Lockheed Martin mulls electronically steered antennas for Verge ground station expansion

Lockheed Martin is investing in an electronically steered antenna that may change how it deploys a network of ground stations for communications with satellites. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin’s Verge ground station network should have coverage for satellites passing over the continental United States next year, with the timeline for a global build out determined by what antenna technology the company chooses next.

SpaceNews.com

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin’s Verge ground station network should have coverage for satellites passing over the continental United States next year, with the timeline for a global build out determined by what antenna technology the company chooses next.

Joseph Portale, a senior program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said the company plans to have a network of parabolic dish antennas spread across the U.S. contiguous states in the next six to nine months.

“It will be operational in 2020,” Portale said at the Satellite 2019 conference here. “We’ll be downlinking data for a pay-by-the-minute kind of service and pushing that data to the AWS [Amazon Web Services] cloud in that timeframe.”

Lockheed Martin is building Verge to provide communications services to operators of low-Earth-orbit satellites. Companies relying on Verge to communicate with their spacecraft will have their data sent directly to the AWS cloud, unless they request otherwise, in order to accelerate access to that data, Portale said.

Lockheed Martin and AWS announced a partnership in November to integrate the new AWS Ground Station service with the Verge network. AWS is building its own network of ground stations, having set the goal of completing 12 by the end of 2019.

Portale said Lockheed Martin will be “expanding quickly” with Verge beyond the continental United States, but is evaluating whether to continue with inexpensive dish antennas or shift to more expensive, but also more capable electronically steered antennas.

Electronically steered antennas can track multiple satellites simultaneously, meaning the company wouldn’t need to deploy as many antennas to cover the same geographies. Portale said Lockheed Martin is developing an electronically steered antenna internally, but has yet to get the cost metrics right.

For electronically steered antennas used in ground stations — not broadband user terminals — Portale said the defining criteria is the cost of the antenna divided by the number of beams it can produce to track satellites.

“That’s really what you have to look at,” he said. “If an [electronically steered antenna] can handle 12 simultaneous connections to LEO, is it 12 times more expensive than a parabolic?”

So far, that answer is yes and then some, Portale said.

“The fact of the matter is that it’s actually financially not feasible that a 12-beam [electronically steered antenna] is 20 times more than a parabolic, so the numbers don’t close yet,” he said.

Other ground station companies are also building electronically steered antennas for their networks. Atlas Space Operations said in August 2018 that it had deployed an electronically steered antenna in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Last month the company announced it received an Air Force contract to prototype another electronically steered antenna for military missions.

Dan White, executive vice president of Swedish Space Corporation’s Americas Region, said his company is interested in electronically steered antenna ground stations as well.

“We are looking at that on our roadmap,” he said. “Parabolics aren’t going away, but it would be great to be able to track two or three satellites at the same time with a given antenna.”

White said Swedish Space Corporation has ground stations located at 10 sites around the world, each with multiple dish antennas.