By Duncan Steel 16/05/2019

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The annual beanfeast for the US satellite industry — featuring major participation from European nations and companies in particular — is the SATELLITE congress held at the Washington Convention Center, a few blocks from the White House. It was an amazing event to attend, compared to the sort of low-key conferences we have in New Zealand. 

Now I’m back in NZ and almost recovered from the jetlag, a few pieces of information about the SATELLITE 2019 convention that I attended last week in Washington DC.

Starting at the beginning, the keynote talk on the opening day was by the Vice-President, Mike Pence. I decided I could miss that, as he would not be saying anything not known already, and the security-check lines were long. Yes, the US will be proceeding with the development of a Space Force as a branch of the military — but that’s obvious, and a natural progression, no matter how much others might dislike the concept. The militaries of the world already depend on space assets for many of their capabilities (as do you: consider the GPS receivers in your smartphone and car), including communications, reconnaissance and surveillance, early warning of missile launches, navigation of their platforms and indeed targeting of their munitions.

More interesting to me was the sheer scale and the innovation of the hardware and services on display. Recently I noted an Australian space-related website that claimed that ‘space’ is now a half-trillion dollar industry, globally. I think that’s an underestimate. If one thinks back to the GPS system alone, and acknowledge that the satellite constellation is operated by the US Department of Defense with an unknown budget, the next question might be whether the expenditure and the value added by the systems we use in our automobiles and smartphones and dedicated navigation electronics should be included in the ‘space’ turnover worldwide. If you add that in, along with other modern activities linked to space — such as TV broadcasting via satellite — then the figure grows to more than a trillion dollars per annum, and big (US) dollars too.

A split panorama of the exhibition hall at the SATELLITE 2019 convention… It seems that blue is the favourite colour for aerospace companies.

Those unfamiliar with the satellite industry might expect NASA to be a major participant in this congress, especially since NASA HQ is barely a mile away from the convention centre. Well, here’s the NASA stand: To be honest I didn’t see much happening there, but that’s to be anticipated, because this meeting is all about business.

So who was there? The answer is virtually all the substantial aerospace companies from both the US (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Hughes, etc.) and Europe (Airbus, the Ariane Group, Thales Alenia Space, and so on). Similarly various countries had pavilions promoting their own national companies, such as the UK, France, and Sweden.

The UK pavilion at the SATELLITE 2019 convention.

From the southern hemisphere the only stand I noticed was Argentina. Surprising that Australia was not represented, given the recent establishment of the Australian Space Agency and large federal government support there for a wide range of space activities.

And New Zealand? Rocket Lab had an impressive presence, and I enjoyed talking to people on their stand, though I cannot say that I noticed many kiwi accents.

The Rocket Lab stand, with an indicator boasting of 28 satellites delivered to orbit (so far).

As you might imagine, the big players had big stands. A good example is Airbus (disclosure: Xerra Earth Observation Institute has a teaming arrangement with Airbus with regard to the provision of satellite optical and radar imagery over NZ), as shown below.

The Airbus pavilion at the SATELLITE 2019 convention in Washington DC, next to their fellow Europeans, Ariane.

Something that stuck out, for me, was the proliferation of companies offering small satellite receiving stations, many of them being dishes two to five metres across and capable of being transported on the back of a ute (a pick-up truck, in American parlance) and also able to track a satellite in low-Earth orbit as it quickly crosses the sky.

One display that caught my eye was that of the Cubic Corporation, which markets satellite antennas from the GATR Technologies company. These antennas are inflatable: they look like large bouncy balls several metres in diameter, the concept being that the radio waves pass through the plastic front of the ball and are reflected from a metallic curved surface within, so being focused onto the horn of the radio receiver which is on the front part of the ball, that side being directed towards the satellite in geostationary orbit. Such an antenna has obvious military applications, being easily shifted and capable of being set up within 30 minutes.











Inflatable satellite antenna from Cubic Corporation/GATR Technologies. 


The utility of such inflatable set-ups has not been missed by the New Zealand Army, which in October 2017 contracted to spend over US$5 million on such equipment from Cubic. More recently, in August last year, the US Army agreed to buy over $500 million worth of these devices.

Clearly a convention such as SATELLITE 2019 is organised so as to facilitate business, but it’s not all hard work and technical discussions. So as to illustrate this, I finish up with a couple of photographs showing the lighter side of things.