3 Ways the EE Industry Is Affecting Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite Programs

April 27, 2021 by Adrian Gibbons

With life cycles under five years, LEO satellite rollouts require trusted technology and rapid development windows where industry partnerships are key.

Lately, the space frontier has been front and center of many technological innovations thanks to the efforts of NASA and SpaceX. 

A recently few announced ventures are three new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite programs, two of which are set tentatively for a 2023 launch.


Aeolus, the world’s first wind “profiler” satellite, launched in 2018.

Aeolus, the world’s first wind “profiler” satellite, launched in 2018. Image used courtesy of Teledyne Imaging


These programs are in the works and will continue to expand our understanding and expansion of earth sciences and enhance broadband telecommunications. Though still in their beginning stages, or “forward looking statements," they can offer electronic designers a peek into the types of design work and applications expected for a LEO satellite constellation. 


Space-based Beamforming Technology

Terrestrial beamforming technologies are widespread with applications in aerospace, military, and commercial telecommunications. However, with the increased adoption of LEO satellite technology, beamforming is going into space. 


Based on a PCB, a patch antenna array is used to steer antenna patterns via specific element excitation and phase delays.

Based on a PCB, a patch antenna array is used to steer antenna patterns via specific element excitation and phase delays. Image used courtesy of Analog Devices


Telesat, a 50-year old Canadian telecommunications company, is working alongside Analog Devices and MDA to launch a 298 constellation system of LEO satellites. Telesat Lightspeed proposes to enable low-latency (comparable to fiber) communications, with the capability to target high-density urban areas with beamforming technology.

Though beamforming technology has been trending recently, Analog Devices and MDA are hoping to use these LEO satellites to steer communication beams to create uninterrupted, high-speed connectivity to here on Earth.

This planned project is just one of many that will use LEO's to further technology, while other projects propose ways to help further understanding of Earth itself.


Earth Scientists Track Wind Patterns With ALADIN

Knowing which way the wind is blowing is no longer just an expression for foreshadowing. Since 2018, Aeolus’ Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument (ALADIN) has monitored wind patterns at an altitude of 320 km above the Earth’s surface.


Space-based Wind LIDAR uses backscatter detection to determine wind speeds via Doppler shifts.

Space-based Wind LIDAR uses backscatter detection to determine wind speeds via Doppler shifts. Image used courtesy of Ball Aerospace


Addressing a critical need to monitor planet-wide wind patterns, Aeolus uses an ultraviolet laser in conjunction with the Teledyne E2V’s CCD69 to track global wind profiles. 

The CCD69 is a charge-coupled ultraviolet laser detection system, which is hermetically sealed and thermoelectrically (TEC) cooled. 

From a design perspective, the TEC system is an innovative solution for moving heat away from the sensor, otherwise having no thermal transfer mechanism. 


Current generation CCD69.

Current generation CCD69. Image used courtesy of Teledyne Imaging


Now, nearing the end of Aeolus’ mission life, Teledyne E2V is in the process of developing the next generation of the CCD69 to further enhance performance and sensitivity.

Going along with a similar goal of monitoring aspects of Earth, JAXA and Smiths Interconnect are working towards monitoring global warming.


JAXA & Smiths Interconnect to Monitor Key Global Warming Parameters

Launching sometime in 2023 under the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), with an expected operational life of seven years, the Global Observational Satellite for Greenhouse Gases and Water Cycles (GOSAT-GW) will include a G-band antenna system designed by Smiths Interconnect. 


Example of a SATCOM Antenna System from Smiths Interconnect. Image used courtesy of Smiths Interconnect


Smiths Interconnect claims a unique industry position, having “subsystem and component expertise” in both space applications and antenna system design, enabling them to provide a compact system solution for the new satellite program. This system will utilize microwave radiation measurements to help monitor potential disasters attributed to climate change and global warming. The hope is for this LEO satellite to advance understanding and technological methods to provide a more defined prediction on climate change.

These new LEO satellites could give valuable insights into pressing global issues and create a new outlet for technology, however, there the challenges to space designing.


The Challenges of Space-Based Design

Getting into the “space-race” can be a daunting exercise for a potential contractor, with limited time-to-market (TTM), technology readiness, and the need to partner with existing experts among the challenges. 


Design Challenges with LEO Satellites

Low Earth Orbit satellites have various applications and drawbacks for Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) constellations. 

For circuit designers, the life expectancy of LEO constellations (< 5 years) is likely the most pressing concern as it affects design considerations such as TTM constraints and the potential risk for investing design resources in space contracts.


Short Lifespans & Mission Critical System Integration

For complex mission-critical applications to maintain a certain level of success, the technology readiness level (TRL) is a framework ranked in nine stages for determining the viability of a component or a system. 

A TRL of one indicates that the technology is ready “on paper”; meanwhile, a rank of nine indicates that the technology has been proven in an actual system under operational conditions.

Though there are a lot of challenges to designing for space, the momentum is growing, especially with more and more projects and partnerships coming to fruition.


Partnerships Key In Space Deployments 

Considering the short operational life of a LEO constellation, space design expertise and a ‘heritage’ of previously successful systems likely play a large part in winning contracts. 

Analog Devices, MDA, Teledyne EV2, and Smiths Interconnect all have a history of successfully applied technology in space. Their expertise is diverse and demonstrates that partnerships and specializations are vital to the advancement of space technology.   




Are you interested in other space technology and advancements? Read up on current events down below.

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