AMOS 2022 — The concept at the heart of ATLAS Space Operations, a small startup based in Michigan, is simple: selling ground communication network management to satellite operators in a manner akin to a Netflix subscription, company co-founder Mike Carey told Breaking Defense.
“You know with Netflix, you don’t buy a Netflix box, you actually buy a service,” Carey said in an interview on the margins of the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance conference in Hawaii. “We are a ground software service provider.”
“We’ve come up with a very modern, cloud-based, scalable secure platform by which any number of antennas can be brought in,” he explained. “So instead of trying to find an antenna and plug it into an existing telecommunication network, we created the backbone that allows your phone and my phone to be on a network instantly without having to log in or do anything like that. It is an automated network that scales.”
The company’s Freedom Software Platform “simplifies the traditionally complex — and often manual — approach to satellite operations and network management with a cloud-based, software-only space management,” according to ATLAS’ website.
The company currently operates 13 radio-frequency (S-band through X-band) antennas in its Global Antenna Network, eight of which are its own and the other five of which are provided by other operators, said T.I. Weintraub, chief growth officer. For example, he explained, ATLAS has an agreement with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and is “looking at other partners to federate into our front end.”
ATLAS is a member of the AWS Partner Network, and signed an agreement in 2019 to provide access to AWS services via the Freedom platform.
Another unique aspect of ATLAS’s service, Carey said, is that it can provide users with information about the health of their antennas in real time, allowing them to make decisions about how to rectify problems.
“We provide metrics in real time, which I was shocked to learn is not normal in industry,” he said.
Related to the issue of satellite health, ATLAS’s software and antenna network also can provide satellite operators “roadside assistance” when “satellites are in trouble.” Using passive RF detection, Carey explained, ATLAS can “confirm some type of signal activity, that your spacecraft is actually transmitting on its frequency, or it’s not.”
That capability has garnered ATLAS its latest contract with the Defense Department, the company officials said. ATLAS on Sept. 23 announced an award of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II award via Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to provide space domain awareness (SDA) via “passive RF observations of on-orbit assets.”
“To deliver on the milestones of the SBIR, ATLAS leverages machine-to-machine connectivity that makes creative use of unused antenna time within ATLAS’ global ground network. By exploiting time on antennas that would otherwise go unused, ATLAS will listen for assets in the path of a given antenna,” the press release said. “This functionality has clear defense and intelligence applications, but can also be used following a satellite launch by listening for new assets. In addition, the SDA network will provide a much-needed capability to track asset orbits and deconflict possible collisions in an increasingly populated orbit environment.”
Founded in 2015, the bulk of ATLAS’s business (by value) is in the commercial world, with about “a 60-40 split” between commercial and government work, Carey said. Within the government work, some 60 percent is civil — with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the firm’s largest customer — and 40 percent military.
For example, ATLAS has “a storefront with Space Systems Command,” Weintraub said.
ATLAS further was among four contractors to score in July an initial contract under the Hybrid Space Architecture Program, run jointly by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), AFRL and the Space Warfighting Analysis Center. The program is designed “to provide global, ubiquitous, and secure internet connectivity throughout the space domain for commercial, civil, and military users, including international allies and partners.”