11. Ground Data Systems and Mission Operations


A ground data system consists of a network of ground stations and control centers, such as the Spacecraft Operations Control Center (SOCC), the Payload Operations Control Center (POCC) and the Mission Control Center (MCC). These networks may be located at the same geographical location depending on the type, size and complexity of the mission. However for small spacecraft missions, there is often no distinction between MCC, SOCC and POCC as these different networks support the overall objective of the spacecraft and the users of the data generated by the mission.

GS Process
Figure 11.1: Functional relationship between space segment, ground segment and final user in a cubesat mission.

Functional relationship between space segment, ground segment and final user in a cubesat mission. The ground segment supports the space segment (spacecraft and payload), relaying the mission data to the final users. To support the spacecraft mission, the ground data system must command and control the bus and payload, monitor their health, track the spacecraft’s position and use ADCS sensor information to report the spacecraft’s attitude [1].

Small spacecraft ground data systems

The ground data systems architecture for small spacecraft missions will often take a different form than the classical architectures used for larger spacecraft missions. The low-cost paradigm shift and the accessibility of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology for the space sector have not only changed how designers think about spacecraft, but also the ground data systems architecture. To lower the costs of a small spacecraft ground data system, the entire small spacecraft mission is frequently managed from a single modified lab room. The ground station is either a fixed or mobile COTS antenna connected to mission control using standard cabling. Tracking, Telemetry and Command (TT&C) for both platform and payload is managed by a single computer.

Figure 11.2a: [The US Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) is an example of a conventional hierarchical ground data system setup. Image Courtesy of USAF.
GSE-architectures_b; The 1343 nodes that participated on a voluntary basis in the distributed ground data system architecture of Phonesat
Figure 11.2b: The 1343 nodes that participated on a voluntary basis in the distributed ground data system architecture of Phonesat. Image Courtesy of http://www.phonesat.org.
GSE-architectures_c; An example of a smallsat mission managed and operated using a single ground station only
Figure 11.2c: An example of a smallsat mission managed and operated using a single ground station only. Image Courtesy of Petr Dlouhý, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Figure 11.2 illustrates the variety inground data system architectures that can be used for small spacecraft missions. Figure 11.2a shows the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) as an example of a classical ground data system setup. The topology of the AFSCN is hierarchical, with twelve nodes organized around a central master node at Schriever AFB, CO. Figure 11.2b depicts the distributed network of ground stations used for the PhoneSat project as it was supported by 1,343 volunteer nodes organized in a distributed topology. Figure 11.2c illustrates the common small spacecraft ground segment topology, where a single node consists of a university ground station and control room.

Under stringent power and volume budget constraints, small spacecraft (primarily cubesat platforms) missions typically use academic or amateur ground data systems with only one antenna, limiting the ability to communicate with more than one spacecraft simultaneously. This impact restricts cubesats to orbits below Geosynchronous (GEO) altitudes, as they are unable to carry far-ranging radio dishes or utilize a more powerful antenna. Other disadvantages include less bandwidth, lower data rate and less throughput capability for the entire mission.

Peer-to-peer topologies are also possible with a large number of ad-hoc nodes participating on a voluntary basis and, despite overcrowding of the frequency bands (typically UHF, VHF and S-band), the individual nodes in the topology can be interchangeable. For an exhaustive treatise on the characteristics of small spacecraft ground data systems, refer to [2]. Additionally, the services provided by cubesats ground stations generally do not provide the same security, reliability and latency as classical ground data stations. Larger and more complex spacecraft usually use Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) standards based long-haul communication protocols. On the contrary, cubesats primarily use TCP/IP based communication protocols, which provides lower data communication reliability and performance [3].

Amateur and Non-Amateur communications bands

Traditionally, amateur radio bands have been the preferred means for cubesats to communicate with the ground for many different reasons. However, cubesats are increasingly shifting from low-performance missions to higher-complexity science or technology missions. The larger amount of data produced by these higher-complexity missions necessitates higher communication data rates than amateur bands can provide.

From a regulatory point of view, small spacecraft missions must adhere to the same radio spectrum regulations that apply to larger spacecraft. In the U.S. for example, these regulations are governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Amateur radio frequencies for communications have licenses that are simple and quick to obtain. Since this kind of license is not available to government entities, whose missions are regulated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a number of partnerships have emerged between government entities and academia. For instance, a number of cubesat missions developed by NASA Ames Research Center are operated from the MOC at Santa Clara University. Similar radio frequency regulations exist in other countries, and these regulatory issues can make small spacecraft partnerships increasingly difficult. It is the responsibility of the developers to ensure they follow the proper regulations as they build and operate their spacecraft.

