Blog 004

A Blueprint for a Commercial Interplanetary Internet

By Dr. Alberto Montilla • December 2020

A roadmap proposed by Team Spatiam.

According to existing data from financial analysts such as Merrill Lynch and organizations such as the Space Foundation, the current Space Economy represents north of ~$400 billion USD. Estimations indicate it would grow to between $1.1 to $2.7 trillion dollars in the next two decades, boosted by competition in the transportation industry, lower transportation costs, as well as existing and new use cases for in-space activities. Activities ranges from science, manufacturing in space, to tourism and entertainment. These activities require a network to e.g. transport massive science and observation data to Earth, allow for real-time (as permitted by distance) video communications, and to control the equipment remotely, among others. There are no limits as of what use cases will be performed in space.

It is estimated that up to 50% of the space economy would be driven by satellite and internet services, from small satellites for observation/data/connectivity to global satellite-based Internet services. Within this area, space networking is relatively new, given that most of LEO/space communications technologies (with the exception of the DTN payloads on ISS) use protocols which has been originally designed for mission support. We expect space networking to grow linearly with the space economy as more actors establish a temporary or permanent presence in space, starting with the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), as well as with the increase of space missions (Moon, Mars and deeper space).

The Interplanetary Internet will deliver communications, and positioning, navigation and timing services (PNT) to users in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), as well as the Moon, Mars and other deep space locations, connecting Earth with the rest of the Solar System.

The Space economy will grow and expand over the next 100+ years. We are envisioning a commercialization path that will guarantee the commercial feasibility of the Interplanetary Internet. This commercialization path is divided in phases that are associated with time and major milestones.

Prior to explaining these phases, there are some principles and factors we have considered that have shaped these phases.

  • Transportation costs are still extremely high, even for LEO. How much transportation costs lower will define the speed in which the economy will expand beyond LEO. For that reason, and in order to support the commercial feasibility, and support the engineering needed to develop for-space applications, we believe that any plan to commercialize in deep space starts by being a participant in the LEO economy. We have then incorporated a phase zero (P0), which is focused on the LEO economy as the stepping-stone to support the Moon.
  • Moving from the initial crewed missions to the Moon in 2024 to permanent settlements will take a decade, and from there, establishing a Moon economy will take even longer. It is critical to provide focused support to this endeavor as we consider investments beyond the Moon given the time horizon, and the dramatic differences (especially in communications) due to Mars distance to Earth compared to Moon. In addition, we know that NASA plans (at least till 2030) are not considering using commercial communications/networking service providers and will rely on NASA Deep Space Network (in contrast to their plans of using a commercial service provider for the Moon). Commercial service providers such as SpaceX have more aggressive plans for Mars, however, without a firm funding plan for other companies, the risks for delays on establishing a Mars economy are very high.
  • Political environment might (and have traditionally) alter the longer-term goals and timelines. It is safe to assume that government plans beyond the Moon have high probability of changing.
  • Business Opportunities beyond Mars are currently not present due to the added complexity/distance, this adds uncertainty to commercial exploration timelines beyond Mars.

With the above considerations we have proposed the following commercialization timelines:

Figure. Interplanetary Internet Market Commercialization Phases.

Phase Zero - Beginning of LEO Economy and Moon Foundations [2022-2030]

The Commercial Interplanetary Internet for LEO will support the following communications scenarios:

  • LEO satellites to Earth: Using GSaaS - Ground Station as a Service, delivered together with small-satellite providers, will provide support for real time as well as new delay tolerant networking with third party LEO satellites. Using the existing network of ground stations around the world, it will be possible to service the increasing set of CubeSats and other projects that are aimed to democratize access to LEO. Microsoft Azure Space and Amazon Ground Station are good examples of what's coming.
  • LEO Space Stations: LEO Interplanetary Internet Services (IIS) will provide capabilities to support the International Space Station additional networking needs as well as Axiom Space and other commercial modules. The IIS require high throughput satellite relay services at MEO/GEO together with networking capabilities to allow for delay tolerant networking, to enable speeds from 50 Mbps to gigabits per seconds, as required by the different payloads. This service is important as it will unlock many of the existing limitations on the ISS usage of commercial software, as well as enable a new series of use cases that will be required once private astronauts start flying for commercial activities (cellular service, video/filming, science and more).

In addition to LEO, the Commercial Interplanetary Internet will get ready to provide services to the Moon.

