Amazon Creates Distributed Satellite Ground Stations

Here’s an interesting thought: it’s possible to build a cubesat for perhaps ten thousand dollars, and hitch a ride on a launch for free thanks to a NASA outreach program. Tracking that satellite along its entire orbit would require dozens or hundreds of ground stations, all equipped with antennas and a connection to the Internet. Getting your data down from a cubesat actually costs more than building a satellite.

This is the observation someone at Amazon must have made. They’ve developed the AWS Ground Station, a system designed to downlink data from cubesats and other satellites across an entire orbit. Right now, Amazon only has two ground stations attached, but they plan to have a dozen in place by the middle of next year. Each of these ground stations are associated with a particular AWS region (there are a total of sixteen AWS regions, which might limit the orbital coverage of the AWS Ground Station system), and consists of an antenna, an alt-az mount, and a gigantic bank of servers and hard drives to capture data from satellites orbiting overhead.

The Amazon blog post goes over how easy it is to capture data from a satellite, and it’s as easy as getting a NORAD ID, logging into your AWS account, and clicking a few buttons.

It should go without mention that this is the exact same idea behind SatNOGS, an Open Source global network of satellite ground stations and winner of the 2014 Hackaday Prize. One of their ground stations is what’s pictured at the top if this article. Right now, SatNOGS has over seventy ground stations in the network, including a few stations that are in very useful locations like the Canary Islands. The SatNOGS network already has a lot more coverage than the maximum of sixteen locations where Amazon has their data centers — made possible by its open nature. Congrats to the SatNOGS team once again for creating something so useful, and doing it four years before Amazon.

10 thoughts on “Amazon Creates Distributed Satellite Ground Stations

  1. No mention of frequency bands supported.
    But I guess it’s gona be mostly commercial.
    Baseband RF is offered in “Vita 49” format, which seems to be some industry thing.
    And it’s not self-serve so I guess they won’t allow you to receive satellites or transponders you don’t have bought capacity for.
    So much for sigint-for-hire/a different kind of SaaS in a footprint you don’t have presense in.
    I wonder if any of the ground stations is gona be close to Pinegap, with AWS having governemnt cloud and all that.

    1. Vita49 is very common in commercial digital IF systems. The usrp also uses it internally. I don’t know if a free library, but it is easy to write receiving/transmitting code just for your project as the basic usage of the protocol is trivial.

  2. Amateur Radio Operators have been using digital packet communications via Amateur satellites for at least 30 years. AX.25 packet store and forward systems allow global reach from LEO satellites. Special modems using techniques like raise cosine modulatincrease the signal to noise ratio that allows greater communications availability during line-of-sight to the orbiting satellite. There are hundreds, if not thousands of amateur radio operators and stations world wide who are engaged in this hobby. Ground stations can be as simple asa hand-held two-way Radio, a Short antenna and a laptop with AMSAT software running and an audio cable between the laptop and the radio. More expensive and elaborate stations with AZ/EL antenna rotators on masts and dedicated satellite radios and hardware modems and computers might run the price up to several thousand dollars all inclusive, but not the$10,000 dollars mentioned by the author. If one wants to do this, one needs an Amateur radio license. Study materials are available from the Amateur Radio Relay.League (ARRL) check http://www.arrl.org. Check AMateur SATellite organization at http://www.amsat.org for mor information regarding satellites, software, and ground station configurations.

    1. Amateur radio is a great opportunity to do some good stuff but I’m not sure where you are going with this.

      If you build your own satellite you are going to want to get the most possible use out of it that you can before it burns up. You certainly will not be satisfied with just the minutes at a time that it happens to be within the horizon of your own location. Surely you aren’t talking about just setting up your own receiving station and relying solely on that!

      If you were though.. no license, not even an amateur one is needed for receiving, only transmitting. If your satellite itself is licensed in some way other than amateur radio and you are only receiving telemetry, not transmitting up to it you don’t need any license at your ground station.

      Anyway, you will need a network of ground stations in locations around the world so you can properly make use of your satellite. Maybe that’s what you were talking about with AX25? The only existing world-wide amateur AX25 network currently in existence today that I am aware of is APRS. My understanding is that people get kind of protective of their network when you do things like transmit APRS packets from altitudes where 100s or 1000s of APRS gateways receive (and repeat) them at the same time or when you send large amounts of data or overly frequent transmissions. Considering you want to get the most out of your satellite investment I’m not sure that the goals of the APRS network are very compatible with what is being talked about here.

  3. I think some readers are missing one of the big selling points — AWS-GS gets the data into the AWS cloud about 10x faster than the traditional remote ground station can via direct connection, VPN, or Internet. That’s a big advantage for the targeted users of this product, and certainly one that SatNOGs can’t claim.

  4. “..hitch a ride on a launch for free..”

    Whoa! Citation needed! Every square centimeter inside a rocket is prime real-estate and every gram is fuel. You are telling us that we can get some of that for free?!?! That sounds far too good to be true.

    What I would believe is that maybe from time to time NASA might hold some contest or something donating launch space to one lucky submission out of hundreds. That’s kind of like saying that money is free because there is a monetary component to the Nobel prize. Also, I bet it’s only available to university teams or maybe, upon rare occasions a high school team. That may not sound like a big limitation when you are a student but if you are one now you will be surprised at just how quickly those school years go by.

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