In most administrations, unlike other RF spectrum users, radio amateurs may build or modify transmitting equipment for their own use within the amateur spectrum without the need to obtain government certification of the equipment, and this can be a big advantage in designing telecommunication systems for cubesats. Licensed amateurs can also use any frequency in their bands (rather than being allocated fixed frequencies or channels) and can operate medium to high-powered equipment on a wide range of frequencies as long as they meet certain technical parameters including occupied bandwidth, power and maintenance of spurious emission. For example, the International Amateur Radio Union has allocated cubesats in the spectrum between 437.100 and 437.575 MHz, with a maximum single satellite bandwidth allocation of 20 kHz. This was done to protect the existing and future amateur radio voice satellites [4].

While available bands at 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz for amateur spacecraft communication are increasingly crowded, higher frequency amateur bands require uncommon microwave parts to implement transceivers, and working with 10 GHz or higher require electric power typically not available in cubesats. Moreover, encryption is not generally permitted in the amateur radio service, except for the special purpose of spacecraft control uplinks. For these reasons, cubesat missions are moving to higher, non-amateur frequency bands to support their data requirements. For instance, the 1.5U cubesat Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment (DICE), launched in 2011, used the 460-470 MHz meteorological-satellite band with L3 Cadet radios to produce a 1.5 Mbps downlink data rate to support its science mission [5]. As cubesat missions abandon amateur radio bands for higher-speed frequencies, the radios and ground stations get difficult and expensive to build. Non-amateur radio licenses, on the other hand, prohibit autonomous beaconing of satellite data. This is a big disadvantage because the cubesat teams can no longer rely on the existing network of amateur radio operators to downlink beacon data. Non-amateur satellite licenses are usually point-to-point, so all ground stations commanding and receiving satellite data must be on the same territory and must be licensed, which is an expensive and time-consuming process [5].

Cubesat programs could use higher frequencies in either the C-band or X-band to reduce the volume and mass of both the transceiver and antenna. This will also increase the bandwidth to support payloads that have a significant data downlink requirement. However, designers need to consider the utility of additional bandwidth with decreased size and mass against increased required power to close the link with the ground station since the energy-per-bit is lowered for the same power consumption [6].

As cubesat power generation systems become more effective and three axis stability is achieved, higher operating frequencies become increasingly feasible while permitting smaller components and increased antenna gain. The user must carefully evaluate all the pros and cons that Amateur and Non-Amateur bands provide in order to select and define the most appropriate telecommunication solution to meet the mission requirements.

State of the Art

The ultimate goal for small spacecraft network ground stations is to relay all its downklinked data as soon as it has commenced operations and continue until all the intended data has been downlinked. Theoretically, data is downlinked to the different active ground stations during its entire pass, however active ground stations are not always available for every pass as there are a number of other spacecraft transmitting data to them [7].

Ground station networks for small spacecraft utilization have greatly improved in the last few years as many companies are producing and developing the new state of the art systems. Some companies focus more on single products that have yet to be validated in space, others consolidate and extend their current services with turnkey solutions which add more capability and availability to their already well developed ground data systems.

Turnkey solutions

Turnkey solutions can be a good option for designers who want to focus more on the payload and the system engineering of the spacecraft. The ground operations can be commissioned to companies which provide full capability and support for the spacecraft ground communications. Table 11.1 lists some companies or organizations that develop and provide turnkey solutions for small spacecraft ground data systems.

Table 11.1: Turnkey Solutions for Ground Systems
Product Manufacturer Status Supported bands
ATALS Global Network ASAT TRL 9 for ground infrastructure, TRL 8 for software integration S-band, X-band, UHF (Ka-band in 2017)
KSAT Lite Kongsberg Satellite Services TRL 9 X-band and S-band D/L and S-band U/L. VHF, UHF, Ka-band support in 2016
Surrey Ground Segment Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. TRL 9 S-band for U/L and D/L and X-band for D/L
ISIS Small Satellite Ground Station ISIS B.V. TRL 9 Amateur and non-Amateur protocols for VHF, UHF and S-band
Endeavour TT&C Tyvak Inc. TRL 8+ VHF, UHF and 2.2 – 2.29 GHz (S-band)
Open System of Agile Gorund Systems (OSAGS) Espace Inc. TRL 8 S-band for U/L and D/L. Additional HR/VHF/UHF receive capability
GAMALINK Ground Station Network GAMALINK TRL 7+ Provides VHF/UHF pack and S-band pack. Additional ranging and GPS support available.
Satellite Tracking and Control Station Clyde Space TRL 8 VHF, UHF, L-band and 2.4 GHz

