AWS Public Sector Blog

Virtualizing satellite communication operations with AWS

The complexity of spacecraft operations has sky-rocketed with increased orbital activity and new satellite capabilities, like the ability to reconfigure capacity, power, and coverage on demand. Despite these advances, satellite communications (satcom) operators still find it challenging to scale and adapt to this new complexity on the ground. Limited software solutions and the lack of interoperability between hardware ground systems can make scaling on demand difficult. Virtualizing the satellite ground station with cloud technology can increase scalability, flexibility, and operational agility.

This blog post describes how Amazon Web Services (AWS) can help satcom customers virtualize their ground stations that are directly connected to satellite antenna systems. We detail the benefits of decoupling satellite ground station hardware and software components to improve scalability and flexibility. This post also presents a reference architecture to virtualize the satcom ground segment after the satellite signal is digitized at both ends of communication.

How virtualized ground segments benefit satcom operations

Communication satellites are artificial satellites that relay and amplify radio frequency signals to allow communication between two or more locations on Earth. Satcom networks typically connect a large antenna at the teleport to one or more smaller antennas in remote locations. They are used in areas with no terrestrial connectivity, such as aircraft and vessels; in areas with unreliable or unsecure terrestrial connectivity, such as conflict situations and after catastrophic events; and for live content distribution, such as media broadcasting.

Figure 1. Satellite communication network. A communication satellite in orbit connects two or more locations on Earth; typically, a large antenna at the teleport connects to one or more smaller antennas in remote locations.

Figure 1. Satellite communication network. A communication satellite in orbit connects two or more locations on Earth; typically, a large antenna at the teleport connects to one or more smaller antennas in remote locations.

Satellite networks use transmit and receive systems to enable bi-directional communications between two points on Earth. These transmit and receive systems, in contrast with cellular systems, are typically proprietary, inhibiting interoperability and reducing scalability. Satellite networks with multiple remote locations also need a network management system (NMS) to manage network health as well as data centers for satellite data processing. Today, satcom service providers must purchase and provision physical infrastructure per network segment to provide services in each area of coverage (beam). For global networks with multiple satellites, beams, and teleports, this can be a costly, complex, and lengthy process. Furthermore, these hardware-based networks are fixed and restrict customers’ ability to adjust capacity and coverage as traffic allocation requirements fluctuate.

By virtualizing satcom ground stations, satellite service providers can move away from monolithic and vendor-specific equipment and start using generally available cloud services. This can be done by leveraging architectures in which network components, such as modems and the NMS, are decoupled from specialized hardware. Satellite operators and service providers deploying global networks can simplify their operation by moving to the AWS Cloud, thereby improving reliability, availability, and security.

Virtualization can also address the challenge of reconfiguring satellite capacity, power, and coverage on demand. Satellite operators and service providers can stop guessing the infrastructure capacity needed to provision the adequate number of networks per satellite at any point in time. By virtualizing operations with the cloud, operators can scale up and down as required within only a few minutes. Also, satellite operators can decide how much traffic should be processed at the edge (close to the antenna) or in specific AWS Regions, based on the service data rate, the end-user use case, the application, and the connectivity cost.

Furthermore, if hardware components of the ground segment fail, like a satcom modem, for example, it often requires a human interaction, which increases service restoration time. Using AWS for satcom operations can increase service reliability and availability by integrating automated failover functions with geographical and logical diversity. For example, with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances running software modems, operators can provision redundant paths using a single API call.

Communication satellites use telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) to monitor the status of the satellite and command the payload instruments. Satcom services providers must also monitor the health and status of the satcom network and the remote terminals. The NMS manages the satcom network and the remote terminals. Deploying the NMS in the AWS Cloud can boost services modernization, by leveraging machine learning (ML) services on AWS, like Amazon Forecast, a time-series forecasting service that let you scale operations, optimize capacity inventory, and make long-term decisions with more confidence.

Virtualizing remote terminals can add flexibility and service reliability to satcom users, who can select the preferred satcom connectivity service in each location without any hardware change, only based on network performance and services availability. Also, satcom users can leverage AWS services at the edge, such as analytics, video processing, and security edge processing.

AWS reference architecture: Virtual ground segment for satcom

Satcom operators and satcom services providers can virtualize the ground station by decoupling software components from specialized hardware. Digitizing the intermediate frequency (IF) signal from or to the antenna is the first step to virtualize satcom ground stations. Once the satellite data is digitized, it can be processed with software defined radios (SDRs) using generally available cloud services at the edge and in AWS Regions. SDRs perform complex digital signal processing (DSP) algorithms, signal modulation/demodulations, and coding/decoding.

Figure 2 presents a reference architecture for satcom ground station virtualization using AWS. In this architecture, we present both the teleport side, which is typically a larger antenna connected with a terrestrial network, and the remote satcom terminal, which is typically made of smaller antennas terrestrially unconnected.

Figure 2. AWS reference architecture for virtualized satcom ground station at the teleport and for the remote terminal.

