RHEA Group's Arne MatthyssenSpace missions cannot function without the infrastructure and activities that make up the ground segment, yet the focus tends to be mostly on the satellites and launchers.

Arne Matthyssen, RHEA’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer and Vice-President Benelux, explains why we should instead be looking at the ground segment to see how a whole range of new technologies can revolutionize the space sector.

Gone are the days when space mission ground segments were perceived as the least interesting part of space infrastructure. Instead, for technology addicts, they are now the place where new technologies can really be game changers.

When I refer to ‘ground segment’ I mean the infrastructure that provides, among other things, functionalities such as mission planning, scheduling, operations preparation and configuration, procedure preparation and execution, monitor and control, security implementations, and interfacing to the ground stations. It can also include simulation, orbit prediction and tracking, payload data processing and dissemination and other payload specific services, user interfaces, support for testing and training etc.

How can technology enable us to provide what the market needs?

With a growing number of satellites being launched, including mega constellations, and varying requirements for commercial, governmental and dual-use purposes, the ‘concepts of operation’ (conops) – that is, the processes and procedures that will be used to operate the spacecraft and its payload, and manage the data – are increasingly complex. And so the ground segment, with its many different functionalities, needs to evolve rapidly.

Industry is demanding as much automation as much as possible. The aim is autonomy in the conops with maximum flexibility. At the same time, we have to make sure everything is absolutely secure, both in terms of cyber and physical security.

In recent years, we’ve spoken about maximized automation. Now, though, conversations have turned to hyperautomation and autonomy.

Many of today’s hot technologies, including edge computing, native cloud design, zero-trust architecture and (generative) AI and machine learning, are being used to build the new ground segment solutions. They enable us to create fully automated operations, provide end-to-end security and ensure faster and higher quality operations preparation. The list goes on – we can also deliver digital assistants, predictive early warning, autonomous decision-making, satellite/constellation health forecasting, autonomous procedure generation, operations planning using human and/or machine behaviour modelling, and much more.

How do we deal with security and trust?

Security is key; if the ground segment is hacked then the satellite and the provided service might be in big trouble. Design that balances redundancy and risk – in orbit, on the ground and in the cloud infrastructure – combined with cybersecurity will help.

But is that enough? What if we consider flexible usage of constellations with multiple owners by many different users (civil, governmental, defence, commercial), which are often integrated and working in orchestration with terrestrial systems and services?

To prepare for those situations, we need to be able to “trust what you don’t trust”. Hence I personally see a lot of benefit and opportunities in introducing in full end-to-end system (system of systems) zero trust architectures, distributed ledger technology for insuring digital ID and ownership on an elementary level, and smart future-proof encryption.

Why we should embrace the power of MBSE

Security-by-design should be applied in any ground segment design – that is obvious. Here I would like to put the spotlight on the power of model-based system engineering (MBSE) for ground segment design.

Modelling the spacecraft, the mission and the various ground segment components with their functionalities allows us to explore many different design solutions and enables maximum flexibility in design. This flexibility is essential to find the optimal ground segment design for the highly specialized and flexible space and terrestrial systems that the ground segments will have to operate.

Expanding the MBSE representation of such ground segments into an emulation environment (some might even refer to this as digital twinning) will allow you to test before deciding to build – “test before you invest”. Then, when you have decided on the right design, you can continue to use the digital emulation for training and troubleshooting.

The bright future for ground segment

As a technology fanatic and having been in the space industry for the last 25 years, I see a bright future for the next generation of ground segment solutions.

The vision of keeping an eye on your constellation from your living room couch using only your phone, while your constellation is reconfiguring itself – and even activating other satellite services to create a system of systems to provide the quality output required for the intended purpose – might be right behind the corner.

Want to know more about what our teams are doing in this area or are there technologies or approaches you would like to highlight? Get in touch.