Assured Space Access Technologies (ASAT) is an affiliated corporation formed to develop the ATLAS global network of commercially available spacecraft ground stations, aimed at providing affordable cloud based solutions for space access. It provides global TT&C operations systems using the Amazon Virtual Cloud, which interfaces connectivity for the user to the ground stations. The supported frequency bands in which ATLAS operates are mainly S, X and UHF, however an extension of the capability to the Ka-band is planned for 2017 [8]. Figure 11.3 shows how the ATLAS ground service works with the cloud service (11.3a) and the locations of the antennas around the globe (11.3b).

ASAT, Functional diagram
Figure 11.3a: Functional diagram of ATLAS ground system. Image Courtesy of Assured Space Access Technologies (2014).
Figure 11.3b: Locations of the owned and operated antennas of ATLAS ground systems. Image Courtesy of Assured Space Access Technologies (2014).
KSAT ground stations in the polar region (Svalbard, Norway)
Figure 11.4: KSAT ground stations in the polar region (Svalbard, Norway). Image Courtesy of Kongsberg Satellite Services AS (2015).

KSAT Lite is a low-cost ground station antenna network designed to support different phases of small spacecraft missions. It retains all the major advantages of the existing and highly successful KSAT network, including the implementation of more flexible options and procedures in terms of priority allocation, availability and pass selection. The KSAT network has a long legacy of ground data systems operations with unique located polar stations in the arctic and antarctic regions (see Figure 11.4), providing from 85% to 100% availability on passes for polar orbit spacecraft. The network also operates mid-latitude ground stations, providing access for many other orbits. The baseline for KSAT antennas is the 3.7 m platform, which provides X-band and S-band for the downlink and S-band for the uplink. In addition, KSAT Lite offers VHF and UHF capacities that support a variety of system configurations. Ka-band support for the small spacecraft market is planned to be integrated in 2016 [9].

Innovative Solutions in Space B.V. (ISIS) also offers turnkey ground station solutions, supporting cubesats and small spacecraft in the UHF, VHF and S-band for amateur and non-amateur radio bands.

The Open System of Agile Ground Stations (OSAGS) supports high-frequency communications for small spacecrafts. Owned by Espace, Inc., OSAGS is a low-cost network of three equatorial S-band ground stations located in Kwajalein, Cayenne, and Singapore, based on software defined radio [10]. The stations operate in S-band with a 2.025-2.0120 GHz uplink and 2.20-2.30 GHz downlink frequency. The agile system can support different spacecraft missions simultaneously and is readily available for any small spacecraft mission in need of ground segment support for little cost. Satellites are required to use dedicated software provided by Espace, Inc., and they must have the proper S-band capabilities to communicate with the system.

Government sponsored missions often use the turnkey solutions offered by the Space Network (SN) [11], Near Earth Network (NEN) [12] and and Deep Space Network (DSN) [13].

collectively known as Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN). The DSN offers the only existing solution for spacecraft tracking and communications beyond Earth orbit. The Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) is even more tightly controlled. The Air Force does make the services of the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) available to the public, in particular space situational awareness in the form of two-lined element sets (TLE) for tracking satellites, and conjunction alerts (potential collisions). AGI has developed a similar system in the commercial sector called the Commercial Space Operations Center (ComSpOC).

Some companies can also provide specific individual components to users that want to assemble their own customized ground stations. For example, Helical Communication Technologies specializes in quadrifilar helical antennas, made of four helical filars or windings that support right and left hand circularly polarized signals. These antennas receive and transmit signals from the ground station to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) amateur radio satellites at frequency between 300 and 3000 MHz, and are particularly useful to receive small spacecraft signals shortly after launch without the need for antenna tracking positioning equipment and associated tracking software. Due to the nearly omni-directional pattern, the quadrifilar helical antenna provides good gain at low elevation.

KSAT and ISIS are also able to provide single antenna components that can interface with many different ground data systems. For example, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is a solution from KSAT which provides KSAT rugged antennas to be implemented and interfaced with customers own back end equipment.

Ground Data Systems Hardware and Software

Every ground station needs hardware and software components to operate and support spacecraft missions. There are a number of conceptual systems for tracking and commanding hundreds or thousands of small spacecraft and emulation tools also play an important role for these types of missions and systems. Table 11.2 lists some companies that provide front end and back end hardware and software for ground stations.

