FIRST UP Satcom | Argos constellation completed • S7 Group wants reusable launcher • GetSAT releases new antenna


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Last night’s Soyuz launch completed not one, but two constellations. The Arianespace launch of Eumetsat’s Metop-C satellite completed the agency’s polar fleet of three satellites and carried a ship-tracking sensor for Collecte Localisation Satellites (CLS), a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES. CLS now has seven Argos payloads in orbit. The company will transfer Argos operations next year to Kineis, a CNES-backed startup preparing a constellation of 20 nanosatellites for Internet of Things connectivity. Kineis’ low-Earth-orbit constellation is expected to start service in 2021. [CLS]

S7 Group wants to retrofit Sea Launch’s Odyssey floating launch base to support a reusable launch vehicle. After completing the purchase of Sea Launch in April, S7 Group now views expendable rockets as uncompetitive. “It is not even funny to compete with reusable and cheap offers entering the market with a non-reusable carrier,” S7 Space CEO Sergei Sopov said in an interview. S7 Space is planning a reusable variant of Russia’s future Soyuz 5 rocket called the Soyuz 7 Sea Launch, or Soyuz 7SL. Sopov said S7 Space has not determined how it would recover the rocket’s first-stage booster. [TASS]

Satellite antenna company GetSAT of Rehovot, Israel, released an electronically steered antenna for L-band communications. The antenna, called Ultra Blade, weighs less than 2.4 kilograms and has no moving parts. GetSAT says the antenna is compatible with any L-band satellite. [GetSAT]


A  team of companies competing to become the third licensed telco in the Philippines hoped its use of the Kacific-1 broadband satellite set to launch in 2019 would provide a leg up over competitors. That team, formed by LCS Group and TierOne Communications, ultimately lost to Mislacom — a different consortium led by Udenna Corp. and China Telecom, though losing teams can appeal their disqualification. LCS-TierOne bought an equity stake in Kacific last month, and argued that having satellite connectivity would enable them to immediately reach all of the country. Luis “Chavit” C. Singson, head of LCS-TierOne, said before the Mislacom victory that LCS-TierOne would keep striving to expand, noting that other countries have four and five telcos. []

Viasat has reduced the size of its planned satellite constellation. The FCC disclosed the change in the company’s system last week, trimming the number of satellites in medium Earth orbit from 24 to 20. The constellation would otherwise stay largely the same as first described to regulators two years ago, according to Viasat. The FCC is scheduled to vote Nov. 15 on proposed constellations from Internet-of-Things startup Kepler Communications and high-speed broadband startup LeoSat, along with expansions to approved constellations from SpaceX and Telesat. [SpaceNews]

The British military’s plans for a next-generation communications satellite system is suffering from “paralysis by analysis.” The U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD)  plans to hold a meeting this week with satellite executives to discuss its plans for the Skynet-6 series, an estimated $8 billion effort to modernize the satellite constellation that provides telecommunications for the British military. Among the issues the MoD is grappling with is how to mix government satellites with commercial broadband systems, as well as how to introduce competition to the program. MoD awarded a sole-source contract to Airbus last year for Skynet 6A, a contract that has not been formally signed yet but which government officials said won’t be reversed. [SpaceNews]

The head of the company that runs the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska said he plans to retire at the end of March. Alaska Aerospace’s board accepted the retirement request of CEO Craig Campbell, the state-owned company said Nov. 5. Campbell oversaw repairs at the spaceport, formerly called the Kodiak Launch Complex, after the failure of a U.S. Army hypersonic weapon test in 2015. Alaska Aerospace also secured a multilaunch contract with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and conducted its first commercial launch under his leadership. [Alaska Aerospace]

A startup seeking to develop orbiting propellant depots will test some of its technology on the ISS. Orbit Fab said it will fly an experiment to the station on a Dragon cargo spacecraft next month intended to demonstrate technologies for transferring propellant in weightlessness. Orbit Fab, which raised its first round of funding in August, has proposed launching propellant tanks as soon as next year to support future satellite servicing efforts. [SpaceNews]

Arianespace hired a new sales and business development executive to replace Jacques Breton who is leaving the launch company. Arianespace did not state a reason for Breton’s departure. Emmanuel Franc is joining Arianespace from Swiss company ABB where he worked as senior vice president of sales and marketing for a business unit specialized in high-voltage electrical grids. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said Franc’s experience with “major international contracts” will be beneficial in the launch provider’s sales efforts for the new Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets. “I would like to wish Jacques all the best for the future, and welcome Emmanuel as we focus on new successes in the launch services business,” Israël said. Franc starts his job with Arianespace Jan. 1. [Arianespace]

SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer Jeff Foust contributed to this newsletter.

