How do you build up a ground station services business?

Ground station services are critically important in space. Launch vehicles and satellites are all well and good, but their data must be downlinked to Earth. To learn more about the ground station services business, we spoke to Robin McNeill. He is the general manager of space operations at Great South and oversees the business of the Awarua Ground Station. He shared his views on his own entry into the ground station services segment and how it has changed over time.

How did you come to work in the ground station business?

I always had an interest in space since a friend’s father was involved in the Gemini program. I’ve also always had an interest in radio. In 1991, I was involved in building a ground station for Telecom New Zealand in Antarctica. Later on, I headed an International Telecommunications Union project to provide telecommunications in Tokelau – three atolls near the equator that are reached by boat from Samoa. That project included building three ground stations for GEO satellites. It was good fun. So, I was an engineer specializing in telecommunications.

Then, in 2004, ESA came to Invercargill; they needed a ground station for their ATV launch campaign, which resupplied the ISS. They needed a downrange station as far south as possible. The separation of the Ariane rocket and the ATV took place over Bluff. It was an unusual orbit. We were able to help. We’ve had a close relationship with ESA ever since.

So they funded the construction of some initial Awarua facilities. Then, they were generous. They handed the facilities to Venture Southland, which was part of our local councils. They encouraged us to develop space activity in New Zealand. There were a whole range of activities to catalyze interest in space – astronaut visits, outreach campaigns, and school camps, for instance.

Pete Beck turned up as we were starting the ATV campaigns in 2008. He was looking for somewhere to launch Atea-1, his first rocket. He didn’t launch from Invercargill in the end, but we stayed in touch. He comes from Invercargill anyway. He went radio quiet for some years, basically when he was developing the Electron and had lots of NDAs in place. Suddenly, he emerged, and it was all go for Electron. He introduced us to some of his first customers, who were interested in having ground segment. We said we’d be delighted. We knew that the ATV campaign would come to an end, so we were already thinking: what next?

Awarua got up and running just when New Space was starting. We were still figuring out our way in the industry. Overseas space agencies were keen to use us, but they have decades-level forward planning. Smallsat firms, though, have more urgent needs. 2008 was probably the watershed year for New Zealand. Until then, there had been some space work at Auckland University of Technology. But 2008 was when we did our first support for the ATV. That’s when Beck unveiled Atea-1. That’s when Chris Hann set up the University of Canterbury’s rocketry group. His postgrads went on to work on the Electron. That’s when New Zealand’s space sector took off.

What are some services offered by the Awarua ground station?

When we first started, our main offering was facilities. We provided facilities for hosting others’ antennas and equipment. For ATV, for instance, a bunch of equipment would arrive from French Guiana. Engineers would turn up from all over the world for a launch campaign, then they would pack up and go home.

We did a strategy paper in 2009, and we realized there were more opportunities. We became cognizant of our strategic advantages. We have a primo location in the world for ground stations. Everyone who comes over loves it; it’s flat, it’s at the bottom of the world, and it’s radio quiet. We can see right down to the horizon in every direction. Radio spectrum management is not a problem down here. We have technicians, power, internet, and access to an airport. Everything you need, we’ve got it. That’s why we stuck with it; we recognized that we had a strong advantage that could be utilized.

We’ve been tied to local government, so it’s been hard to get capital injections and we have had to be self-supporting. We’ve had to grow organically all the way through. Funnily enough, Awarua in the space community is probably better known than Auckland or Wellington. We developed commercial relationships with many of the well-known names working in New Space.

More recently, we’ve been capitalized. We are now a standalone business unit in Great South, which is a council-controlled organization. Now we’re moving on to leasing out our own antennas. Halfway through building our first antenna, we had a significant customer buy up all the time on it. Basically, this indicated that we have a service for which there is demand. Now we’re building more antennas.

Some of our antennas are UHF, allowing low data rate data transfers. One supported the University of Auckland’s APSS-1 mission. We were the primary ground station for that. (The mission wasn’t successful, by the way, though that was not because of ground station issues.) We’re developing IP with postgrad students from Chris Hann’s group at the University of Canterbury. Two postgrads are here in our offices in Invercargill. There are a number of areas where we’re looking to commercialize IP. We’re doing a lot of research, quietly.

We’re expanding, currently recruiting two more engineers. High-caliber people are expressing interest in working here. People like to joke about Invercargill’s weather, but it’s better than Seattle’s or Denmark’s – so it’s not a bad climate! We will be building six more customer antennas this year in Awarua. We plan to expand to other sites throughout New Zealand in the next year. We see ourselves as a global business.

How has Awarua, and indeed the ground station business more generally, changed over the years?

For us, the big change has been from “traditional” space to New Space. Pete Beck exemplifies New Space. We developed right on the cusp of traditional space moving into New Space. That entails a whole lot of differences. It’s made for phenomenal growth for us. In the past, with ESA or NASA, for instance, teams of engineers would work out all the radio equipment and ground station requirements. With New Space, the customers are more focused on spacecraft or rockets. Telecommunications and the ground segment – that’s not something they tend to think about. We can fill that gap with our expertise. New Space firms have sought our assistance, and we provide them with advice. We’re free with our advice and opinions and suggestions.

The space community is a small one, especially in ground station services. We know who everyone is and vice versa. With COVID, it’s hard to keep track of everyone else. We can’t go visit everyone like we would like. But that’s alright. The business we’re in is a “high-trust” model. Some customers, for example, we’ve never met and have only talked to on the internet or phone, but these relationships are still characterized by high-value contracts. Word of mouth is important in this industry. Companies will talk to each other. Space agencies talk amongst themselves. Word gets around if you provide a quality service with a fantastic site. The site brings in customers by itself, almost. With a great product, it’s easy to sell.