Smart RF/Microwave Solutions for an Evolving Satellite Market

Mar 29, 2016 | Posted by: David Vye

Satellite communications is a key market served by NI AWR Design Environment as high frequency electronics play a critical role in these X-, Ku- and Ka- band systems. Designing space-qualified hardware at millimeter-wave frequencies is challenging and with that in mind, I attended the Satellite 2016 conference and exhibition in National Harbor, DC earlier this month to check out the latest microwave hardware developments and to better understand our customers’ evolving needs.

The annual Satellite event offers a distinct perspective on RF/microwave components specifically designed for satellite systems. Major satellite exhibitors such as Boeing, General Dynamics Satcom, Hughes/Echostar and Lockheed Martin, exhibit side by side with leading microwave component manufacturers offering SSPAs, Block Up-converters (BUC), filters, waveguides and antennas. 

One notable trend at this years Satellite show was the increased presence of CubeSat manufacturers, reflecting the broader trend of rapid growth in the general small satellite (SmallSat) market. This growth is creating tremendous opportunities for reinvention of the space business.

The CubeSat specifications were developed in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University to promote and develop the skills necessary for the design, manufacture, and testing of small satellites intended for low Earth orbit (LEO) designed to perform a number of scientific research functions and explore new space technologies.

Enabled by lower development, launch, and operations costs and supported by a burgeoning ecosystem of component vendors, CubeSat usage and innovation is accelerating. The small satellite market is encouraging many non-traditional organizations with innovative ideas to explore how they can satisfy their mission requirements thanks to the considerably lower barriers to entry. While academia accounted for the early majority of CubeSat launches, by 2013 over half of the launches were for non-academic purposes and a year later most newly deployed CubeSats were for commercial and amateur projects. Will Google, Amazon and Facebook be at a future Satellite show?

Perhaps one day, at which point these non-traditional microwave companies will be pursuing opportunities without a deep background in microwave design. This challenge will be compounded by new SmallSat technical requirements that will be demanding even for seasoned designers. Differentiated from large, complex high-performance satellite systems, the SmallSat business model includes simpler vehicles, a higher risk tolerance, easier acceptance of new technology and rapid change, and cost as a primary system driver. Usability will be driven, in part, by the antenna design. Because small satellites are physically small and weigh less, their antennas cannot dominate the satellite profile or the weight budget. Ideally, reduced size and weight must be achieved without sacrificing performance.

With NI AWR Design Environment, new and experienced designers can expect to address this emerging market with a single open platform that integrates system, circuit and electromagnetic analyses. Engineers can easily compare the trade-offs between different design configurations at the system or component level. Combining RF/microwave circuit and system simulation with fully parameterized 3D planar and arbitrary-shaped electromagnetic analysis (our own AXIEM and Analyst or third party tools from Sonnet, ANSYS and CST), NI AWR software can address the challenges of rapid and cost-effective product development in order to reap the rewards of the emerging SmallSat market.