As we move into a world of autonomous vehicles and smart devices, data will become more important than ever. To facilitate this move, we need a new generation of satellite technology.
This has come in the form of beam hopping satellites. They offer numerous advantages over the previously revolutionary High Throughput Satellites (HTS). But to understand beam hopping and its advantages, we must first understand HTS.
High throughput satellites offered a significant upgrade over FSS because of their much greater data capacity. Each satellite produces multiple beams across the satellite spectrum, which it reuses multiple times. This differs from FSS, which remain in a fixed location and typically use the same frequency range.
HTS emit multiple beams without interference by dividing them into colours, which it separates by frequency and polarisation. A regular HTS beam uses around a quarter of the available bandwidth so it can send multiple beams at once. Due to this technology, HTS provide more than 100Gbit/s of capacity, which is more than 100 times that offered by FSS.
While increased capacity has clear benefits, HTS present some limitations and challenges. One major challenge is the growth of mobile applications in industries such as maritime and aerospace. Mobile vehicles require beam changing and high capacity, which HTS struggle to maintain due to their architecture.
Similarly, HTS have an issue with low fill factor. For example, all HTS beams are equal, while demand on the ground is not. Some areas require larger capacity than others, meaning some beams become overburdened while others see very little demand at all. With current HTS technology, it is impossible to address this issue. In short, the increased capacity from HTS is beneficial but not necessarily cost-effective.
Beam hopping addresses these challenges by offering flexible capacity mapping. Satellites provide a time-based burst that can adjust to demand. Beam hopping satellites replace traditional colour division with time-division multiplexing. It involves synchronised switches at each end of the transmission so the beam can hop between different areas without interference. A leading company in beam hopping technology, SatixFy, previously released a video that illustrates this clearly.
Switching to a time-based burst model means that each beam uses the entire bandwidth and that it adjusts based on demand. In the video linked above, SatixFy gives a use-case scenario. In this scenario, the beam hops across the USA based on peak demand, meaning the satellite is better able to accommodate changing capacity.
Importantly, this means satellites can be flexible based on assessed data and demand. This flexibility is more cost-effective because satellites perform better and providers can offer better service to customers. Also, in mobile situations where HTS struggle, beam hopping satellites can easily provide superior coverage that keeps up with the customer’s changing location.
The technology will also have a positive effect on infrastructure. Beam hopping will allow interoperability between equipment from different vendors on the same beam. Also, it will mean smaller ground antenna equipment, better utilisation of the satellite spectrum, and stronger signals overall. Considering we will soon launch into the age of big data, this is exactly the technology we need.
Of course, 5G connectivity is one of the main cornerstones of this coming technology boom. While 5G offers greater connection speeds than ever before, but its higher frequencies present challenges. It has distance and capacity limitations and will require novel satellite devices to accommodate these needs. A recent scientific paper suggested beam hopping satellites as the best solution for the challenges faced by 5G networks.
The UK Space Agency recently announced the launch of a major project related to beam hopping satellites. The companies involved have already received £32 million in funding from several investors, and the satellite, nicknamed Joey-Sat, is set to launch in 2022.
British communications company OneWeb is leading the project, which is unsurprising considering its significant expertise in the satellite industry. Also involved in the project is SatixFy, a pioneer of beam hopping technology through its SX-3000 chip. It is the first available chip to support beam hopping capability and is designed to be future proof.
Celestia UK is developing ground technology to utilise beam hopping capabilities. It will trial smart technology, such as multibeam electronically steered antennae. Using this technology will improve overall efficiency of the ground network, an important component of faster, more efficient satellite systems.
Finally, Astroscale UK is also involved in the project. Its role relates to space debris removal. While this is not directly related to the introduction of beam hopping technology, it is vital for sustainable future use of space. As more advanced technology replaces old satellites, Astroscale plans to remove them from orbit.
Beam hopping satellites promise to revolutionise the way we transmit data. We will soon see faster, more efficient networks capable of handling demand on a fast and intelligent basis. Hopefully, this will also mean better coverage in previously underserved areas, which is vital considering the importance of connectivity in our mobile age.
Also, this project promises to position the UK space sector as a global leader in revolutionary technology, particularly thanks to the innovations of companies like OneWeb and SatixFy. Investing in future proof technology like beam hopping satellites shows the UK is serious about carving out a place for itself in the global space industry.