Constellation of Flexible SAR Microsattelites. An Option for Poland [ANALYSIS]

ICEYE-X1 in the orbit - visualisation. Image Credit: ICEYE 
ICEYE-X1 in the orbit - visualisation. Image Credit: ICEYE 

The Polish authorities still have not found a way to rationally address the national requirements within the scope of satellite imagery. In order to select a proper solution, one should ask and then provide an answer to a set of valid questions pertaining to the desired orbital infrastructure. It may seem that utilizing a commercial constellation of small EO satellites may be an optimal path to be taken, ensuring a high level of automation (to an achievable degree) regarding the data processing procedures.

National Needs

Poland needs to access the satellite reconnaissance data. This matter bears a fundamental meaning for the national security. Accessing this kind of source of information would equip the military and civil decisionmakers with knowledge on the actions undertaken by other countries neighbouring the territory of Poland. Being in possession of that knowledge is required to allow the military commanders to get ready to defend the country, should aggression be imminent in case of one of the neighbouring states.

The Polish Ministry of Defence needs reconnaissance systems to enhance the operations of the armed forces and to effectively make use of the defence assets that Poland is acquiring within the framework of the so called Technical Modernization Plan. The needs within that scope bear more and more relevance, especially during the military exercises organized by Poland’s eastern neighbours (Zapad 2017 for instance). Furthermore, the command needs to be aware of what is happening in the Kaliningrad Oblast.

The civil administration, both the government as well as the local authorities, needs to have access to satellite imagery. This is especially useful in crisis management, for instance during the flooding which is quite frequent in some parts of Poland.

The satellite imagery is also utilized within numerous other areas important for the society and for the economy as well. The related technologies may raise the effectiveness of precision agriculture or of monitoring of road traffic. Putting it briefly, the orbital imagery constitutes an important tool of the Polish Strategy for Responsible Development.

Satellite image of the icecap covering the Baltic Sea, between Tallinn and Helsinki. Image Credit: ICEYE 
Satellite image of the icecap covering the Baltic Sea, between Tallinn and Helsinki. Image Credit: ICEYE 

In the light of the above, it is clearly visible that an urgent and undisputed requirement exists to have reliable source of satellite imagery, and this requirement emerges in case of both the military, as well as in case of the Polish administration. What we need in fact are not the systems themselves, but a specific capability, the ability to acquire proper photos of the Earth’s surface, at a specific location and at a specific time, in line with the current needs. Being in possession of a capability as such is a goal that may be reached in a number of ways. Within that context, the decisionmakers should discuss some of the relevant issues.

Key Questions

The first question addressed to the persons who would be responsible for provision of satellite reconnaissance abilities to Poland reads as follows:

  • Should we buy readily available services from foreign commercial entities, or should we direct our steps towards owning our own satellite?
  • If we, as a nation, are driven towards owning our satellite, then another question shall be asked: Should the satellite for Poland be bought as a whole system, should we build it on our own, or with support provided by a foreign partner
  • Another important issue: Should we buy one or two large systems, or should we go towards a constellation of smaller satellites?
  • The fourth, and key question reads as follows: In a situation when funds are limited, within the scope of implementation of the initial phase of the Polish satellite programme, should we focus on acquiring capabilities in the area of optical, or radar observation first?

Large EO Satellite

Numerous analytical documents, including the feasibility study concerning a UV observation astronomical satellite created by a consortium led by the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, as well as the project of a National Space Programme presented by POLSA towards the end of 2017, have all shown that the Polish space industry, as for now, is unable to independently design and build a large EO Satellite. 

Considering the circumstances, the only option remaining on the table is to acquire system as such from a foreign partner. Poland would need to coordinate this with one of the major global satellite market leader that would act as the main (prime) integrator.

Delivery of instrument as such would certainly last at least a few years. Furthermore, receiving a readymade product would not entail an opportunity to develop the Polish know-how. Unless this problem is resolved by a proper agreement, in case of which, for instance, it would be assumed that the Poles would be building the second large satellite in collaboration with the engineers of a foreign entity, acquiring competency indispensable for the space sector.

The large EO satellite would have one highly desirable advantage: high, or even very high resolution of the delivered imagery. The question that emerges here is whether the national administration and intelligence services actually need such high resolution for the missions assigned to the satellite assets. Being in possession of even a single system as such, or two systems of this kind, one should be aware of the low revisit frequency over our area of interest. Furthermore, any optical satellite would obtain the imagery even less frequently, if it is equipped with sensors that would offer operational capability only in case of good weather and a low cloud density.

Building a Constellation of Small Satellites

Creating a constellation consisting of small satellites may be an optimal solution for Poland. And there are some reasons for that. First, this solution and task remains within reach of the domestic industry. Small PW-Sat student satellites and BRITE research satellites have already been created in Poland in the past. Creotech Instruments company based in Piaseczno offers a modular HyperSat platform dedicated for systems weighing up to 60 kilograms.

