Monday morning’s CTO Roundtable at SATELLITE 2023 brought together leaders from innovative space companies to share exciting developments in laser communications, AI, and systems architecture and design.
But enthusiasm was tempered by a certain humbleness about technical limitations and market realities, best summed up by Redwire CTO spokesman Al Tadros, who noted that space accounts for only about 3 percent of the global telecoms market. The message: Industry leaders can’t take anything for granted, even with recent commercial successes.
Moderator David Phillips, senior systems engineer for Satcom Connectivity at Boeing, opened the panel by asking speakers about the significance of the merger of Viasat and Inmarsat, which was announced in 2021 but is under recent scrutiny by the European Commission and other regulators for the takeover will negatively impact the quality and pricing of onboard connectivity services.
“Due to the nature of our work, reliability is key,” said session speaker Peter Hadinger, CTO of Inmarsat. “I think that [Inmarsat] provides an interesting counterpoint to Viasat…a company that grew out of the hardware side rather than the services side and therefore brings with it a considerable amount of technology know-how. They also bring a consumer dimension that we didn’t have. We believe the two companies are very similar.”
Many of the speakers spoke about the evolving role of software in the space and satellite industry.
“Software is an integral part of more and more space missions, and you’re hearing more and more about software-enabled systems, software-defined payloads, and software-defined satellites,” Tadros said, also noting that AI is being used more and more for complex systems. and applications such as cybersecurity.
Speaker Brad Bode, CTO and co-founder of Atlas Space Operations, also addressed the emerging role of software and AI in enhancing space services.
“If you look at the direction the future is going, where you’re going to have a lot of connections to space — it could be optical, it could be RF [radio frequency], it could be Ka, maybe X-Band – all of that has to converge behind something,” Bode said. “We need software to make this space possible. Once you have that…you can do amazing things with the data as it flows through so customers get what they want, when they want it. This is where AI comes in.”
But you can’t talk about software without talking about hardware, which moderator Phillips admitted is less hip and less of “glittering headlines”.
“Having digital interfaces on your devices isn’t something you see in shiny text, it’s what allows the software to be used and interacted with,” said Dr. Jim Rosenberg, Integrated Solutions Architect at Wavestream. “The digital interfaces are very important. One of the other things we’re seeing with the emergence of non-GEO [Geostationary Orbit] satellites and the improved signal-to-noise ratio, you see people moving to more complex modulation. This requires better signal integrity from the amplifiers.”
One of the liveliest discussions concerned the topic of laser communication.
“Lasercom is fun to talk about, but there are definitely challenges,” Phillips said.
Inmarsat’s Peter Hadinger recalled first encountering laser communications in the early 1980s.
“I was a very, very young engineer at the time, and I was told that laser communications is and always will be the technology of the future,” he said. “I’ve been in the industry long enough at this point to believe the future is now. I don’t think laser communication is a future technology, it’s a practical technology.”
Wen Cheng Chong, CTO and co-founder of Kepler Communications, agreed with this assessment.
“Of course there are challenges,” Chong said. “I’m sure you’ve heard many, many stories about being launched with this dream of establishing an intersatellite link or satellite to the ground [didn’t work] because the spaceship couldn’t point very well. It’s a difficult problem. In addition to putting lasers in space, you also have to make sure they are open standards.”
The engineers all highlighted a common problem that isn’t technical in nature – personnel. Finding engineers and other skilled technicians is difficult, and the market for the best and brightest is fiercely competitive.
“We have people who do microwave engineering, systems engineering … our last four systems engineers came through the company internally because we couldn’t find people who had the breadth of training,” Rosenberg said.
Tadros said recruiting from outside the industry has helped with some of these challenges. “I’ve had the opportunity to speak to various universities where they don’t even have an aerospace program, where [students] come from finance, physics and other fields,” he said. “We have locations across the country and it will be important to offer people diversity in their jobs. Quality of life must be one of the attractions of the space industry.”
Hadinger agreed that the lack of talent has proven to be a challenge. “With Inmarsat … it’s difficult to find some of these specialties,” he said. “The biggest challenge for me on my team is getting more women into the field. This is a place where we’re kind of underrepresented… and a lot of the work we’re trying to do at a much younger age is getting women to choose STEM careers.”
Chong stressed the importance of embracing a hybrid work environment as much as possible, although this can present challenges. “We’re still building,” he said. “Engineers cannot work from home all the time. I totally agree with what Peter says. Finding these unicorns is very, very difficult.” VS