How “Internet in Space” Will Transform the Satellite Imagery Industry: Part I
(First, Some Background)
Disclaimer: this is the perfect disclaimer. It emphasizes that I am speaking as an individual and not in an official capacity as a representative of my employer, Umbra. It notes my glaring financial conflict of interest as an active participant in the very industry I am commenting on. Most importantly, it’s in italics.
In this two-part series, I’m going to take A Closer Look™️ at the emerging reality of commercial, ubiquitous connectivity in space. Part I covers the basics of how we communicate with Earth observation satellites today.
Thanks for reading A Closer Look! Subscribe if you want to read Part II as soon as it comes out or if you just *love* getting unnecessary email, you sicko.
Part II (coming soon!) will go into more detail on how internet in space will start to dramatically affect the Earth observation industry in the near future.
For those reading this at or near the date of publication…happy New Year, you hopeless nerds. Say hi to your exasperated families for me—maybe bring this essay up while you’re all waiting for the ball to drop. Trust me, they will love that.
It’s Crazy Any of This Works at All
Have you ever considered how unbelievable it is that satellite imagery even exists at all??
Sometimes when I conjure a map of high resolution satellite image on my phone simply by dancing my dainty little fingers across the screen, I think to myself, “I live in the future.”¹
Now that I work at a satellite imagery company, I’ve become acutely aware of the long sequence of hurdles every satellite image must navigate to arrive safely before your eyes. The more I’ve learned about these hurdles, the greater my sense of wonder has grown that people figured this stuff out in the 50s...
Launch is hard. Manufacturing is hard. Getting stuff built and tested on Earth to work in a zero G, frigid, irradiated vacuum is hard. Summarily: space is hard.²
Because of the challenge of space, there’s another key part of every mission that is criminally overlooked. It’s the very foundation of the modern space technology stack, the bedrock of the two-way communication between humans on Earth and assets in space known as the “ground segment” (“ground” for short).³ You could say…ground is hard 😏.
There’s a monumental change coming to the space segment just around the corner that will make the experience of tasking satellites feel even more magical than it already does—relay constellations. But the effects of these massively ambitious projects will be felt most acutely back on the ground…in a sense, a big portion of the ground segment is “lifting off.”
The Space Development Agency (SDA) transport layer. SpaceX’s Starlink. Amazon’s Kuiper. Inmarsat. Viasat. Kepler. Hedron. Spacelink. Warpspace. The list of major relay constellations being built out seemingly grows longer by the day.
Thousands of these relay satellites are scheduled to launch in the coming few years, and the wave is evident already with Starlink serving as a preview of what’s to come:
In this two-part essay series, I’ll share some strong opinions (loosely held), and I look forward to reading your responses, especially opposing perspectives.⁴
Latency, Lord of the Spies
To understand why relay constellations are gonna be such a big deal for the satellite imagery industry, first you have to understand some basics about what makes satellite imagery companies tick.
There are three key value propositions in the business of satellite imagery: resolution, coverage, and latency.
Of those, internet connectivity in space most directly influences latency, which is just the time between when someone realizes they want a satellite image and when they actually get it.
Latency is tightly correlated with pricing power. There are people who will pay quite a lot of cheese for an image if you can deliver it in 30 minutes without any prior warning. Some of those same people have no use for an image if it’s delivered just a couple hours after it’s captured.⁵
There are no four words in the satellite imagery industry that command suitcases full of cash quite like “high resolution” and “low latency” when strung together in a sentence. The intersection of these two value propositions enables a category of use cases I call “mobilization,” which I contend is the highest and best use for satellite imagery. Read the footnote if you are feeling lost.⁶
The Waiting Game
Contrary to my wildest dreams, Earth observation satellites don’t have zero marginal cost for new image acquisitions in the same way that SaaS products have zero marginal cost for serving data to new users.
Satellite imagery companies do, however, benefit tremendously from economies of scale due to the way ground station and cloud infrastructure reservations work. They pay real costs to get every image down, which is partly why they are stubbornly trying, and mostly failing, to sell lots of ad hoc archival images (since those images do have close to zero marginal cost to serve).⁷
Unfortunately, low latency is expensive to provide, and rarely necessary. But in an emergency, every second counts.
The brute-force way to reduce latency is to simply launch more satellites—more birds means more opportunities to collect. Waiting around for an “access opportunity” is typically the largest source of latency for customers today.
But as you add satellites, there are diminishing returns to latency. Suddenly, a new bottleneck emerges—the time between collection and delivery. Historically, reducing latency at this step has entailed adding more ground station sites and processing data on board the satellite itself (more on that later).
