Talking to Satellites Just Got a Lot Easier

…because Amazon has just launched AWS Ground Station

Alasdair Allan
5 min readNov 28, 2018

In a move that is rather reminiscent of the release of EC2 back in 2006, yesterday at re:Invent Amazon did something that could change the space industry just as much as their cloud has changed the computing industry. During Andy Jassy’s keynote, they announced a service called AWS Ground Station, which allows you to talk to satellites on a pay-as-you-go, basis.

Created almost twenty years ago the CubeSat standard has lowered the barrier to entry to the point where you can put your own satellite into orbit for not much more than the price of a high end car. The 10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm cubes have become so common that you can buy most of the structural and flight components of your satellite straight off the shelf, and has changed the satellite business almost beyond recognition.

Taken by astronaut Peggy Whitson from inside the ISS cupola module, the NanoRacks deployer is visible as cubesats carried into orbit aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus are deployed into Low Earth Orbit (📷: NASA)

So far more than 700 CubeSats have made their way to orbit, and the predicted sharp rise in the number of satellites needing to be launched over the next few years which has triggered a smallsat launcher war with a new generation of small launchers being built and tested. Until recently most cubesats that have been placed in orbit have been individual satellites, build in most cases by academics, and have hitched a ride with a larger more expensive payloads on so called “ride shares.”

However, this is due to change. In the wake of the launch of the first two Starlink constellation demonstration satellites earlier in the year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has now approved SpaceX’s request to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites into orbit.

This follows a previous approval in March for a smaller constellation of 4,425 satellites. That means the company now has permission to launch its full satellite internet constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit, and SpaceX isn’t alone, they have several competitors.

Over the next few years we’ll see the number of small satellites in Low Earth Orbit balloon from a few hundred, to tens of thousands, and it’s not just the big communications constellations that we’re going to see deploying large numbers of satellites.

All those satellites in orbit means that there needs to be a corresponding build out of ground station capability, and yesterday’s announcement—which was made in partnership with Lockheed Martin and will be part of their “Verge” ground station network—is a big step to filling the gap.

Satellite Data On Your Terms. (📹: Lockheed-Martin)

Interestingly, though, we saw the first signs of this capability expansion three or four years ago, and it began with open hardware. The SatNOGS project is network of open source satellite ground-stations intended for tracking and command and control operations, and was the winner of the Hackaday Prize back in 2014.

A SatNOGS ground-station on show at Maker Faire New York back in 2015. (📷: Alasdair Allan)

The project hosts extensive instructions on how to put together your own station and get it connected to the SatNOGS network. So long as you have access to a 3D printer, you can now put together your own satellite ground station for between $300 and $400.

Build your own satellite ground station. (📹: Alasdair Allan/Make: Magazine)

The default configuration supports both VHF and UHF bands for reception. The ground station is extendable both for transmission — so long as you have the appropriate amateur radio license — as well as to other satellite bands. But despite making building your own ground station far more accessible, projects like SatNOGS still mean that to avoid locking yourself into an expensive you have to invest in your own ground infrastructure, however humble.

There has been some moves to try and make use of idle ground stations from the bigger players on a shared basis, as well as a number of new smallsat ground station operators appearing. However AWS Ground Station is also going to be able to offer something that nobody else can, and that’s integration directly with the Amazon’s cloud backend.

A Lockheed-Martin “Verge” ground station on display at AWS re:Invent. (📷:Amazon)

“We’re starting out with a pair of ground stations today, and will have 12 in operation by mid-2019. Each ground station is associated with a particular AWS Region; the raw analog data from the satellite is processed by our modem digitizer into a data stream (in what is formally known as VITA 49 baseband or VITA 49 RF over IP data streams) and routed to an EC2 instance that is responsible for doing the signal processing to turn it into a byte stream. Once the data is in digital form, you have a host of streaming, processing, analytics, and storage options.”—Jeff Barr, Chief Evangelist for AWS

It’s not going to be quite as easy as typing the NORAD ID of your satellite into the the AWS Console and clicking a button, but it’s pretty close.

How AWS Ground Station will work. (📷: Amazon)

“…you can make use of AWS Ground Station on an as-needed, pay-as-you-go basis. You can get access to a ground station on short notice in order to handle a special event: severe weather, a natural disaster, or something more positive such as a sporting event. If you need access to a ground station on a regular basis to capture Earth observations or distribute content world-wide, you can reserve capacity ahead of time and pay even less.” — Jeff Barr, Chief Evangelist for AWS

The launch of AWS Ground Station has Amazon written all over it. Like many other product launches from the folks at AWS, it seems to have come out of nowhere, and a lot of people are looking confused. But for those of us that have been keeping track of the industry the implications are pretty clear. It’s going to drive growth, suddenly the ongoing smallsat launcher war might have a very different outcome that we all thought. It might not just be one or two of the launcher companies that survive, it might be nearly all of them.

Maiden launch of the Rocket Labs Electron small satellite launcher. (📷: Rocket Labs USA)

The idea that ground station coverage could be spun up and down like servers in the Amazon Cloud will make small satellites instantly more accessible and, just in the same way that the Cloud has changed how people start and run companies, it could even change how and why people launch satellites.

Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about CubeSats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb” and it might well now be his own company that proves him wrong. Because we just entered the age of “Satellite as a Service.”