Goonhilly Gateway: Why Cornwall sees its future in space communications

Goonhilly Gateway: Why Cornwall sees its future in space communications

Chris Middleton reports on how Cornwall is moving from Poldark to the darkness of space, via a rejected 1960s installation that a private company has turned into a world-leading communications hub.

Space gateway Goonhilly Earth Station has launched its new strategic roadmap, outlining a vision of placing itself in the vanguard of the new space economy. 

Goonhilly is a global communications hub and satellite station located in Cornwall, UK, on the Goonhilly Downs near Helston on the Lizard peninsula. First developed in the 1960s, it now provides a range of connectivity and operational solutions to the space industry, satellite fleet operators, and broadcasters, as well as to a range of enterprises seeking to grow their businesses on Earth and/or in space.

Following a £24 million funding injection by UK billionaire Peter Hargreaves in May 2018, Goonhilly’s roadmap now includes:-

  • Installing new deep space antennas for the launch of the first private deep space communications network. It will support commercial lunar and Mars missions from 2020.
  • Investing in infrastructure and facilities in the US and Australia to support deep space projects, low-Earth-orbit (LEO) constellations, and international terrestrial projects.
  • Construction of a state-of-the-art, green data centre featuring what Goonhilly describes as “unparalleled connectivity”.
  • The opening of an R&D and manufacturing facility to support customers, to design and develop a range of satellite communications products, and to further grow well-established partnerships with academic researchers.
  • Investing in talent across business development, operations, and engineering.

“Many of the world’s leading space companies have already selected Goonhilly as a trusted partner,” says Ian Jones, co-founder and CEO and of Goonhilly Earth Station Ltdthe privately held company which acquired the 164-acre site from BT in 2014.

“As we enter into our next chapter of expansion, our aim is to be the preferred partner for organisations seeking to take advantage of our disruptive, entrepreneurial approach to business.

“We are always seeking opportunities to add value for our clients, so they can grow their businesses as we grow ours. We have the skills and facilities to deliver that growth, as well as access to an unprecedented range of connectivity and technical options.”

Deep space communications

Goonhilly has embarked on a fully funded strategy to create the world’s first private deep space network, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA). 

It recently won an £8.4 million ESA contract, and is using funds provided by the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to upgrade the Goonhilly-6 dish to provide ESA with communications for future lunar missions.

The team is also collaborating with researchers at Oxford University to create a combined radio telescope and deep space antenna using the second largest of the Goonhilly dishes, Goonhilly-3.

The Oxford researchers have designed a cryogenic receiver and back-end processor that provides the ultra-low-noise performance required. 

Through the collaboration with ESA, Goonhilly will be involved in upcoming Moon missions, including facilitating communications with spacecraft on the first Space Launch System (SLS) launch. 

Goonhilly has also partnered with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) and ESA on a private commercial space exploration project, Lunar Pathfinder.

The aim is to take a number of small experimental CubeSats to the Moon to provide communications and navigation services. Lunar Pathfinder will also provide these to other Moon-exploration missions.

As a stepping-stone to Lunar Pathfinder, Goonhilly and SSTL have signed a collaboration agreement with US space robotics provider, Astrobotic, to gain early flight operations experience and provide the upcoming Astrobotic lunar mission with communications and command capabilities. 

As deep space communications from a single location only provide a partial solution for its customers, Goonhilly has pursued and funded plans to create a comprehensive deep space network by adding ground stations in Australia and USA. 

Using a combination of dish and phased-array techniques, developed in conjunction with its radio astronomy partners, Goonhilly says it will deploy antennas with the “flexibility to meet current and future frequency-planning and mission needs”.

A changing near space economy

Goonhilly is also looking to gain significant market share in the geo-stationary Earth orbit (GEO) broadcasting and enterprise satcoms sectors, as well as in medium Earth orbit (MEO) and LEO satellite services. 

Although the commercial geostationary satellite market faces downward pressure on capacity costs – while high-throughput satellites are adding data volumes, and TV companies favour over the top (OTT) services – Goonhilly sees significant potential for market disruption. It plans to achieve this by adopting an agile development approach that challenges traditional models.

Goonhilly has a broad portfolio of offerings to support satellite operators in GEO, MEO, and LEO. This includes spacecraft tracking, telemetry and control (TT&C), in-orbit testing, and monitoring services. 

From subsea to space

Goonhilly claims it is in the unique position of being able to “link space communications with bundles of subsea cables and ultrafast fibre broadband to deliver unprecedented reach around the world”.

Sitting at a confluence of the planet’s main internet backbones and with the launch of its tier 3/4 data centre later in 2018, customers, including broadcasters, will be able to benefit from access to a secure, highly connected, resilient network, says the company.

The data centre’s high-specification physical location and low-latency connections will also make Goonhilly an attractive, cost-effective choice for hosting and co-location customers, it adds.

Deep space from the far Southwest

Throughout this year, Goonhilly says it will open up its R&D and manufacturing facilities to benefit customers and encourage academic research. 

“Our philosophy is to have a deep understanding of problems in order to explore new ways of doing things,” explains Goonhilly’s Jones. “Working with universities in space science and radio communications reveals new technological possibilities and informs new methodologies, resulting in better products and services for our customers.

“As access to space becomes more affordable and available there is an explosion of interest in space solutions, and a new golden age of science and creativity,” he adds. “We are providing the facilities and people to nurture ideas emerging at start-ups and universities and helping them evolve into commercial opportunities.” 

Internet of Business says

An unusual, forward-looking British success story in an industry where the UK has established a quiet, but significant position: space exploration. Separate initiatives such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project are vast European research and big data analytics programmes led from the UK, using telescope arrays to trace the origins of the universe.

Internet of Business wishes Goonhilly Earth Station the best of luck in its endeavours, which beg the question: why did the UK’s ailing, rudderless BT see no potential in the installation itself, but did see potential in sports broadcasting?

Today, the UK slipped further down the world broadband speeds league to 35th – yet more proof of how BT has been a significant brake on the UK’s digital ambitions, and not an enabler.