A new business model in ground station services: scalability, blockchain and the case for using Aeternity

It has been almost a year since Sfera Technologies began the development of HomePort, our decentralized ground station service, and almost three years since our team first conceptualized a blockchain-based ground station network.

For this time period, ground station services have expanded and diversified significantly — we’ve seen the launch of major cloud-based services like AWS Ground Station and, recently, Azure Orbital, as well as a fairly diverse range of similar services by other companies. HomePort has emerged as something different by basing its business model and core technology on blockchain.

But to get the full picture on why HomePort is something else entirely, we should begin with the basics.

What are ground stations and why do they matter?

Almost everyone has seen the launch of satellites and spaceships, and the publicity of industry leaders like SpaceX has brought people closer to space technology. Very few, however, are aware that every space mission invariably consists of two segments — a space segment, which is what rockets send into space to put in orbit, and a ground segment. The latter is almost unknown even to the average tech enthusiast, but is just as critical to a successful outcome of the entire space mission. The ground segment consists of one or multiple ground stations, their supporting data transfer infrastructure, and a few other elements depending on the mission.

A ground station operated by DLR (German Aerospace Center) at O’Higgins Research Station, Antarctica.

Ground stations, Earth stations or, sometimes simply “antennas”, are radio devices designed to establish communication between the satellite and its owner. When the satellite is overflying a region, stations in that region can receive the data from the satellite, forward it to a specific server or cloud where its processing begins. The data can thereafter be offered on the satellite data market and reach end consumers.

A larger number of ground stations therefore means fresh data will be available to end users more quickly. Conversely, fewer or just one ground station will turn the ground segment into a chokepoint — the owner will have to wait for their satellite(s) to overfly a limited number of stations; in the meantime, no data will be received.

As satellite technology becomes increasingly standardized, bigger fleets — or constellations — of satellites can be made, generating more and more data, thus requiring an ever-increasing number of ground stations to receive it.

Two shoebox-sized observation satellites — GomX-4A/B. Building satellite constellations has become much more affordable to private companies and startups thanks to miniaturization and a dramatic decrease in satellite costs.

But satellite operators aren’t rushing to build vast in-house networks of stations across the globe. The reason is simple — cost. A single high-performance ground station can cost as much as several hundred thousand dollars to procure and install; it then needs maintenance, and last but not least, frequency licensing for uplink from local authorities. For many satellite operators, these financial and time costs are prohibitive, and outsourcing this activity is a better alternative — this is how ground station services came to be.

Rent-a-station

As a result of this demand, several companies are now offering ways to use third-party ground station capacity — this is called Ground Station as a Service (GSaaS). The concept is simple: instead of building in-house stations, satellite owners can use already existing stations operated by other companies for a designated time period and price.

To access these stations, however, satellite companies must either rent them through a broker (thus abiding by the rules of the broker’s agreement) or must strongly depend on the infrastructure of the GSaaS provider (AWS Ground Station, for example). Furthermore, station operators also depend on the pricing conditions of the intermediary. This is precisely where HomePort differs.

As an entirely web-based platform, both satellite and ground station operators can join HomePort freely and then interact with each other, without the need for contractual obligations set up beforehand. Satellite operators use the interface to choose which stations would suit their needs the most. Station operators themselves are not “enrolled” as with other GSaaS operators, but instead join HomePort voluntarily and offer their capacity on their own terms.

This free-for-all manner of usage will significantly accelerate the expansion of the ground station network available to satellite owners. Furthermore, it will enable an organic, agile scalability of ground capacity that can adequately support the ever-growing number of satellites in orbit.

A comparison of ground station service business models: the fully cloud-based approach, compared with the contract + commission approach, and HomePort. The latter does not entail legal obligations, thereby maximizing revenue for ground stations and leaving a small, 2.5–5% network fee on the smart contract value itself. Furthermore, HomePort allows tailoring of how and where the data is stored, and even provides options for external analytics.

But why does blockchain come into play and what is the value of it for HomePort? Here’s the catch.

Trust, verifiability, automation. Using blockchain and building on Aeternity.

A freely-scaling ground station network creates plenty of room for abuse. A brokerage agreement, for example, extracts commissions, imposes subscription plans or constrains station booking to a handful of options formulated by the GSaaS provider. However, the legal agreements sustaining this relationship provide strong guarantees for technical availability of the station and give predictability to the service. Within massive cloud infrastructures, many of these aspects are guaranteed by the sheer size of the infrastructure and its maintenance. Within a decentralized network where everyone can join, these guarantees do not exist, so an additional functional layer is needed to create trust without intermediaries.

This is where blockchain becomes a remarkably suitable technology:

  • It can be deployed for a system of identity management for users;
  • Smart contracts can replace and automate many aspects of the traditional legal relationship in brokerage ground service models, while providing excellent transaction verifiability.
  • Oracles can ensure that many aspects of smart contracts become automated and/or enforceable. They are a critical bridge between the smart contract’s conditions and important real-world variables: the availability of the ground station, the status of data sent by the satellite, the frequency license of the station, and many others.
Just an example of a GPS satellite constellation interacting with Earth-based infrastructure. Now imagine the thousands of satellites that will appear up there in the coming years. How would that look? How many ground stations will we need for them? Quite a few, and we should make that network scalable and blockchain-based.

HomePort uses the Aeternity blockchain, where both smart contracts and oracles are native features. Using Sophia-language smart contracts, HomePort provides users with the ability to set up a direct contractual relationship without the need for a broker, therefore enabling them to decide their own prices, resource uses and contract durations. The oracle developed as part of Hydrogen, our alpha version, validates the cloud status of the data received through a station; it is the first of many oracles that will help automate the contractual process and ensure exceptionally high levels of trust without the need for a third party.

Aeternity is also remarkably rapid, topping out at approximately 116 transactions per second (compared to Ethereum’s 15 TxPS), ensuring that our real-time station booking and payment systems have a reliable and rapid validation mechanism. This makes it particularly suitable for the upcoming global, decentralized ground station network enabled by HomePort.

To sum it up

The space industry has made great advances in building smaller, lighter and more capable satellites in recent years. NewSpace companies are increasingly looking into satellite constellations that can deliver valuable data for almost every Earth-based industry.

But the ground segment has not really caught up, and ground station services are in their nascent phase. Even so, they follow old business models using centralized or intermediary practices. HomePort will change this by creating the first decentralized network of ground stations to receive satellite data in huge volumes. And everybody will be able to take part of this network, making a blockchain-based data bridge between Earth and space.

CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station. Thousands will follow suit in the coming years. We’ll be ready.

Get in touch with us for the Beta pilot program: rx[at]homeport.network

Check us out on SatSearch

https://homeport.network

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