Table 11.2: Hardware and Software for Ground Systems
Product Manufacturer Status Type of Product
quantumGND Rt Logic TRL 9 quantumCMD: Command and Control (C2) software; qFEP: Front-End Processors for encryption of commands and decryption of telemetry; qRadio: digital IF front-ends and IP-Modem; T4: software framework
ISIS GSKit Ground Station ISIS B. V. TRL 9 UVTransceiver: contains the modem and the gain blocks; Rotator Controller: used to control the azimuth and elevation rotator
Soft FEP AMERGINT TRL 8+ Emulation ground systems software
Distributed Simulation & Test Environment (DSTE) SSBV  TRL 9 Hardware and software elements all operating within a single reference platform and environment

QuantumGND is a turnkey ground data system solution offered by Kratos/RT Logic designed specifically for small spacecraft applications. It is a complete C2-to-RF (Command and Control communication to Radio Frequency signal processing) turnkey small spacecraft ground data system package that includes everything from the C2 system through the ground network to the ground modem, giving a pre-integrated and easy-to-use solution. QuantumGND is comprised of quantumCMD for a small spacecraft C2, qFEP for front-end processing, encryption and decryption, and qRADIO for network transport and RF signal processing. All these components are also available separately and independently for users who need only particular components for their customized ground data system. A block diagram on how quantumGND works is shown in Figure 11.5.

QuantumGND block diagram
Figure 11.5: QuantumGND block diagram. Image Courtesy of RT Logic (2015).

For system engineering and testing of a spacecraft constellation, SoftFEP can emulate thousands of spacecraft in a constellation and their ground networks. It dynamically exercises the constellation management, ground payload and TT&C software and simulates the entire end-to-end multi-node communication system. It has been used to model complex space to ground communication systems and also to emulate thousands of data channels to test the software applications that process that data.

The Distributed Simulation & Test Environment (DSTE) is a family of standard products designed and developed by SSBV Space and Ground Systems to support simulation, assembly, integration and testing of spacecraft, subsystems and payloads. All the elements of DSTE are based on modular hardware and software architecture that utilizes the latest technology to enable multi-purpose modules and components in a common and reconfigurable spacecraft and instrument simulation and test environment.

Alternative Solutions

A possible alternative to using mission-specific ground stations altogether is to communicate with satellite phone data networks such as Iridium, Orbcomm and Globalstar.

TechEdSat-1, a 1U cubesat launched in October 2012, had a mission goal to investigate this alternative inter-satellite communication method. The spacecraft had Quake Global Q1000 and Q9602 modems onboard to test communications with both the Iridium and Orbcomm constellations [14]. Unfortunately, the spacecraft was forced to disable its modems before communications could occur due to a delay of the FCC license. In April 2013, another experiment including an Iridium modem flew as an additional payload attached to the outside of the Bell PhoneSat’s frame [15]. This experiment successfully communicated the spacecraft location to the Iridium constellation, which then sent the information to the mission team via email. The team saw improvements in data rate and signal quality as compared to communications with amateur radio ground stations. The experiment was also able to transmit ten hours of data to the Iridium constellation over a 24 hour period, which is a significant improvement over typical spacecraft-to-ground transmission durations for cubesats [15].  Inter-satellite communication was tested again using TechEdSat-3p, a 3U cubesat launched in August 3, 2013 [16]. After deployment, TechEdSat-3p sucessfully communicated with the Iridium satellite network using two redundant Quake Global Q9602 modems.

The Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) funded by the USAF successfully tested a simplex Globalstar modem from NearSpaceLaunch. This test was repeated by the Globalstar Experiment and Risk Reduction Satellite (GEARRS) and GEARRS2 flights also successfully tested a duplex Globalstar modem [17]. A NASA suborbital flight, Sub-Orbital Aerodynamic Re-entry EXperiments (SOAREX-VI), tested a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) modem from LJT & Associates called the LCT-2b in August 2008 [18].

However, as the TDRS system is administered by NASA, there might be regulatory complications for consumer spacecraft wishing to use it.

These missions are actively proving the value of inter-satellite communications to relay data to the ground, with potential for saved costs and improved quality that can result from small spacecraft exchanging ground stations with existing satellite phone constellations.

