The advantages of new communication payloads to face the challenges of modern space missions – with Alén Space

Podcast

Episode 47 of the Space Industry podcast is a conversation with Maria Marante, Presales Engineer at Alén Space, about the advantages of new communication payloads to face the challenges of modern space missions.

Contents


Episode show notes

Alén Space is a small satellite product manufacturer and service provider based in Spain. In this podcast, we discuss:

  • The industry growth and challenges in LEO communication missions
  • Evolution and development of a new SDR to respond to the market needs
  • How new horizons (missions/applications) are achievable with a new modular SDR

Alén Space’s product portfolio

The Alén Space TOTEM Software Defined Radio (SDR) is a flight-proven software defined radio system suitable for communication nanosatellites. TOTEM operates in commonly-used nanosatellite frequency bands using Xilinx's Zynq-7000 SoC with an embedded Linux and programmable logic. It also includes a wide frequency range transceiver and can be reconfigured in-orbit.

The Alén Space TRISKEL - CubeSat OBC + TTC + OBSW Solution is an on-board computer, telemetry, tracking, and command hardware, and on-board software system for CubeSats. TRISKEL is a plug-and-play system featuring 'always-on' operation and 'no-code' development.

The Alén Space Ground Station Kit (GS-Kit) is designed to provide a cost-effective gateway to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. It includes the structure, antennas, cables, azimuth and elevation rotors, GS control software and Alén Space's SDR rack. It can simultaneously support three different bands: VHF, UHF and S-band. It is compatible with GNU Radio allowing the implementation of new waveforms and protocols to support different missions.

alenspace-totem-dvb-s2

The Alen Space SDR-Rack - Ground Communications is designed for space applications. It is used as a ground station transceiver for the VHF and UHF bands, which integrates the SDR and the frontends necessary for communications with satellites in these bands. The SDR rack is composed of 2 independent SDRs, one for Antenna Port (ANT) 1 and ANT2 bidirectional ports, and the other for reception in ANT3 and transmission in the SDR2 RF output port.

alenspace-6u-small-satellite-platform alenspace-1u-small-satellite-platform alenspace-2u-small-satellite-platform alenspace-3u-small-satellite-platform

Episode transcript

Please note that while we have endeavoured to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.


Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host Hywel Curtis. And I’d like to welcome you to the Space Industry by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.

Before we get started with the episode, remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com.

Hello everybody and welcome to today’s episode of The Space Industry Podcast. In today’s episode, we are speaking with Maria Marante from Alén Space.

Alén Space is a new space company based in Spain, working on various different aspects of nanosatellite equipment and space missions, and we’ll hopefully discuss some of those today. But in the main today, we are gonna discuss, the advantages of sort of new forms of communication, payloads that are cropping up, that are becoming possible with the innovation in the sector in order to meet the challenges of modern space missions of today’s space missions.

So great to have you with us here, Maria. Thank you very much for being here. Is there anything you’d like to add to that little introduction? 


Maria: Thank you. Hywel for having us here and let’s get to the topic. 


Hywel: Okay. Absolutely. Before taking a bit of a deep dive into the communications payloads and the technical aspects of these things, I wondered if you could describe for us some of the major trends in communication payloads that, that you are seeing, that you’ve worked on, perhaps, and how their application in new space in space has been evolving over over the last few years.


Maria: Yes, sure. As we all know, over the past years, satellite communication has experienced an unstoppable revolution that has led to considerable market growth, mainly due to the change of philosophy on the development of the payloads. Up until a few years ago, these communication payloads were based on redundant analog components, which in case of failure, required circuitry reconfiguration.

As you might understand, this was costly, both in terms of time and service performance as it was a huge task. So with the introduction of software defined radios, a new paradigm in the design of communication payloads was presented, and it offered a way to launch the configurable satellite radio systems that could be also adaptable to the increase in market demands.

