SpaceLink – EOS’ ambitions for space connectivity

By Max Blenkin for Australian Defence Magazine

Orbit is a marvel of modern tech, dotted with satellites, each the product of humanity’s most advanced engineering, producing imagery, doing science and much more, then communicating back to Earth with the 2020s equivalent of dialup.

That’s slow and intermittent, with the pipeline from space – particularly the increasingly populated Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – severely constrained.  With orbits around 90 minutes for the typical LEO satellite, there’s very little time, often minutes, to download data to a ground station.  Even at the highest download speeds, there’s often far more data than can be delivered in the time available. Some may have to be dumped, while what does arrive could be hours old.  And LEO is crowded, with more than 4500 active satellites and more arriving all the time, all relying for communications back to Earth on increasingly limited Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum.

“Regrettably for the folks with satellite in LEO, it’s largely still the dialup age, while we take ubiquitous connectivity for granted everywhere else,” says Glen Tindall, Chief Executive Officer for space systems with Australian defence and space technology company Electro Optic Systems (EOS).  So what’s to be done?  EOS has come up with an innovative plan to place a small constellation of communications relay satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), able to communicate by laser with satellites in LEO, then relay their data to a ground stations.  This has been named SpaceLink, with planned launch of the first satellite in 2024.  “SpaceLink is a business that EOS owns. It’s actually domiciled in the US and we have done that for a few different reasons,” Tindall told the recent MiLCIS conference in Canberra.  “The largest body of users will be perhaps indirectly government users. Although our customer base is commercial organisations, at the end of the value chain, most of the imagery that is generated from LEO satellites ends up on the desk of a government user somewhere.

“We took the view that given that most of the customers are out there in government land in the US, we needed to have something that was very acceptable to the US government in order to maximise uptake in that customer base.”  SpaceLink will place one of its four ground stations in Australia, with the others in the continental US, Hawaii and the Middle East.