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Kymeta founder Nathan Kundtz stepping down as CEO

Nathan Kundtz, who has a PhD in physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, developed the key technology behind Kymeta antennas. Kymeta said Oct. 29 that Kundtz is stepping down as CEO in November to make way for a more experienced executive. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

WASHINGTON — Kymeta founder Nathan Kundtz, who developed the key technology behind his company’s novel flat-panel antennas, will step down as CEO in November as the company searches for a replacement with more experience running a business.

Kymeta announced Kundtz’s departure Oct. 29. Marc Stolzman, president and chief financial officer of Kymeta, will assume day to day activities.

The company also said it recently completed a “sizable financing round,” but did not quantify the amount.

Kundtz, who has a Ph.D. in physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, developed the key technology behind Kymeta antennas, designing metamaterials that can perform electronic-beamforming for use in satellite communications. Kymeta, formed in 2012, released its first antenna products last year, leading a wave of companies seeking to build new, high-tech antennas for high-throughput geostationary satellites and constellations of smaller, more numerous communications satellites in lower orbits.

In an interview, Kymeta Chief Strategy Officer Bill Marks said Kundtz is stepping down on amicable terms and will stay around to advise the company indefinitely.

Kymeta's mtenna electronically steered satellite antenna
Kymeta’s mtenna electronically steered satellite antenna

Marks said Kundtz’s role had shifted from mainly research and development work to executive responsibilities, roles that didn’t play to the inventor’s strengths or interests.

“He was transitioning from 90 percent of his time on R&D to maybe 10 percent of his time on R&D and 90 percent on strategic initiatives and all the things that CEOs traditionally do,” Marks said. “He realized that wasn’t really his skill set.”

Kundtz, in a prepared statement, acknowledged the need for an executive with more business acumen.

“Kymeta is now in a true stage of commercial operations, and I share the belief of the full Kymeta Board that our company now needs the leadership experience of someone with a track record of driving significant commercial growth,” he said.

Kundtz took the role of CEO in 2015 after the departure of former CEO Vern Fotheringham, who went to LeoSat for a brief stint.

Marks declined to quantify Kymeta’s recent investment. Past financing rounds, including a $73.6 million equity round in March of 2017, put the company’s total investment at close to $200 million.

Marks said Kymeta will conduct an external search, as well as consider internal candidates, for a new CEO.

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Satellite antenna companies divided on near-term feasibility of cheap flat panels

From left to right: Dave Helfgott, CEO of Phasor; John Finney, CEO of Isotropic Systems; Nathan Kundtz, CEO of Kymeta; Esat Sibay, chief financial officer of Alcan Systems; Leslie Klein, CEO of C-Com; and Nir Sharvit, Gilat’s director of radio-frequency integrated circuits and antenna technologies. Credit: SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Builders of satellite antennas disagree on whether flat panel antennas — widely considered a necessity for planned broadband megaconstellations — can be produced cheaply enough to address the mass consumer market in the near term.

Antenna makers say so much enthusiasm exists for such antennas that sorting fact from wishful thinking among buyer expectations and seller claims has become a difficulty all its own.

“I’ve heard some crazy things like $50 and $100 for a dual-beam, solar-powered, auto-acquired phased array,” Dave Helfgott, CEO of flat-panel antenna startup Phasor, said Oct. 9 at the Satellite Innovation 2018 conference in Mountain View, California. “I don’t think the cost of materials at any volume gets you that price.”

Such prices are fairly typical for roof-mounted dish antennas used to deliver television or internet service via geostationary satellites. As Ashok Rao, SES vice president of technology development put it Oct. 16 at the VSAT Congress here, it’s hard to build a satellite antenna cheaper than the garden-variety parabolic dish: “I don’t care what technology is out there, it is not going to beat a 74-centimeter [very small aperture terminal] for the next 20 years. There is nothing that can beat a $25-30 piece of metal.”

High-tech, flat panel antennas that can track multiple satellites at once while taking up less space than traditional dish antennas are a different story. Flat panel antennas have historically been so expensive that only militaries have made regular use of them.

Over a dozen companies, each with a technology breakthrough of their own, are trying to change that narrative by building flat panel antennas cheaply enough that consumers and businesses without deep pockets afford them. Progress is proving slower than industry demands, however.

“We’ve all heard the crazy requests from some operators asking for millions of antennas for multiple hundreds of dollars,” said Drew Klein, director of international business development at C-Com Satellite Systems, a company that builds dish antennas and is working on a flat panel antenna with the University of Waterloo. Such prices are achievable “within the next decade” — and have to be, he said, in order to address new markets.