Figure 2. AWS reference architecture for virtualized satcom ground station at the teleport and for the remote terminal.

Figure 2 shows how AWS services, both in the AWS Regions and at the edge, can support the satcom modulation/demodulation, TT&C, NMS, data processing, analytics, media services, and more involved in satcom operations. Each of the steps are described as follows:

Prerequisite: Communication satellite

Communication satellites orbiting the Earth connect at least two ground stations on Earth using radio frequency (RF) links.

Step 1: Ground station antenna system

Radio signals are transmitted to the remote terminal through the satellite (forward or outbound link) and received from the remote terminal through the satellite (return or inbound link) at the ground station’s antenna system. The RF signal is down-converted to an intermediate frequency (IF) and then  digitized as close as possible to the antenna, using open and simple standards, such as the Digital IF Interoperability Standard. Traditional antenna systems need a digitizer to translate between the analogue and the digital domains.

The digital data in IF over IP is transmitted using AWS Direct Connect, Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), and AWS Client VPN between the antenna system and Step 2.

Step 2: Demodulation/modulation, decoding/encoding

The SDRs (de)modulate and (de)code the satellite data to securely transmit the maximum amount of information in the smallest bandwidth possible, based on satellite link performance and antenna size at both ends. The satellite data can be (de)modulated and (de)coded close to the antenna system with SDRs running on AWS edge and hybrid services such as those in the AWS Snow Family and the AWS Outposts Family, in the nearest AWS regional point of presence for low latency, and in the preferred AWS Region.

Launching a software version of traditional modems with a single API call or a few clicks of a mouse can increase operational agility, enabling satcom services providers to deploy new networks faster. Also, traditional modem vendors can design SDRs to architect a backwards compatible solution for the satellite networks already deployed, so satellite operators don’t need to replace the hardware they use today.

Satcom ground stations typically provide high-throughput, high availability services running 24/7. Managing the satcom operation is complex and costly, requiring operational excellence. You should analyze usage and volume, latency requirements, connectivity cost to the AWS Regions, and scalability needs in order to select an AWS Region and/or the edge for (de)modulation and (de)coding.

The SDRs need to perform digital signal processing for high throughput traffic in real time, to support services such as voice, high-motion video, and gaming. Amazon EC2 provides secure, resizable compute capacity, offering choices in processor, storage, networking, operating system, and purchase model. AWS offers a wide range of instance types to help meet any compute need. Amazon EC2 accelerated computing instances, such as Amazon EC2 P3 instances with up to 8 NVIDIA® V100 Tensor Core GPUs and up to 100 Gbps of networking, and Amazon EC2 F1 instances, with field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), use hardware accelerators, or co-processors to perform functions more efficiently than is possible in software running on CPUs.

Step 3: Public internet or on-premises

Some of the IP data in and out of the SDR doesn’t need further processing in the cloud and can be transmitted directly to the public internet, stay on-premises, or be moved to other data centers.

Step 4: TT&C and NMS

TT&C data provides details of the satellite’s status and location to the operational center, which enables satellite commanding from the ground. The NMS data provides the status and location of each of the remote terminals of the satellite network. This enables the configuration and troubleshooting of the remote terminals from the teleport. In both cases, transmission of TT&C and NMS data typically requires lower throughput and higher scalability and reliability than satellite data traffic. Satcom operators should analyze these elements and others, like latency and security requirements, to decide whether to run these operations in AWS Regions and/or at the edge.

Satcom operators can use the same compute services from Step 2 to virtualize the TT&C operations and NMS. Also, consider Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), a fully managed container orchestration service that makes it simple to deploy, manage, and scale containerized applications, as well as Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS), a managed container service to run and scale Kubernetes applications in the cloud or on-premises, to help with the deployment, management, and scaling of highly secure and reliable containerized applications using AWS.

Step 5: Analytics

Satcom operators can get additional technical and business insights from the data traffic, and TT&C and NMS data using analytics services in the cloud. Amazon Redshift helps analyze data across operational databases, data lakes, data warehouses, and third-party data sets. Amazon QuickSight provides ML-powered data visualizations based on conversational, natural language queries, allowing everyone in an organization regardless of technical ability or role to understand the data and explore through interactive dashboards. AWS Glue helps teams discover, prepare, and combine data for analytics, ML, and application development. AWS Lake Formation is a service that makes it simple and fast to set up a secure data lake.

Step 6: Databases and storage

Satcom operators and providers need to store business data, such as telemetry, media, and government data, and then make it available for asynchronous retrieval by internal and external consumers. Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) is a secure file and object storage service that allows customers to scale storage resources up and down to meet fluctuating demands. Amazon S3 helps teams build a data lake, backup and restore critical data, and archive data at the lowest cost, protecting data with robust security, compliance, and audit capabilities.

For database needs, AWS provides over 15 purpose-built database engines including relational, key-value, document, in-memory, graph, time series, wide column, and ledger databases. These include Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) for relational databases; Amazon DynamoDB for single-digit millisecond key/value access; Amazon Timestream for time series data; and Amazon Quantum Ledger Database (Amazon QLDB) for maintaining an immutable, cryptographically verifiable log of data changes.

