Innovations in Satellite Payloads – An interview with David Jungkind of SEAKR

Satellite technology today is at an exciting juncture. The upcoming advent of next generation, high throughput satellite (HTS) systems combined with advances in payload electronics promises a new age in space communication similar to the analog to digital transition of terrestrial networks.

Recently SatCom Frontier spoke with David Jungkind, Director of Business Development at SEAKR, a Denver-based satellite-engineering firm. We talk with David about how advances in satellite electronics and manufacturing are dramatically increasing the power and flexibility of commercial SATCOM.

Please tell us about SEAKR and your role in the organization

SEAKR is a family-owned mid-sized space electronic subsystem provider. We have three core product lines: avionics, memory systems, and on-board processors.  We’re probably best known for memory systems given our large number of heritage systems and our U.S. market share.  In fact, SEAKR helped create the solid-state-memory space market.

Solid-state systems have much higher reliability and utility than mechanical systems and are now the defacto standard for space applications. My role as the Director of Business Development is to grow sales and to market the company. SEAKR is growing quickly so a lot of my time is supporting the technical team in responding to proposals. My favorite part of the job though is spending time with customers discussing the state of the possible.

What are some of the technological changes happening right now with satellite payloads?

There are several changes in the industry that are affecting the market. Sensors are becoming more complex and capable so much more data is being generated than before. The throughput bottleneck of getting data to the ground for many sensor systems can be addressed with on-board processing.

Additionally, the demand for more communications along with advances in processing capabilities are enabling satellites to maximize RF spectrum, allowing for lower cost per bit along with new services. These enhancements allow for higher ROI on these communication space assets.

A prime example is SEAKR’s on-board processor in development for the Iridium NEXT satellite. This system is utilizing ReConfigurable Computing in place of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) for the processing intensive functions. This will allow the customer to address new market needs for enhanced features while also minimizing risk by allowing for on-orbit upgrades.

Can you tell us about some of the advantages of reconfigurable satellite payloads?

There are several advantages to a reconfigurable satellite payload. One of the biggest advantages is the ability to modify the system while on-orbit. For the Internet Routing in Space (IRIS) payload on board the Intelsat-14 spacecraft, for which we provided hardware and software integration, Intelsat General’s customer was able to modify the satellite’s modem router on-orbit to enhance mission utility.

Another significant advantage is the reduction in the development schedule risk. Unlike ASICs that freeze the design several years before launch, a mission utilizing reconfigurable payloads can decouple the application development from the schedule’s critical path. For example, the IRIS schedule was very aggressive in order to align with the commercial launch date.

SEAKR only had 22 months to take a notional design all the way to hardware delivery. In order to reduce the delivery risk, SEAKR developed a simpler backup modem in case the main application wasn’t ready in time. In this scenario, the system could have been launched with a simple modem which could be used to upload the final application code once ready. This allowed the team to decouple the application development code from the critical path, making sure the latest technology got sent into space.

The application code was completed in time and the mission was launched with both code configurations. If ASICs were required for IRIS, the schedule would have been pushed out by at least a year and a half due to the ASIC fabrication lead times. ASICs could not have been manufactured until the application code was thoroughly vetted. Until now, the lack of a “refresh” ability has often caused satellite technology to be dated even before it is launched into orbit, especially in government satellites.

Now with all that said, ASICs still play an enormous role in advanced systems given their performance and on-chip integration. We see advanced systems continuing to utilize both technologies.

What significant changes do you see happening in space in the next 12-18 months?

This is an exciting time for satellite communications. Satellites, like Intelsat’s EPICNG fleet, armed with advanced digital payloads, will meet increased market needs in new ways.

Unlike their analog, “bent pipe” brethren, digital payloads allow the satellite operators to optimize their RF spectrum and satellite assets. Customers now have more choices and can more seamlessly integrate satellite communications into their business communication needs.

Additionally, bent pipe satellites are optimized for a specific location in the globe. With a digital payload, the satellite can be moved and then reconfigured to be optimized for the new location. This flexibility will provide a higher ROI for the satellite operator and a better customer experience.