“There is just no way that we can … move into the connected vehicle environment with a $20,000, $30,000, [or] $40,000 antenna,” he said. “We are going to have to reduce the cost to the point where the car manufacturers will come in and say this is the technology we are willing to pay for.”

The average price of a new car in the U.S. is $35,000, according to analysts at Kelly Blue Book. Even for buyers of high-end luxury cars, which cost $96,000 on average, a $20,000 to $40,000 antenna would be an expensive add-on.

Some antenna companies, like Israel-based Gilat Satellite Networks, are focused first on building flat panel antennas for customers who are willing to pay higher prices than consumers.

Nir Sharvit, Gilat’s director of radio-frequency integrated circuits and antenna technologies, said the company has developed a new chipset for a flat, electronically steered antenna, but views aeronautical and corporate institutions as go-to customers.

“We are still figuring out how to move ourselves in order to be relevant to the consumer market,” he said. “I can tell you that there is a big barrier in terms of technology and cost to serve this market.”

Satellite operators — even those with fleets of more traditional geostationary communications satellites —  have complained that slow progress in antenna technology is holding back their growth. Many antenna companies are investing in flat panel antennas as the next big breakthrough, but not all are convinced it’s worth the effort.

“I think we are a long ways away from seeing a consumer flat panel antenna in the couple-of-hundred-dollars price point, which is where it needs to be to compete with consumer terminals that we have today for [high-throughput] satellites,” said Andre Jones, Communications & Power Industries (CPI) vice president of business development.

CPI of Palo Alto, California, is not involved in flat panel antennas but is still using dish antennas to court low- and medium-Earth-orbit satellite systems, he said. To win their business, CPI is focused on making antennas that track very precisely with non-geosynchronous satellites as they move across the sky, while also making them easy to install and deploy.

“I don’t see the parabolic dishes going away anytime soon,” he said.

Stationary dish antennas work well when pointed at satellites 36,000 kilometers up in geostationary orbit where, relative to the ground, they appear in a fixed location. Satellites in lower orbits move across the sky, requiring antenna systems that can track their movement as satellites rise and set.

In the absence of commercial flat panel antennas, SES has been forced to rely on two dish antenna systems with mechanical steering to keep constant links with O3b satellites in 8,000-kilometer medium Earth orbits, but this approach is very expensive.

“All of the O3b customers I’ve ever spoken to, the one thing that they complain about is not O3b itself, not the level of service — they love the low latency, all that kind of stuff — they just hate the antennas, because they are always breaking down one way or another, so they have to have redundant antennas, and they are not cheap,” said Susan Bull, a senior consultant at Comsys.

Bull said O3b customers are paying $250,000 for O3b antenna systems — a figure Rao, who worked at O3b before the company was purchased by SES in 2016, said is not typical.

“If you build up the entire site, yes, it could maybe go up to there,” he said, factoring in the cost of signal converters and spare units.

Rao declined to give specific prices for O3b antennas at the VSAT Congress, as did one of O3b’s suppliers, AvL Technologies of Asheville, North Carolina, at the Satellite Innovation conference a week earlier.

Tony Wilkey, AvL Technologies senior vice president of corporate sales, said the company is “sticking our toe in the water” with flat panel antennas through projects funded by the U.S. government.

“There’s a lot of risk in it, but we are trying to do something a little different from the other flat panel companies that you see up here,” he said. “Hopefully we will have those products out in the market in the next year or two.”

SES is working with three companies, Alcan Systems, Isotropic Systems and Viasat, to build flat or low-profile electronically steered antennas for O3b mPower, its next-generation satellite system, which is slated to launch in 2021.

Darmstadt, Germany-based Alcan Systems has stated the goal of selling business-grade flat panel antennas for under $10,000 each, and consumer-grade antennas for under $1,000.

“We think it’s possible for us to reach below [the] $1,000 mark,” said Esat Sibay, Alcan’s chief financial officer. “How much below it, anything I would say would be speculation at this stage, but it is possible.”

John Finney, Isotropic CEO, said his company is making progress on an antenna designed to fit within a $300 to $700 price range stipulated by OneWeb, the low-Earth-orbit broadband venture whose first 10 satellites are expected to launch in the coming months.

“We fit within that price envelope, so we are pretty confident,” he said.

Sibay said there exists a lot of “healthy skepticism” in the satellite industry around commercial flat panel antennas, as product deliveries are chronically years away. Alcan System’s own antenna has slipped from a 2018 release to 2020.

“Commitments can slip,” he said. “It is hardware. There are issues and challenges that happen. I suppose from an industry point of view, we ask for your support. Give us some slack — we know what we need to do. We know you have been disappointed in the past.”