To protect data in the cloud, the storage and database services mentioned in this stage can also provide fully integrated encryption using AWS Key Management Service (AWS KMS).

Step 7: Machine learning (ML)

Satcom providers receive millions of datapoints from their NMS regarding network performance, demand, utilization per coverage, and more. Providers can make accurate predictions, get deeper insights from the data, reduce operational overhead, and improve customer experience with managed ML services powered by AWS. These managed ML services don’t require ML experience to get started. With AWS Contact Center Intelligence (CCI) solutions, providers can improve the customer experience, deriving customer insights and reducing operational costs by adding artificial intelligence (AI) and ML to a contact center.

Satcom providers can forecast network demand, usage, and profitability data to streamline decision making, and automatically identify anomalies in key business metrics with Amazon’s Business Metrics Analysis ML solution. Providers can use Amazon Lookout for Metrics and Amazon Forecast to address business and operational problems by using ML to analyze large volumes of data while dynamically adapting to changing requirements.

Step 8 : Media services

Media consumer services generates large revenue for satellite services. The ability to create, transform, and deliver digital content quickly and simply is key to maintaining the relevance of video distribution over satellite. AWS Elemental MediaConvert can process video files and clips to prepare on-demand content for distribution or archiving. Also, AWS Elemental Live efficiently formats video for delivery to broadcast televisions and streaming to internet-connected devices. It processes video streams in real time, taking a live video source and compressing it into multiple versions for distribution to viewers. Similarly, Amazon Kinesis Video Streams makes it simple to securely stream video from connected devices to AWS for analytics, ML, playback, and other processing.

Step 9: Remote terminal antenna system

Step 9 and Step 1 perform similar functions, with an important difference: terrestrial connectivity is not available to the remote terminals, in contrast with the ground station at the teleports. Remote terminals’ network connectivity is limited to the satellite link, in which the satellite acts as a space relay of RF signals, and the ground station at the teleport as a gateway to the Internet or other private networks. From the remote terminals, radio signals are transmitted to the ground station through the satellite (return or inbound link) and received from the ground station through the satellite (forward or outbound link). The RF signal is down-converted to an intermediate frequency (IF) and then digitized as close as possible to the antenna, using open and simple standards.

Step 10: Demodulation/modulation, decoding/encoding

Step 2 is very similar to Step 10, with the difference being that operators need a device capable to work in terrestrially unconnected scenarios, connected exclusively over the satellite link. In this case, the satellite data can be (de)modulated and (de)coded close to the antenna system with SDRs running on AWS edge devices such as an AWS Snowcone and AWS Snowball.  The AWS Snow Family offers the compute, storage, and network accessibility needed in a portable device, deployed virtually anywhere. Satcom users can launch the preferred software version of traditional modems with an API call based on remote terminal location and satellite network performance in each instance of time.

Step 11: End user

End users of satellite services, like cruise passengers, first responders in the field, cellular users in remote locations, and more people who may have either no terrestrial or unreliable terrestrial connectivity can transmit and receive IP data over a satellite link.

Learn more about virtualizing satcom ground segments

In the last two years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of communication satellites in orbit, and industry experts predict exponential growth in the satellite market over the next decade. As satellite payload and network operations are controlled on the ground, scaling ground stations with software and cloud services is vital to support the growth in space communications.

This post focuses on satcom ground station virtualization and leverages lessons learned from the virtualization of other satellite applications and industries. Read more about satellite ground segment virtualization for other type of spacecraft, and about AWS Ground Station. Discover the importance of an open and simple standard to facilitate interoperability of ground systems. To learn more about how the Telcom industry has virtualized its network functions, read Telco Meets AWS Cloud: Deploying DISH’s 5G Network in AWS Cloud.

If you want to discuss how AWS can support the virtualization of your satcom ground stations and how to leverage AWS experience virtualizing other industries, as described above, contact us.

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Carmen Reglero Andres

Carmen Reglero Andres

Carmen Reglero Andres is principal space product manager in the Aerospace and Satellite Tech (A&S) team at Amazon Web Services (AWS). She works backwards from customers’ needs to develop new space services and features that disrupt how space and satellite communications are conducted.

Nicholas Ansell

Nicholas Ansell

Nicholas Ansell is a principal consultant with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Professional Services. He works closely with customers and partners globally across the space industry to help rapidly realize their goals using AWS services.

Eloy Salcedo

Eloy Salcedo

Eloy Salcedo is a lead technologist in the aerospace and satellite solutions international business unit (IBU) at Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he is actively involved in helping customers transform their space communications architectures through the use of cloud services. Eloy is also a technical specialist in AWS Ground Station.

Jason Arora

Jason Arora

Jason Arora is a solutions architect of the Aerospace and Satellite (A&S) team at Amazon Web Services (AWS) working with global satellite operators and partners to achieve their technology goals using the cloud.