  • Missions to the Moon (2024-2030): A Commercial Interplanetary Moon Internet Service (IMIS) will support the first missions to the moon, starting in 2024 with NASA missions, which plan to rely on a commercial space communication service. This includes a science mission to the far end of the Moon, and a human exploration mission to the south pole of the Moon, both happening in 2024. The science mission to the far end will require the use of a satellite relay in Moon orbit given the mission location. In addition to telemetry support, a low delay connection is desired to support real-time command. The human exploration mission requires high throughput from lunar surface in support for video for Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA) which are expected.

Phase One - More LEO, beginning Moon economy and Mars kick-off [2031-2040]

In this phase, the Commercial Interplanetary Network will continue providing support for the growing LEO economy, will provide support for more Moon missions and the first commercial endeavors on the Moon related to the Moon economy, and will kick off its expansion to Mars as exploration plans solidifies. During this decade, we expect a build out of high-gain ground antennas capable of reaching Moon and Mars in single configuration. We also expect the first Optical Ground stations to communicate to LEO and Moon.

  • LEO Economy: In addition to the existing radio links, optical communications will deliver higher throughput to the LEO stations. We expect commercial space optical transceivers (such as those provided by BridgeComm) will be available to expand the network. Optical Ground Stations will be the foundation of the space optical network for high throughput non-critical communications, due to its higher dependency on weather conditions. We also expect traditional satellite service providers to continue enhancing their constellations by starting to introduce optical capabilities during this decade.
  • Moon Economy: As the economy on the Moon demands for better communications, Moon satellite capabilities will be enhanced with additional satellites in non-stationary orbit, with direct to Earth connectivity as well as using the stationary satellite as a relay. Towards the end of this phase we also expect enhanced surface capabilities with the first commercial, optical and RF commercial Moon-station, with support to direct-to-Earth as well as using the relay services.
  • Mars: Commercial deep space ground station services to support missions to Mars during this phase, through new high-gain RF antennas that will be the foundation to deep space radio support.
  • Additional capabilities: The Interplanetary network will extend the support for LunaNet to support Mars (MarsNet) as well as the introduction of Cognitive capabilities for automatic setup, security, reliability and reconfiguration, simplifying the management and expansion of the Interplanetary Internet.

Phase Two - LEO Growth, Moon Consolidation and Mars Foundations [2040-2050]

In this phase, LEO will be an established market and still growing, we will see the first commercial settlements for commercial operations, and more activity in Mars. By the start of this phase the Interplanetary Internet will be well established in LEO and Moon, and will provide basic mission support for Mars.

  • For LEO, we expect earth link-like speed, as we expect full data centers and larger populations living in LEO stations. For that inter-station optical links must be required. Radio Frequency will continue operating both as backup and as links for critical operations (e.g. PNT).
  • For Moon, we expect a complete Moon High-speed optical+RF satellite constellation to complete delivering Gigabit per second speeds between Moon’s settlement(s) and Earth, also supporting a Moon Wide Area Network through Moon ground station services.
  • For Mars, we expect the first commercial satellites for communications based on RF and Optical. Its configuration is still to be determined, depending on Space Agency and commercial concrete plans and requirements.
  • Networking capabilities will be fully cognitive by then, allowing for additional network intelligence and autonomy, for example reconfiguring automatically for distress support and other emergency situations.

Phase Three+ - LEO maturity, Moon Growth, Mars Foundations, and deeper space economy sprouts [2050+]

During this period, we will see a continuous enhancement of the network capabilities in LEO and Moon. For Mars, due to the non-changing challenge that distance imposes, we expect a slow, gradual growth of the economy, and networking and communications capabilities will increase accordingly, e.g. by completing coverage via a satellite constellation and the first Mars Ground station with optical and RF capabilities. We will likely see the first commercial missions beyond Mars using commercial ground stations (in array configuration) supporting communications to Titan (and beyond). Extending our reach beyond Mars will heavily depend on the speed of expansion of the space economy. In terms of networking, network intelligence will reach peak intelligence to perform traffic management as well as self-maintenance as required. During this period, we may see the irruption of quantum communications, which may represent a new generation of physical and link layer devices, that although are optical-based, would represent a paradigm change in the lower layers of communications (modulation/encoding).

A commercial Interplanetary Internet blueprint.

This work was performed by team SPATIAM as part of ActInSpace 2020 international innovation contest organized by CNES (French Space Agency) and supported by ESA (European Space Agency), for challenge " Hello, Do you See me? " sponsored by SES . Team SPATIAM was named winner of the local US edition, and a global finalist out of 543 participant teams.

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