Due to the very real costs of reducing latency at each of those steps, it’s helpful to break it down into a funnel to more easily assess where data tends to get bottlenecked:
I’m going to mostly ignore ordering and collecting, because they aren’t significantly affected by the advent of internet in space.⁸
After you order satellite imagery, the instructions have to somehow get up to the satellite. The most common way of commanding satellites is via radio frequencies emitted from ground stations. Often, these are remote data centers with big fields full of radar dishes that trace the path of satellites as they whiz across the sky in order to send and receive messages.
For polar orbiting satellites (the ones that fly North-South/South-North), ground stations near the poles are most favorably located in terms of available time on target.⁹ The closer you get to the equator, the less frequently polar orbiting satellites will have line of sight to any particular point along that latitude band. But, near the poles, no matter where you are latitudinally (is that a word?), the satellites will pass overhead at a decent angle almost every every orbit.
Orbits typically take about 90 minutes in low Earth orbit. Assuming a perfectly efficient system with no competition for resources on board the satellite or at the ground station, this simple two-ground station setup means that customers placing orders rarely have to wait more than about 45 minutes for the satellites they are communicating with to receive instruction.
What if there’s a satellite passing a target of interest that won’t make a ground station contact beforehand? Like, what if it’s gonna go right over your target in the next five minutes? Remember - it’s actually kind of ideal when a satellite only has a few minutes heads up before an acquisition opportunity, that’s the nature of emergencies. And emergency tasking pays the bills.
In the traditional model of reliance on line of sight with ground stations, you’re simply out of luck. Your ideal satellite will whiz right by your target at 16,000mph in blissful ignorance.
It’s hard to say exactly how much lost revenue potential satellite imagery providers suffer due to the buffer between ordering and commanding, but the larger a constellation becomes in terms of assets on orbit, the more likely it is that at any given moment one or more of them is missing a fleeting (and lucrative) opportunity.
But what’s the point of instantaneous tasking if you don’t also have instantaneous downlink?
To use a rather personal analogy: I don’t care that you baked the pizza, Dominos. That gives me no satisfaction. I need you to bring it to me. I want to eat the pizza. Eating the pizza is what gives me satisfaction.¹⁰
As with commanding, downlinking relies heavily on line of sight to ground stations for most modern satellite imagery constellations. So, expanding your ground station network is a “twofer.”
But, whereas a command might only constitute a few MBs, a downlink might be many GBs, even when compressed. The vast majority of bandwidth consumed by satellite imagery providers is getting stuff back down to the ground, not sending instructions up. So, every second of contact with a ground station is precious if you’re putting your satellites to good use.
Almost all satellites use radio frequencies to communicate commands, but some use high-throughput “laser links” to beam data back down instead of RF. Also called optical terminals, these suffer from the same affliction as their optical telescope cousins: they succumb to clouds…and most of the world is cloudy most of the time.
One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a satellite imagery provider is a “missed pass” resulting in a traffic jam of data accruing on the satellite’s storage system.
With ground station contact time being such a precious commodity, how do you subsequently prioritize downlink? Do you get the hot-n-ready pizzas out while they’re still fresh or do you downlink on a first-come, first-served basis resulting in potentially more customers being impacted by higher-than-ideal latency?
Optical terminals allowing for high-throughput downlink are certainly promising, but without the ability to relay between satellites to a clear line of sight with a ground station (more on that in Part II), they’re also a bit risky. Most choose to compress their data and send it down via radio frequencies that cut through the atmosphere unperturbed, even though the throughput is often lower.
Processing & Delivering
Alright, so you managed to snap a picture and send it back down to Earth, now you’ve gotta turn it into interpretable information.
The simplest way to do processing and delivery is to send down your raw data from the spacecraft and process them in the cloud.
There is one major alternative to doing processing the cloud: processing at the “edge.”The “edge” can either refer to the satellite itself (“space edge”) or servers at the ground station (“ground edge”).
The benefit of edge processing in space is that when you turn raw samples into structured files, you can compress them much more efficiently. As long as your processor can keep up with the rate of imaging, you don’t have to worry about a queue of raw data building up after a missed pass causing further delays in a processing queue on the ground later. The downside is that…it’s in space. Like, there’s no worse place imaginable to deploy software.
The benefit of edge processing on the ground is that it’s easier to update and more resilient to confounding environmental influence than edge processing in space. More importantly, though, if your ground station is mobile and has edge processing capabilities, it opens up the possibility of “tactical” or “in-theater” downlink (even, potentially, across multiple constellations).
If the satellite downlinks directly to your location and you process the data on the ground, not only is that relatively secure, there’s no need to worry about “backhaul” over a network because you brought the whole damn ground segment with you.¹¹
Backhaul refers to the journey from the ground station to the cloud environment where you’re likely renting a fleet of beefy machines for processing, visualization, and/or egress.
