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Mini-satellites calling ground control, cheaply!

EU project InnoSpaceComm helped open a new ground station in Bulgaria for CubeSats to transmit and receive space data affordably. It also gave hundreds of young Europeans hands-on experience in space communication.

Space

Satellites have come a long way since the first one, Sputnik 1, blasted into space back in 1957. Nowadays, you don’t need to be part of a space agency to launch one: some mini-satellites now cost less than the price of a flat in most European cities. But what’s the point of launching one if sending the data back to earth is prohibitively expensive? InnoSpaceComm tackled exactly that, helping Bulgarian mini-satellite maker EnduroSat open a ground station in its home country and a novel communication infrastructure to cut the cost of space-to-ground communication. “This opens up unprecedented access to space for many European entrepreneurs, small and medium-sized businesses, and educational and research institutions,” says Mr Raycho Raychev, EnduroSat’s chief executive. “They will be able to focus directly on data applications and services impacting positively on European society.” EnduroSat, the only satellite company in Bulgaria, has revolutionised the market for CubeSats, cube-shaped satellites as small as 10 cubic centimetres, managing to bring down the cost to EUR 35 000 from EUR 100 000, due to efficient in-house engineering, design and production. On its website, customers can order a CubeSat configuring it for their own needs from a choice of components: antennas, communication modules, solar panels, onboard computers, power modules and payloads (scientific instruments). Many of its customers are using them to observe the earth, for scientific experiments or for Internet of Things applications. But EnduroSat realised the biggest obstacle to research groups and SME-driven satellite missions was the difficulty and cost of downloading and transmitting big data once the satellites were launched. Existing ground station networks in Europe charged more than EUR 50 000 per month for data transfers. “The exponential growth in global data demand requires a new approach to space-ground communications from low-Earth orbiting satellites to enable ever higher data streams,” said Mr Raychev. Engineers on the InnoSpaceComm project developed satellite communication modules that were compatible with the CubeSat standard and linked them to a new station opened at Plana teleport in Bulgaria, through a digital mission control supported by three full-time engineers. The modules use high-speed space-to-ground X-band communication, which exceeds 50 Mbps. They have reduced the cost of data transmission to below EUR 100 per GB. Customers can book and schedule the tracking of their satellites on a specially developed online system. EnduroSat is now preparing to launch the space data service commercially. The developers also created a free Space Demo Module for European schools and universities to give students hands-on experience in how to communicate with satellites in orbit and how to use professional satellite radio modules. Anyone can access the e-learning tool Spaceport, which contains educational online videos. “We aim to inspire the next generation of European scientists, engineers and space entrepreneurs,” said Mr Raychev. Since Sputnik 1, more than 40 countries have launched about 8 100 satellites. In January 2019, there were 5 000 satellites orbiting the earth, including 1 950 still functioning. Last year, there were 280 NanoSats among them. More than 2 800 will be launched by 2025 and, thanks to InnoSpaceComm, small European operators are likely to be among them.

Keywords

InnoSpaceComm, space communication, ground station, mini-satellites, CubeSat, space entrepreneurs

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