One of these demands, for example, for satellite communication and in line with one communication would be the development of infrastructures that are capable of exchanging large amounts of data. One would think that, for example, applications for earth observation, such as imaging, will constantly demand higher bandwidths and data rates for downloading as much information and details as possible.

This is the main reason why we are seeing a trend in cubesats to use higher frequencies evolving from the traditional VHF and UHF bands to S, X and even Ku frequency bands. 


Hywel: That’s definitely something we’re seeing in the market. Absolutely. 


Maria: Yeah. And this data rate increases will also need the development of new processing modulation and coding techniques as well as the design implementation and demonstration of new technologies, which are definitely going to bring new challenges to this space and the communication sector. Besides, in communication, there are also applications related to sensing, which are becoming more and more sophisticated. In this case, SDRs are used to passively collect the radio signals from Earth apart from scanning signals such as AIS or ADS-B for traffic control.

Current trend you are seeing is signal intelligence, which demands a wider bandwidth reception to gather and intercept a bigger amount of signals and monitor the spectrum. These payloads need plenty of onboard processing capabilities to analyze the gathered information with new techniques, such as machine learning, for instance, and they download only the relevant data, which lowers the requirements for downlink data rates and bandwidth of the machines.

But moreover, another growing field of application is related to navigation and transport control systems such as air or maritime traffic control. These navigation applications, they tend to be challenging for communications, and we use them as an example of the upcoming requirements of failures such as reliability on the data exchange with the ground accuracy, with time and position, secure communications, et cetera. All of these and surely more to come, are also changing the paradigm of space missions themselves and eventually of the payloads. Most modern missions designs are based on constellations of satellites, which will need inter satellite communication to be able to fly information.

This does not only require high processing capabilities and algorithms and so on, but the integration of higher number of antennas and frequencies to support this inter satellite communication and ground communication that will also influence the respective performance of SDR platform. These are just some examples of the trends you are perceiving in the market.

But, As we know, the potential of satellite communication is huge, and hopefully we will see many other applications in a short time.


Hywel: Thank you. That was, quite an overview. You’ve, you’ve prepared quite a lot there. That’s great. Thank you. Really interesting to  see, to understand the difference in requirements from contrasting signals intelligence to some of the vehicle tracking and things that you mentioned, and using the requirements of the industry at AIS ADS level to drive what you think the upcoming requirements are gonna be on communications payloads from space. Very, yeah. Very interesting. And um, you mentioned there as well the importance of the software defined concept. And this is something we, we’ve seen, we’ve discussed with some of our guests on the podcast and in our articles, this very, very interesting shift. You use the word paradigm a couple of times. I think that’s very important. This idea of seeing a satellite as a system that produces a result as opposed to a set of Hardware that is individually important or interesting because of the hardware itself. That’s not the way we approach our personal computers, for example.

It’s all about the software that we put on them. I know Alén Space is invested in developing an SDR, the radio. I wonder if you could give an overview beyond why you’ve already mentioned of how SDRs are being leveraged in the industry today.


Maria: Yeah. Yes. Alén Space has been developing and commercializing software defined radios for a long time

And there are many uses of SDRs in the industry from satellites to ground stations, and the advantages of these kind of radios can be seen everywhere in the communication chain. On the space side, the flexibility of SDRs provides a wide variety of resources for satellites, and it allows the industry to think of new and multiple applications.

Some SDRs can be used for receiving and computing signals for earth sciences and signal monitoring, for instance, and others are used for inter satellite high data rate downlink and DTC communication. Their unique flexibility allows the upgrade of software modems, which can improve the protocols, the efficiency of the communication, or even evolve the original mission with upgraded payloads in existing satellites.