Remember, some of these ground stations are extremely remote on purpose to be near the poles…it can sometimes take a while for them to send data back through the series of tubes known as “the internet.”
What to expect in Part II
Now that you’ve got a pretty solid picture of the status quo, we can talk more specifically about how internet in space will upend it.
In Part II I’ll cover why:
Ground station providers will face extreme consolidation pressure from cloud providers in the same way collocation data centers have been rolled up in the last decade
Tactical downlink will slowly (then quickly) become irrelevant
Edge processing in space is overhyped and edge processing on the ground is under-hyped
Part II is scheduled to drop three days from now. Don’t hold your breath.
¹ In truth, my fingers are actually really big and strong, and not dainty at all. They would surely impress you if you ever saw them. In this case, I’m just saying they’re dainty for comedic effect, and not at all because they’re actually the fingers of a lifelong indoorsman with an email job.
² “Space is hard,” is like an industry-wide inside joke. I’ve had a t-shirt concept in mind for a while... imagine an illustrated astronaut helplessly floating away from an electric bass with an outstretched hand and the caption “Bass is hard.” Would anyone buy that t-shirt? I wouldn’t.
³ I think “ground” is a funny name for something that mostly runs in the “cloud” and literally involves the manipulation of electromagnetic waves traveling through the “air.”
Relatedly…my wife’s grandfather was a pretty smart guy. He helped build some of the first-ever “Earth stations” as they were called back then (much more poetic sounding than ground station in my opinion). He got his start working on a classified Army mission called ADVENT that built some of the first Earth stations for geosynchronous communications satellites in the 60s. Later, he would travel the world leading the build-out an Earth station network for COMSAT.
He retired as an engineering leader at Inmarsat, still today a leading maritime communications provider. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I think about him a lot. He’s taken quite a bit of pressure off me - pretty much no matter what I do, I’ll never have the most impressive career in the commercial space industry even among my immediate family members!
Given how hard these things still are today, I get a little sick to my stomach imagining him helping to invent two-way comms with a satellite using mostly pencil and paper in the 60s…like I said, he was a pretty smart guy.
⁴ I’m kidding, of course. I am entirely uninterested in reading anything you share with me besides obsequious flattery.
⁵ Satellite images are a lot like Krispy Kreme donuts - they just hit different coming straight off the line. Shoutout Krispy Kreme. Shoutout to the assembly line. Shoutout to conveyor belt oven technology. Shoutout Quiznos. RIP Quiznos.
⁶ If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you probably haven’t read my last essay describing a simple framework for how to understand the satellite imagery industry. If you have read it and you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I’m sorry to be the one to break it you, but…you have extremely poor reading comprehension. Extremely poor. For those of you who have read it, remember it, and are still bothering to read to the end of this footnote anyway…you saucy rascal. You’re one of the real ones.
⁷ For more Thoughts™ on the siren song of archival data sales, check out my wildly unpopular essay, at least among satellite imagery executives, “Open All of the Satellite Imagery Archives.”
⁸ However…I can’t help but take the opportunity in these footnotes to complain about my least favorite of all the phases: ordering. Incredibly, ordering takes anywhere from 60 seconds to 6 months depending on how stubborn and regressive the imagery provider is. Until I worked at Umbra, I had never *directly* ordered a satellite image, I had always negotiated with sales people who placed task requests on my behalf. But after joining up, I was able to experience the sublime satisfaction of clicking a point on Earth, hitting “submit,” and getting a satellite image back without a human in the loop…and brother, let me tell you hhhwhat….once you taste the forbidden fruit, there’s no goin’ back.
⁹ Polar orbit is an extremely popular choice for many satellite imagery constellations for several reasons. For one, since the Earth spins underneath of you as you orbit, you wind up seeing almost everywhere on Earth at some point periodically. Depending on your altitude, there can actually be gaps along the equator that are impossible to image, but that’s often an acceptable tradeoff considering most of the equator is empty ocean anyway. Polar orbit can also allow for “sun synchronicity,” meaning the sun consistently illuminates the Earth below you at regular angles, so shadows and timing are consistent between revisits. And because it’s the most popular inclination, it’s also the easiest and cheapest to get to - when you catch a “rideshare” like one of the SpaceX Transporter missions, you often get “dropped off” into polar orbit. Wayyyy cheaper than a dedicated ride to a mid-inclination that can offer much faster revisit over the mid-latitudes where most of the world’s people live.
¹⁰ Sorry, I’m just a little touchy ever since I learned the pizza tracker is fake.
¹¹ Spoiler alert! Direct tactical downlink is gonna get roasted in Part II. In my opinion, it has about as much relevance to the future of satellite imagery as LAN parties have to the future of competitive gaming.
You did it. You read the whole thing. I genuinely feel sorry for you. At this point, you should just subscribe. You are beyond saving.