A number of advantages associated with the New Space trend should also be used for the benefit of the Polish satellite constellation. Here we are referring primarily to rapid manufacturing of the systems, with the use of off the shelf products. Further systems of the constellation that would be gradually growing could be fitted with updated components, as these appear on the market. This flexibility guarantees that even though the system follows a schedule defined much earlier, the individual elements are as modern as possible within the scope of technological progress when they are created.

The readiness to accept more risk is also important. The satellites built later would be created more quickly and at a lower price, and here one should come to terms with the fact that some devices may turn out to be faulty. However, the benefit brought in by rapid implementation outweighs the risks associated. This was mentioned by Rafał Modrzewski, in an interview for Modrzewski is the CEO and co-founder of the ICEYE company:

“Especially when you use the method we use, that assumes that baby steps are taken and that when another step is taken, one should learn how to build the next system. If one uses this method, the first systems are faulty, they are not perfect, but you are able to build them and launch much earlier, contrary to a situation in which we assume that ultimate version of the solution is created as the first one.”

One may claim that smaller satellites that are built less restrictively may have a shorter lifespan, when compared to their counterparts, in case of which 15 years service period is somewhat expected. Nevertheless, being open to innovation when adding in new elements, high level of flexibility and lower cost are balancing the disadvantages caused by the shorter lifecycle of a single satellite.

Hardware and wiring for one of the ICEYE satellites. Image Credit: ICEYE 
Hardware and wiring for one of the ICEYE satellites. Image Credit: ICEYE 

Using the New Space approach when creating the EO constellation for the Polish administration would provide two advantages:

  • Rapid implementation,
  • Relatively low price.

Creating smaller constellations based around simpler and smaller satellites also offers a high degree of flexibility when it comes to adjusting the EO system’s parameters and capacity for specific needs and requirements of the ordering party, the state administration in our case.

The goal of ensuring effectiveness of the system as a whole would be to focus on a major degree of automation. Only in this way it would be possible to effectively obtain the data and selectively use the information that bears some relevance, coming from an expansive imagery datastream.

A Polish-Finnish Solution

The domestic EO requirements fit well with what ICEYE is working towards. ICEYE is an innovative company from Finland, co-founded by a Pole, Rafał Modrzewski. The company adopts the Space 4.0 philosophy. ICEYE is, in a consistent manner, building the first commercial constellation of micro EO satellites fitted with synthetic aperture radars. By the end of 2019 up to 9 systems would be placed in the outer space by the company.

Following the achievement of a full operational capability status, the satellites owned by this operator would offer a high revisit frequency. Furthermore, utilizing the SAR sensor these systems would not depend on the weather or lighting conditions. Making use of a large network of smaller satellites no lack of access would emerge, should any of the satellites be damaged - which may be the case if the government decides to go with one or two larger platforms.

Economic Opportunity

ICEYE is carrying out, and is still willing to do so, most of its activities in Poland. Customer service centre has already been up and running in Warsaw for instance. A large R&D facility is expected to be established in Cracow. Poland offers a fertile ground here, due to the rich human resources deposits available on the market, exhibiting high level of education.

If the administration decides to work together with the Finnish company, then the access to a modern constellation of SAR satellites for Poland would by just a few steps ahead, and it would be much less costly, when compared to a scenario in which Warsaw would build or acquire a large EO satellite in collaboration with a foreign prime.

The cooperation with the aforesaid supplier of radar imagery would make it possible for the key bodies in Poland to gradually and consistently develop work methods pertaining to EO satellites, for instance in the area of rational task assignment. The human resources with proper skills may also be gradually expanded.

Poland currently has an access to the data gathered by the COSMO-SkyMed constellation, shared by the Italian allies. This happens on the basis of a memorandum signed by and between the Polish and Italian MoDs.

However, many signs suggest that the European EO systems may be consolidated into a single complex environment in the future. “We, as a company, very much want to create such an <<Earth Observation Ecosystem>> in Europe. And such solution would be of benefit for both us, as well as for all other users and players. We’re perceiving this within a wider context. It is not always about the business, it is also about elevating the EO market in Europe to a high level” – as we were told by Agnieszka Łukaszczyk, representing the Planet company.

It would be useful to have Poland working within the said ecosystem as an active provider, not as a needy entity. By getting involved in expansion and implementation of SAR satellites constellation Warsaw would get a chance to offer innovative and potentially useful solutions to its allies. Furthermore, creation of a system as such would also significantly involve the domestic companies, contributing to expansion of the Polish space sector.

Article written in collaboration with ICEYE