This is more and more important every day as the spectrum is increasingly crowded, so adaptability is becoming a basic requirement. Additionally, having the opportunity to develop and simulate new applications and then upload them to the satellite and test in real space is great advantage. Then, on the ground site during ground station infrastructures, they use SDRs to provide the service with multiple frequencies and channels, these SDR based ground stations, they are also capable of processing the downlink and uplink data that comes from both the satellites and the end user, and additionally in the ground as well SDRs are presented as an alternative to the traditional radio systems offering great advantages in terms of upgradeability as well with minor hardware and software upgrades new capabilities can be unlocked in an existing ground station, new protocols data rates, modern configurations, et cetera. And this agile environment reduces the costs of implementing and integrating new sports in the communication system.


Hywel: Brilliant. And for the ground station operators, obviously future proofs aspect of their missions as well. So yeah, it’s really interesting to focus on or to, not to focus, but that you discussed the ground segment. I think that’s really key in this discussion, that the value and the capabilities of any software service Is only realized once the, in most cases, is only realized once the data is being used on the ground for different applications. And so the ability to adapt to what’s being received from space to the requirements of the ground terrestrial end users is very important. So thanks for, yeah, for covering that.

And yeah, I think, as I mentioned, this is a really interesting area. The software defined concept as you touched on, as you’ve mentioned, is also software redefined. If you can change the, the scope of the mission, the primary focus, indeed other aspects of it for increased reliability and everything, but it’ll come down to what customization options are actually available for mission designers.

So yeah, when they are evaluating, SDRs as an example versus different alternative communication options, what customization options are typically available to them.


Maria: Yeah, nowadays, and luckily there are plenty of customization options available in market and even new trends are coming, such as optical communication that are opening new possibilities in this field.

But we’ll focus on the different options that video frequency technology provides for space communication as it is the most mature and flexible and accessible technology for now. First of all, mission designers need to study the kind of signal they would like to work with. And take into account its frequency, bandwidth, et cetera, to check that the data processing they like to achieve is possible with the SDR.

Then another important early decision for designers is the communications came of the solution, and this is critical to complete the communication system design. Why is that? This is due to the fact that other hardware and analog components such as radio front ends and antennas, Which also have limitations in terms of frequencies and bandwidth.

They rely on this selection. For instance, half duplex or full duplex schemas, or even if we consider a system with micro antennas, will require the use of one or another RF chain that will also need to be compatible with SDR capabilities. And of course, from a system level, it is crucial to check the integration with other subsystems.

Designers need to make sure that the type of interfaces and protocols are also compatible in order to connect all the subsystems and ensure beforehand that no speed, no memory, and no other kind of bottlenecks will be found between them . And finally, they also have to take into account what level of performance they expect from the SDR solution.

For instance, our SDR platforms at an end space are designed according to two architectures. The first one is a monolithic architecture, which combines one processing element, a typically a system on a chip with one transceiver all in the same model. And the second one is a modular design, and this is the architecture we used in our new SDR platform, TREVO, which separates an independent modules, the processing unit and a transceiver.

While the first approach the monolithic architecture might be enough for a lot of users, and it is still a more than valid option. This new model architecture unlocks the possibility of selecting and customizing the SDR platforms in terms of processing units and video channel capabilities for those applications that require higher or particular performances.

Of course, these extra capabilities do not come for free and other requirements, eh, other requirements need to be taken into consideration such as power consumption, for instance, as in every engineering solution, most decisions are based on the trade off, and a lot of factors are eventually key to the site.


Hywel: Yeah, absolutely. I think I say this on most of my podcast episodes. Tradeoffs are so important. Should have a bingo card at some point. The trade, the term tradeoff needs to be mentioned because yeah, as you mentioned, enabling these high level communications capabilities is gonna come with power requirement, maybe additional mass, et cetera.

So that’s the, that’s really interesting. So there, there are lots of opportunities open to mission designers. In order to, to be able to customize and adapt the systems that are out there to their specific needs. And can to follow up on that, really, can customizable software-defined radios enable users to produce their own SDR solution that suits and optimizes the emission communication requirements?


