Are commercial off-the-shelf RF components ready for lift-off in LEO satellite applications?

6 September 2021

Dan Rhodes – Business Development Director – Filtronic

As increasing numbers of satellites are launched into low Earth orbit (LEO) to expand data connectivity around the world, there is an urgent need to improve the commercial viability of small satellite manufacture and deployment.

New opportunities in space

Recently, companies with big ambitions to connect the unconnected have embarked on large-scale programmes of LEO satellite launches to create massive constellations. To date, no standard specification has been developed for the transmitters, receivers, amplifiers and other components employed within LEO satellite payloads. These components need to withstand solar radiation, temperature extremes and other rigours of space orbit whilst operating effectively and reliably for several years. LEO components deployed to date have been developed by engineers on a case-by-case basis, sometimes using the more stringent specifications for geo-stationary satellites as a starting point. This has likely resulted in over specification (and over-pricing) of components for LEO satellites.

To make a sustainable business case for LEO satellite constellation deployment, the industry needs to find commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components that meet all the necessary quality and performance requirements, but which can be tested and volume manufactured at an affordable cost.

Proven performance and reliability

At Filtronic, we have been designing and manufacturing high-performance amplifiers and transceiver modules for demanding terrestrial applications for many years. These are widely deployed in mission-critical environments for the telecommunications, defence, aerospace and emergency services sectors, as well as more recently in high-altitude pseudo-satellites (HAPS).

Our exhaustively tested sub-systems offer the proven reliability and performance needed for LEO applications. The compound semiconductor (core MMIC line-up) technology we use is inherently benign to radiation, making it compatible with space deployment. Other components, such as power supplies and micro-controllers, do feature silicon, which is susceptible to radiation. However, these components can be replaced with readily available radiation-tolerant alternatives, tested and up-screened to achieve compatibility with LEO applications and system quality goals.

Viability relies on volume

Crucially, to make the concept of COTS products a realistic option for LEO satellite applications, the components need to be efficiently volume manufactured – bringing the cost per unit down to commercially acceptable levels. That’s where Filtronic stands out in the market. Thanks to continued investments in state-of-the-art precision manufacturing facilities and automated processes, we are able to produce microelectronic sub-systems efficiently and competitively at scale. Even with high-volume throughput, we achieve very high yields through continuous improvement and lean manufacturing. That enables us to offer sustained cost reductions for clients requiring complex, high-mix sub-systems manufactured to extremely high reliability and quality levels. Such as those required for military modules and commercial mm-wave radios destined for many years of service in harsh environments.

Higher frequencies boost capacity

As satellite networks expand and more people worldwide are connected to the Internet via LEO satellite, the demand for data will increase exponentially – requiring a corresponding increase in bandwidth to boost capacity. Currently, LEO satellites employ Ku and Ka band payloads (~12-30GHz). Second generation mega-constellations will push up to Q and V bands (33-60GHz) where more bandwidth is available. To support these higher frequency bands, gateway links at E-band (71-76GHz / 81-86GHz) are being considered, because E-band provides the wide bandwidth pipe needed to support the increase in user terminal capacity. Furthermore, E-band has been identified as a candidate technology for inter-satellite links to enable mesh networking within constellations.

Our specialists at Filtronic have extensive experience in designing and manufacturing modules at high mmWave frequencies, including Q to E-band. Using variants of our transceiver modules for LEO applications will equip satellites and ground-based gateways with the capacity to meet rapidly growing demand for data as more people worldwide are brought online.

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