Via Satellite presents its annual Satellite Technology of the Year award to companies that develop and deploy the most impactful satellite-related products and services available to the market. Via Satellite measures that impact in a number of ways when considering products and services for nominations.
A Satellite Technology of the Year award candidate could represent a significant technological breakthrough when compared to previous products. It could also represent a product that has achieved remarkable financial success in a competitive landscape. All nominations must have achieved operational status during the year, or available for customers through contracts and service agreements.
The winner of the award will be determined by a public vote combined with the votes of the Via Satellite editorial board. The winner will be announced during the Via Satellite awards luncheon on Wednesday, March 23, at the SATELLITE 2022 conference in Washington, D.C. Voting is open online from Feb. 22 to 12 p.m. on March 22 and can be accessed at satellitetoday.com/vote. The 2021 Technology of the Year nominees are (in alphabetical order by company name):
Astroscale, End-of-Life Services by Astroscale Demonstration (ELSA-d) Spacecraft Platform
After its launch in March 2021, ELSA-d, operated by Japanese space startup Astroscale, became the world’s first active mission dedicated to demonstrating the core capabilities necessary for space debris docking and removal. ELSA-d’s mission itinerary involves a long list of extremely challenging or entirely unprecedented maneuvers in space. It must fulfill Astroscale’s promise of a full Active Debris Removal (ADR) service that includes client spacecraft search, inspection, rendezvous, and both tumbling and non-tumbling docking.
ELSA-d consists of both a servicer satellite and a client satellite that were launched into space stacked on top of each other. The servicer satellite is equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism designed to safely remove debris objects from orbit. In less than a year in space, the ELSA-d has already set operational benchmarks for future rendezvous and proximity missions and has successfully tested its ability to capture and release the client spacecraft. ELSA-d’s success will pave the way for Astroscale’s next multi-client (ELSA-M) servicer, which is designed to be customer agnostic, allowing it to service a variety of spacecraft based on information provided by clients.
The commercial satellite and civil space communities are closely watching ELSA-d’s progress. With tens of thousands of satellites scheduled to launch to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) during the next 10 years, technologies that mitigate the risk of destructive debris and ensure a safe operational environment will be critical to the industry’s ability to grow.
Capella Space, Capella Console Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Self-Service Tasking Platform
Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is used to create two-dimensional images and three-dimensional object reconstruction on the surface of the earth. Unlike traditional Earth observation (EO) technologies, SAR has the ability to see through clouds, smoke, and the darkness of night. Capella Space isn’t the only SAR imagery provider on the market, but it offers the highest commercial SAR resolution on the market. Capella claims to be the only company offering an online self-service tasking and delivery portal that allows customers to directly task and steer the Capella satellites themselves in order to get customized SAR data. Customers control the actual satellites.
The service, “Capella Console,” eliminates the need for a middle supplier, which is crucial for customers that need quick access to data. The console combines with Capella’s API to allow customers to search the company’s image library catalog or request new acquisitions via on-demand self-serve constellation tasking. Users can login, define their area-of-interest, and search the existing catalog or submit a new acquisition tasking request. Once a new acquisition is collected, automatically processed and delivered, customers receive an alert so they can login and access the SAR imagery in a timely manner.
Capella Console is currently used by the company’s customers in the defense and intelligence space, as well as by large commercial entities across maritime shipping, agriculture, humanitarian organizations, natural and manmade disaster relief, and finance. The company already has contracts with the U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office, and the Space Development Agency.
LeoLabs, Costa Rica Space Radar Facility
The Cosmos 1408 anti-satellite weapon test that Russia conducted in November 2021 made international headlines and sparked new conversations about the need for space situational awareness and orbital debris tracking. The world would likely not have known the origin of the debris-creating event so quickly and with such certainty if not for LeoLabs’ space radar facility in Costa Rica. The data provided by LeoLabs enabled policymakers and satellite operators to quickly respond. In a potential collision situation, this speed could save numerous spacecraft and even the lives of astronauts.
Located in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, LeoLabs’ fourth radar site is also its first system located in an equatorial region, and the first of its systems in the Americas that is capable of tracking small objects down to two centimeters for both satellites and orbital debris. The opening of the Costa Rica radar station also completed LeoLabs coverage of all LEO inclinations. This brings transparency to the space industry, as the data the station produces shows that space debris is involved in 97 percent of all potential collisions in LEO.