Maria: Yeah, sure. And that is one of the most attractive characteristic of SDRs, and it is a potential for customers to build their own radio system by software. Or in other words, developers can implement by means of software, all the conventional hardware blocks of the radio system, and as this is basically an application, as we said before, they can update it if necessary.

For example, if feedback is detected or the performance has to be increased. This offers huge flexibility and insurance as well, and also allows the implementation of different radio system architectures in just one same platform. But yeah, indeed. Apart from that, and in terms of hardware customizable and modular SDRs like TREVO offer huge flexibility by design.

The hardware configuration and electronics can be adapted to each mission, and most importantly, without extending the production time of the equipment. These customizations are, of course, based on the requirements of the mission and are basically related to the processing and frequency performance. For example, as we all know, SDR solutions are broadly divided in two basic parts.

The first one is the processing equipment whose score is formed by a system on a chip contained in the CPU and the FPGA. These two are both responsible for running the application itself, however, some of these processing tasks might require to be implemented in one or another. For example, the CPU offers more versatility and is destining to run general computing apps, whereas FPGAs show better performance and lower latencies as they allow the programming we know in the cell level of the most appropriate logic blocks for each task, and they accelerate and reduce the processing time of these tasks.

That being said, modular SDRs and specifically TREVO, allow the customer to select from a list of options, the number of system on chips to include in the SDR solution. This offers great flexibility while saving precious space in the satellite. For example, an extra model for processing can be used to boost the total processing capacity of the SDR

or use it as physical redundancy or even have two independent payloads in the same board, compacting in just one subsystem, multiple applications, and back to the parts of an SDR solution. They also require the existence of transceivers to receive and transmit signals, converting them into processlble frequencies and transforming analog information into digital samples and vice versa.

Depending on the mission, the number of channels for reception and transmission increases and more than one transceiver is required. This happens, for instance, in multi frequency or MIMO applications where radio requirements are demanding and the possibility of adjusting this number of  transceivers is crucial for designers and customizable SDRs indeed allow these radio adjustments and for example, Our TREVO is in particular, is capable of integrating up to three transceivers and it provides up to nine reception and six transmission channels.


Hywel: Excellent. Okay. There, that makes sense. And. Yeah, flexibility in the mission requires, as you say, flexibility in the hardware. And that doesn’t that, that, that may come with additional modules and transceivers and requirements, but the value that’s provided is the scales with that. So that’s really useful.

Thank you. Obviously, a Alén Space is, I’m not quite sure how many people you are in the company.


Maria: At least, if I’m not wrong. We are 35. Almost 40. Yeah.


Hywel: Yeah. Not a small company for space, but not one of the larger firms. And in your area, there are, in your, the area where you are competing, there are some, some larger companies who are looking at this area. So what opportunities do you see for teams like yourselves who are outside of the traditional large players in. In the, particularly in the FPGA and system on a chip area of the market in the space industry.


Maria: Actually Alén Space was not conceived to compete with the traditional large players in the system on a chip market, although we have strong heritage in the field of communications and it is reflected in the products and subsistence we manufacture like SDR payloads and frontends.

We do not aim to compete with traditional manufacturers as we do not design the chips. We integrate them and we do the same with complete satellites. In fact, our objective has always been to build new space missions and provide small satellite turnkey solutions, offering the space as a feasible option for everyone.

And, coming back to our communication expertise, we also aim to be at the forefront for new emerging technologies and actively participate in the creation of new protocols that can comply with innovations in an agile way of new space. And from a more human point of view, we are lucky to have a multidisciplinary team, With great professionals from different technical backgrounds, that work side by side every day created wonderful synergies between us throughout all the phases of the mission.

We consider this as a huge strength of our team as this allows us to respond quickly to the market demands, adapting our designs. And providing as many customized solutions as possible for satellites and payloads in record time. That was also the mantra for designing TREVO, our new SDR platform. We wanted to port the philosophy that defines our team, that versatility to a product that we design, a powerful and flexible communication platform with the purpose of responding as precisely and as quickly as possible to the new challenges of the industry.


