunities in the New Space market, where price and ability to manufacture, with high precision, at volume have become as critical as performance.

Seeking components that are affordable and suitable for LEO applications does not require compromising on quality. Engaging with a specialist who not only provides innovative solutions but also appreciates the cost implications of mass production can ensure you receive top-notch quality without breaking the bank.