August 7, 2019

Earth’s orbit is an increasingly busy place. While there are already about 2,000 satellites circling our planet today, current projections say we could see somewhere around 1,100 new ones launch every year by 2025.

As such, there are a number of emerging technological trends worth investigating, both in terms of software and hardware, that are shaping the role satellites will play in the years to come.

We reached out to two of IEEE’s experts on the subject – IEEE Fellow Marina Ruggieri and IEEE Fellow Adriano Camps – to hear what they see as the biggest developments in the industry, and what we should be on the lookout for.

Software-Defined Satellites

Marina Ruggieri has had a distinguished career, including receiving the honor of being named an IEEE Fellow for her contributions to millimeter wave satellite communications. A telecommunications engineer who has been active in the  IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society for 20 years, she is on the cutting edge of satellite technology.

To Ruggieri, the biggest approaching breakthrough is applying software-defined networking to satellites, which she says represents “a true revolution in the space system realm and in space system design, and something we are going to see in the next year.”

What is software-defined networking, exactly? “It is a change in the layered approach of the network – a new software-driven layer is added on top of the hardware,” says Ruggieri. “The software-defined approach adds flexibility by decoupling the hardware and services, or the hardware and the controls, to a software-based control and software-based encapsulation.”

Why is that important? “In a software-defined network, a human being and a robot can become nodes of the network much easier than in a conventional environment.” This interplanetary network would be much more flexible than the current system, allowing humans and robots to solve unexpected challenges, even across huge distances. In turn, she says, that could “be the difference in countering the effects of climate change and natural disasters, and to guarantee human beings a healthy and sustainable life on earth.”

Getting Smaller

Adriano Camps is the former president of the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society. To him, a major development has been the creation of nanosatellites.

“Satellites have become smaller and smaller,” Camps says. “Nowadays there are even private companies running constellations of small satellites (nanosatellites, as they weigh less than 10 kg). Two of these companies have more than 300 and 100 satellites in orbit.”

IEEE Spectrum has covered advances in miniaturizing satellites, as well as the tribulations of getting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to approve them – fears of them being too small to track, creating the risk of collisions with other satellites or even manned spacecraft, have caused confusion among those working on them.

New Frontiers of Measurement

Camps has worked on two space missions for the European Space Agency, focusing on soil moisture and ocean salinity (a.k.a. SMOS), and is working on a mission called FSSCat that is scheduled to launch in September.

Soil moisture data can be used to study “desertification, floods and drought studies, forest fire risk evaluation, vegetation senescence El Niño/La Niña events and more,” says Camps. Meanwhile, ocean salinity is used for “circulation, polar caps melting, fisheries, etc. FSSCat data will be used for soil moisture and ice mapping (sea ice extent and thickness).”

Many of these areas are critical to sustainability efforts and to our understanding of how the planet is changing.

The Internet of Satellites

Here on IEEE Transmitter, we’ve covered plenty of developments in applications of the internet of things – agriculture, vehicles, safety, cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that paradigm can now be applied to satellites, too.

“AI will help satellites reduce the amount of data to be downloaded, and to download only what is needed, when it is needed,” says Camps. “Together with satellite interconnectivity (or the IoT of Satellites, in plain words), constellations of smaller satellites will be able to alert bigger platforms to acquire more detailed imagery of selected target areas when something’s happening there.”

For more on the future (and past) of satellites, as well as technologies out in space and beneath our oceans, check out our interactive experience Space Exploration, Technology and Our Lives.