Hywel: Excellent. Yeah, very interesting. Talk about the multidisciplinary nature of the team, obviously. If you’re providing versatility, flexibility to your customers, having people with different experiences is vital to that. And you mentioned the ground and the space side of things and so, yeah, and I can see that’s a really interesting place to work.

So  great. Thank you for that. And yeah, you mentioned there at the end, the emerging. Needs and requirements of the people in the industry, how you’re trying to respond to that. So I wondered, just as a final question, because I, I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to ask today, but how do you see the new space market responding to these innovations that are being released or are soon to be released in software defined radios either.Either as payloads or as see equipment.


Maria: This is a very good and interesting question. From our experience, we feel that the new space market has embraced this new line of products and innovations from the beginning. Alén Space has always bet on SDRs as we have always. Considered this technology is a powerful and flexible solution for communications.

And moreover, I think not just us, but all the companies in this sector, we have managed to demonstrate the value, the feasibility. And the advantages of these innovations, this technology has the potential to bring to the space domain new types of applications that have been before reserved to the ground, for example, 5G, and with enough flexibility and cost effectiveness to enable new services to make use of the space infrastructure.

We are also proud to say that most of our products have already been successfully launched from SDRs to payloads, such as IoT, AIS, ADS-B, and also DTC Solutions, while other more innovative solutions such as TREVO will fly soon this year. This is proof that the new space sector is also betting on these innovations as the results up until now have been more than satisfied, and the potential and capacity of these kind of products is undeniable. And finally, with constellations and the kind of missions that are expected to come, we think that enhancing these products, offering flexibility and moreover offering customers platforms that are robust and customizable is key in this sector.

We know that for them it is important to have a solid and safe ground base in which to implement the applications, which are, as we have seen before, more and more complex and autonomous every day.


Hywel: Excellent. Thank you very much, Maria. I think that’s a great place to, for us to wrap up. You covered many aspects of the, the advantages of different, new, more flexible, adaptable software defined communication payloads with the emerging challenges of the missions and the service level expectations of today’s clients in the space industry. Customizable SDR designs are obviously gonna continue to play a big role in some of these, some of the missions that we’re seeing coming down the pipe and some of the services that are developed, if not, lots of them, Most of them. LEO communication missions are becoming more complex, and I think you mentioned some of the many reasons why the expected levels of performance, the congested areas of the spectrum and the different requirements in different industries that are expected, and then the versatility and adaptability that’s, that’s end users and or people in the middle are expecting with changing conditions.

There’s sorts of solutions you’ve described today. Very interesting. And it is great to, yeah, great to hear from you and hear what Alén Space is doing to work on these specific problems. So thank you very much for sharing those insights with our listeners today.


Maria: Thank you for having us here. It was our pleasure.


Hywel: Great. Thank you. And to all our listeners out there, thank you very much for, uh, spending time with us today on the Space Industry Podcast. I think, like I said, Maria shared some great insights that. Can teach you a lot about how the Software Defined Radio area is evolving and the other aspects of a space’s work are progressing.

If you’d like to find out more about the company, you can do so at the company’s website and also on the satsearch platform. You can request any further information on the products that have been discussed today, or even, of course, the products and services. The company Alén Space offers outside of what’s discussed today completely for free, and we are more than happy to connect you with the company to pass on any information or requirements you may have.

So thanks again for being with us today.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Space Industry by satsearch. I hope you enjoyed today’s story about one of the companies taking us into orbit. We’ll be back soon with more in-depth behind-the-scenes insights from private space businesses.

In the meantime, you can go to satsearch.com for more information on the space industry today, or find us on social media if you have any questions or comments. Stay up to date. Please subscribe to our weekly newsletter and you can also get each podcast on demand on iTunes, Spotify, the Google play store, or whichever podcast service you typically use.

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