The radar also allows LeoLabs to grow its business by supporting a wider variety of customers, including SpaceX and its Starlink constellation and Transporter launches.
QuadSAT, Antenna Calibration Drone System
QuadSAT developed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones that provide a broad range of antenna testing and calibration services for satellite ground systems and technology companies. The drones can test antennas regardless of their location, allowing QuadSAT to offer both operationally and cost-effective testing campaigns to clients. Antenna testing has been challenged in the past by geographic and financial inaccessibility. QuadSAT said its drones allow ground systems to be tested in their own natural environments and eliminates the need for recreating weather conditions in artificial test environments.
The company said this system improves the accuracy of the data and the cost-effectiveness of the testing campaign. It saves satellite operators from transporting antennas to testing sites and attempting to mimic real-life environments.
In 2021, QuadSAT performed an antenna validation campaign as part of its ongoing work with LEO satellite operator OneWeb. During the tests, QuadSAT executed several measurements, including azimuth, elevation, and raster cuts to provide data for processing. Measurements were taken on antennas with and without radomes to evaluate the influence of the radomes on antenna performance. Data was aggregated through QuadSAT’s own software to deliver accurate and uniform results.
QuadSAT also performed a ground segment satcom antenna validation campaign for SES. During the test, QuadSAT drones assessed 12 commercial maritime antennas at two different sites over 23 days and allowed SES to investigate the performance of a wide range of antennas supplied by various manufacturers.
SpiderOak Mission Systems, OrbitSecure
OrbitSecure is a cybersecurity software solution designed to provide encryption for assured command, control, and communication (C3) applications in hybrid space and ground architectures. Its core capability is that it secures C3 and other data, even as it travels on untrusted infrastructure. This innovation opens the door for more commercial connectivity providers to meet the strict security requirements of government and military customers.
The OrbitSecure protocol secures the communications for the management of spacecraft and payloads, such that only authorized parties may command, receive telemetry from, and gain access to space assets and their contents. It does this by utilizing ephemeral key creation, key rotation, and key assignment via a “temporal authority.” Unlike traditional approaches to key management, which lead to various risks to data security, OrbitSecure creates and distributes thousands of unique cryptographic keys defined in scope only to a specific satellite time, pass, individual or action. This is useful for ground stations, which are exposed to vulnerabilities when they re-use cryptographic keys when communicating with satellites on subsequent passes in orbit.
OrbitSecure is a unique, commercial off-the-shelf space capability that allows budget conscious operators to offload certain security concerns, providing more time and resources for customers to focus on their key businesses.
Spaceflight, Sherpa Next-Generation (NG) In-Space Transportation Vehicles
Spaceflight’s Sherpa-NG program comprises a family of in-space transportation vehicles designed to launch small satellites to custom orbital destinations and to minimize development timelines for satellite operators and manufacturers. The program includes the company’s new Sherpa-NG orbital transfer vehicle (OTV), which can serve as both a free-flying rideshare deployer and an interplanetary transport vehicle. The vehicles are being recognized for their unique modular plug-and-play subsystems. Their subsystems are comprised of heritage and commercially available components, and are equipped with hosted payload capacity. The flexibility provided by this modular design allows Spaceflight to customize Sherpa vehicles so that they can easily interface with most rockets.
Spaceflight first deployed its OTV technology to orbit in January 2021, with the launch of Sherpa-FX1 vehicle aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission. Once clear of the launch vehicle, the free-flying OTV successfully deployed all satellites, with separations initiated by onboard avionics.
Less than six months later, Spaceflight successfully launched the industry’s first electric propulsion OTV, Sherpa-LTE1, alongside a second free-flyer, Sherpa-FX2, aboard Spaceflight’s SXRS-5 mission (SpaceX’s Transporter-2 mission) in June 2021. Sherpa-LTE vehicles can deliver vehicles to LEO, Geostationary Orbit (GEO), cislunar, or Earth-escape orbits. Sherpa-LTE can also use propulsion to counteract Earth’s gravitational pull and maintain a satellite’s correct orbital position. By mid-2021, Sherpa OTVs had deployed 52 payloads for more than 15 different customers. VS