Amazon Web Services announced its first two ground stations, located in Ohio and Oregon, were operational and could provide a host of increased capabilities, including near realt time interactions, for commercial and government customers.
The new systems will allow satellite operators to access data in near-real time, meaning that the intelligence community and affiliated contractors will be able to look at the most up to date images of areas where events are unfolding rapidly.
Amazon leaders said the ground stations provide faster data processing, global satellite access and encrypted communications. With this system, company officials say a satellite owner can control their satellite through an AWS Ground Station and then downlink data from that satellite to the ground station, where it can be processed on the company’s cloud storage and computing.
By integrating those services, AWS is able to offer near-real time satellite interactions for customers. In a recent scenario, company officials said a customer was able to contact its satellite, download the data stored on it, task the satellite to take photos of the area it was currently in and transmit that data to the ground - all in one pass. That capability allows satellite operators to find out what data the satellite has collected already and determine what data still needs to be collected.
“If you ended up getting a bad image, you’re able to then make a decision, ‘Hey, I’m going to go ahead and task for another image the next time the spacecraft comes by because I know I want more,’” explained Shayn Hawthorne, general manager of AWS Ground Station. “You’re enabling people to look at their data in near-real time, to make decisions while they’re still talking to their satellite so that they can actually give a signal back to their system to either collect more data or maybe stop having to collect more data.”
That possibility could be vital in disaster relief scenarios, where having up-to-date images could be a matter of life and death. Hawthorne said the company’s on-demand antenna availability can provide commercial or government customers scalability in responding to a natural disaster.
“Say you had a surge time and you really need to have every hand on deck and really need to get every aperture around the world possible, you now could just start to scale up and use AWS Ground Station, and then when that natural disaster or military conflict or some other policing activity maybe rolls off and starts to go down in intensity, you can start to not use the ground stations and be able to revert back to your already government owned network.”
Hawthorne also noted that the ground stations were designed with potential government users in mind and have built in protections for sensitive data. He said the AWS Ground Stations have the ability to leave collected data in an analog format.
“So that means the government data from a government satellite can come down on AWS Ground Station terminals and it can stay in the same format that it traveled through the air; it can stay encrypted,” he explained. “The government can actually use our ground station system to use sensitive data through the network as well."
In a May 23 press release, AWS highlighted several companies that were planning to use the ground stations, including Maxar Technologies, which works with the National Reconnaissance Office on the EnhancedView imaging contract, and Thales Alenia Space. It was not immediately clear whether any government agencies have plans to use the system.
AWS plans to bring a total of 12 ground stations online this year, though the company doesn’t plan to stop there.
“We’re going to continue adding ground stations and antennas year by year to our architecture to provide capacity ahead of demand for our customers. So this is just the start. We’re going to be putting hundreds of antennas out...in order to meet our customers’ needs,” said Hawthorne.
Ideally, as ground station coverage increases, customers won’t have to wait for their satellite to pass within range of one ground station to downlink their data. Instead, they can figure out which ground station is currently in range of the satellite, purchase on demand antenna time and access their satellite.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.