Doug Mohney is the of Editor in Chief of Space IT Bridge, which tracks the business of space-based satellites. He has been working in and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years.
Amazon Web Services has a thriving relationship with the commercial space industry, making it the go-to cloud provider for nearly all new space startups. Its most recent service, AWS Ground Station (GS), provides a unique communications channel between satellites and AWS data centers.
AWS Ground Station connects satellite dishes directly to its cloud services and adds the ability to send commands to and download large amounts of data directly from satellites. The service has been in operation for about a year, and provides a distinctive edge over Google, Microsoft Azure and other cloud providers.
With Ground Station, AWS is positioning its infrastructure as the key link in the fast-growing stream of image data between satellites and data centers. This satellite imagery can provide business intelligence through granular analysis of changes in agriculture, traffic, real estate and activity in global supply chains.
“We have six AWS Ground Stations online right now,” said Shayn Hawthorne, senior manager, AWS Ground Station. “Two US-based and four internationally. More regions are coming this year as we continue to build out our ground station network. Multiple customers are currently testing AWS Ground station as we work with them to provide the capabilities they need.”
A Direct Connection From Space to AWS
Hawthorne says Amazon has a mix of customers using Ground Station, either planning to use it as a supplement to their existing satellite ground station networks or “all in” customers coming on board and planning to use GS with AWS as a one-stop shop for all their needs.
“A lot of space customers were processing their data on AWS before AWS Ground Station,” said Hawthorne. “AWS Ground Station gets rid of the speed bumps by connecting satellites directly to AWS. Now, they can manage all their space operations natively in one place on AWS and only pay for the ground station antenna time they use.”
Before AWS Ground Station was created, satellite companies had to instruct, or task, satellites on one system, send the commands up using their own facilities or using a larger firm’s network of ground stations around the world, wait for the satellite to execute the commands, collect the data, and then send it back down to the ground through a teleport and then finally move the data into the cloud for processing.
AWS Ground Station cuts all of the third-party systems , enabling satellite companies to control and keep everything in the cloud through a single interface and company, an attractive feature for data-heavy space startups such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite operator Capella Space that want to focus more on collecting and processing data than building infrastructure.
“The combination of Amazon’s ground station network they’re building out at mid-latitudes and the feature richness of services in AWS was attractive,” said Scott Soenen, VP of Product Engineering at Capella Space. “A lot of our customers also have their environments in AWS. It makes data transfer easier when we’re delivering products. The compelling part of Amazon is eventual global coverage of Ground Station and direct connections into its worldwide data centers.”
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Simplifying and Automating Data Flows
Capella has focused on automating the entire process of ordering imaging via a web portal, tasking the appropriate satellites to collect the imagery, sending commands up, and downlinking the collected imagery directly via Amazon Ground Station, then executing the process of processing and transferring the data to the customer.
“We are going to pull down between 2 to 5 terabytes of raw data per satellite per day, depending on the types of data we’re collecting,” said Soenen. “When we generate products from the raw data to 32 bit [analysis-ready imagery], there’s quite an expansion, a jump of 5 to 6 times the size of the raw data. “
AWS Ground Station enables satellite companies to control data and keep everything in the cloud through a single interface and company,
SAR competitor Umbra Lab believes it can charge significantly less for radar imagery than anyone else on the market by automating everything and due to higher performance on patented technology embedded into their satellites.
“Our patent allows us to collect more high resolution targets than anything else by an order of magnitude. We’re doing it all in the cloud, our entire tasking system is autonomous,” said Gabe Dominocielo, Umbra Lab co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer.
“We’re selling data as a service. Click on a map and get a picture. The web portal will put up available times, resolution, angle, and the price. As short as twenty minutes from the time the picture is taken, it will be downlinked, put into Amazon cloud, processed in the cloud, and delivered to the customer.”
Dominocielo sees Umbra’s advantage is keeping the company as lean and simple as possible by avoiding complex contracts and a dedicated sales force, simply providing imagery rather than getting into channel conflicts by getting into analytics as a side business.
Easier Than a Container on a Truck
Capella Space and Umbra expect to launch their first production radar satellites later in 2020, but numerous other satellite-centric businesses are already giving Amazon’s storage, AI, and Ground Station services a heavy workout. Optical imaging firm Maxar, IoT companies such as Hiber Global and Myriota, and ship/plane tracker/weather data company Spire are among the customers using AWS Ground Station.
Analysts don’t have an estimate on the total number of space-collected petabytes stored and processed through Amazon services, but it’s big and growing bigger every day. Numerous stories have been written how Amazon moved Maxar’s mammoth 100 petabyte catalog of earth observation imagery into the cloud by turning a shipping container into a dedicated data center on wheels, parking it at Maxar’s headquarters for several weeks to transfer the information from tapes and live storage before being driven to an Amazon data center for final handover.
Amazon’s development of an integrated service to control and download information from satellites should prove useful in years to come not only for customers but applied to one of its own projects. The company’s secretive Project Kuiper plans to build a constellation of thousands of satellites to deliver high-speed broadband around the world, incorporating lasers to move data between satellites and potentially between satellites and ground stations.
Combining lasers with satellites, dishes, and the cloud sounds like science fiction, but Amazon is closer to the reality than many realize, with the driving force being less gee-whiz than providing customers with a seamless experience regardless of where data is collected and how it is delivered to the cloud.