On the Horizon

As the ground data systems and communication options for small spacecraft, particularly cubesats, expand, engineers must consider the trade-off between data quality, data volume and cost. In the past, several missions depended entirely on amateur radio ground stations to support spacecraft operation and communication, and the amateur radio community has proved to be invaluable to the cubesat community. As mission complexity and data requirements increase, more projects are looking to non-amateur ground stations and other options like inter-satellite communications or laser optical communications. These options, however, tend to present higher costs due to the need for associated radio frequency licenses and bespoke software specific to a given service provider. Further, the service itself may be priced based on data size or communication duration. Many factors can affect the cost, data quality and size of each communication method, and for some of these methods the factors are either only beginning to be understood in the context of small spacecraft operations, or they have yet to be encountered. The relationship between data quality, data size and cost for these communication methods must be studied over the coming years as the various methods are analyzed by current and future small spacecraft missions.

With the need to speed up transmission of high-rate science data and due to increasing demand for S-band and X-band telecommunications, the Ka-band, at 26 GHz, is now considered the spectrum of the future for NASA small spacecraft missions. At the same time, NASA is also exploring laser communication technology for its future missions and investing in lasercom terminal development. Optical systems that transmit information using laser beams, rather than a radio signal, offer the potential to greatly increase the volume of information that can be transmitted by a spacecraft per unit power required. This cutting edge technology has already been successfully demonstrated from lunar orbit to Earth by the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which was operated and managed by NASA Ames Research Center. The Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) mission led by the Aerospace Corporation, and funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program, will address two crosscutting capabilities of interest to NASA: optical communications systems and low-cost sensors for proximity operations for cubesats and other spacecraft. This will demonstrate space-to-ground optical communications links that will be performed with a ground based optical tracking system using a commercial 300 mm telescope, controlled by custom-built high accuracy pointing systems.

In light of the distributed and highly dynamic ground data system topology for small spacecraft missions, there is a need for coordination between the ground stations involved. This coordination can be achieved through common, openly available software for the management of a ground data system. The Global Educational Network for Satellite Operations (GENSO) system, by the European Space Agency (ESA), is a software networking standard for universities which allows a remote operator to communicate with their small spacecraft using participating amateur radio ground stations around the globe [19].  Data collection for a given spacecraft could increase from minutes per day via one ground station to several hours per day via this type of network. Other independent ground station networks include the now-defunct Mercury Ground Station Network and the Japanese Ground Station Network [7].

Planning & scheduling and data management are two areas of ongoing research within the field of small spacecraft ground data systems software. The future will see an increasing number of small spacecraft missions involving not only single spacecraft but swarms, constellations and formations of spacecraft [20]. A distributed infrastructure of small spacecraft made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of units would allow low-cost high-resolution Earth observation and science missions. However, the scalability of mission operations without significant automation is limited. The number of operators typically scales linearly with the number of telemetry nodes required to monitor the spacecraft [21].

The authors propose that, assuming a best case scenario in which a single small spacecraft requires roughly ten operators to ensure mission success (not including payload operators), a constellation of hundreds of spacecraft would require thousands of operators and thus an inordinate operations budget. In the cubesat realm, where operations budgets are generally scarce, conventional operations would require an unrealistic commitment from the academic and amateur community. To keep costs low and allow for the emergence of next-generation distributed small spacecraft platforms, it will therefore become necessary for the spacecraft to perform certain operations autonomously in orbit or automatically from the ground. The challenges related to partially or fully autonomous operations and multi-mission operations centers for small spacecraft clusters are ongoing fields of research.


From the moment of launch, the only connection between the spacecraft and Earth is through the communication system. This, together with the ground segment, is responsible for sending scientific data back to Earth in the specified quality and quantity together with engineering data reporting the condition of the spacecraft. The communications system also provides the capability of tracking the spacecraft and commanding it to take certain actions.

Depending on the requirements and priorities of the user, different types of solutions to build and assemble a ground station are available in the market. If the user wants to focus more on the payload and the system engineering of the spacecraft, some companies have pre-defined turnkey solutions, which provide full capability and support for the spacecraft ground communications. Other possible solutions are customizing the ground station with specific components (such as antennas, transceivers, modems and software) that can be provided by different manufacturers. The user can choose all the different pieces of hardware and software needed for this purpose and have a customized ground station assembled. Finally, another valuable solution for small spacecraft to communicate with Earth is using inter-satellite communications relays. Some cubesat missions have already demonstrated these capabilities.

Whichever solution turns out to be the most reasonable and appropriate, it must be ensured that the chosen ground system can provide cost-effective, accurate and on-time space communication during the whole mission.

For Feedback solicitation, please email: arc-sst-soa@mail.nasa.gov. Please include a business email so someone may contact you further.

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