Kymeta of Redmond, Washington is the first company to release an electronically steered, flat panel antenna, having begun shipments last year. CEO Nathan Kundtz said Kymeta is finding early adopters among mega-yacht owners, first responders and niche government users where traits like antenna size and looks are of high value.

Kundtz said the next markets in Kymeta’s scope are recreational vehicles, buses and trains — markets he acknowledged as “far more price sensitive,” but also largely untapped by the satellite industry.

Kymeta antennas are priced up to $39,000 today, though the company plans to drive those prices down to below $1,000 through volume. Kundtz didn’t give a timeframe for that, however.

“It’s hard to tell how long it will take to really build the right models for those markets,” he said. “I dearly wish it was just an antenna problem. If it was just an antenna problem we could solve it and we would be done, but the reality is that it will be partnerships that form and it will just take time to build out those markets.”

Phasor’s first flat panel antennas debut early next year after some seven years of development, Helfgott said. The U.S.- and U.K.-based company is not building antennas for consumers, focusing instead on business and government customers that can afford Phasor’s mobility-focused products for sectors including aviation, maritime and rail transportation.

Helfgott said he expects different flat panel antennas will succeed in parts of the market, but that no one-size-fits-all antenna will take the industry by storm.

“One technology doesn’t work with each market,” he said. “You are going to have different winners in different market segments.”

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Does the satellite industry have antenna deficit disorder?

Projects like LEOSat's planned constellation of 84 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit are driving investments in flat panel antenna technology. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
Projects like LEOSat's planned constellation of 84 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit are driving investments in flat panel antenna technology. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
Projects like LEOSat’s planned constellation of 84 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit are driving investments in flat panel antenna technology. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

When an entrepreneur building a constellation of low Earth orbit communications satellites learned about the impressive performance of a Ball Aerospace spacecraft, he replied, “We can’t afford that kind of exquisite performance.”

Pete Moosbrugger, Ball Aerospace chief technologist, shared the anecdote at the Satellite 2018 conference to illustrate the challenge facing the industry. Companies focused for decades on offering extremely reliable systems for government customers must modify them for commercial markets. “You see what you can change and what you can’t change to deliver a high-performance system at a price point that will close a business case,” Moosbrugger said.

Entrepreneurs investing billions of dollars in non-geostationary communications satellite constellations are creating networks so complex their success could hinge on the ability of manufacturers to reduce the cost of state-of-the-art antennas that maximize throughput as they track multiple spacecraft zipping across the sky.

“There are business plans, big ones, hanging out there that depend if not entirely then at least to a very large extent on the availability of high-performance, low-cost, high-volume, low-profile antennas,” David Hartshorn, former secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum, said in May at the Applied Innovation conference in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Today, more than a dozen companies are responding by developing and manufacturing flat panel antennas or antennas that conform to the shape of host platforms. Northern Sky Research expects companies to ship 1.8 million flat panel antennas between now and 2027 with revenues topping $8 billion for the decade.

David Helfgott, Phasor Solutions chief executive, thinks the market will be even larger. “Some customers will be early adopters. Some will wait until there’s a lower-cost product. But the underlying growth drivers for commercial broadband connectivity cannot be denied,” he said by email.

Constellation developers often talk of connecting cars, rural homes and remote machinery. Antenna developers are focused initially, however, on the higher priced end of the market. It appears that cruise ship, yacht, bullet train and aircraft passengers will be the first to benefit from the “Internet for all” rallying cry of broadband entrepreneurs. Eventually, flat panel antennas could serve as a bridge to connected cars, global consumer broadband and widespread Internet of Things applications, but first costs must come down.

ThinKom and COMSAT kept this SUV connected during a U.S. roadtrip earlier this year. Antenna prices remain too high for most car buyers. Credit: ThinKom
ThinKom and COMSAT kept this SUV connected during a U.S. roadtrip earlier this year. Antenna prices remain too high for most car buyers. Credit: ThinKom

“Connected cars and IoT will need super low-cost antennas,” said Nick Potts, general manager for Printech Circuit Laboratories, a British company that supplies antenna components. “At the moment, the price is wrong.”

Chicken or Egg?

For years, antenna manufacturers have produced high-performance alternatives to gimbaled parabolic antennas pointed at geostationary communications satellites. Price tags range from a few thousand dollars to $250,000 depending on the application. Antennas mounted on the side of buildings, for example, cost far less than antennas built and qualified for commercial airliners.

A new generation of high-performance antennas is coming. Kymeta Corp. of Redmond, Washington, began shipping electronically steered flat panel antennas to customers last year. Those antennas are installed on yachts, commercial shipping vessels, tractors and first responder vehicles.

ThinKom Solutions of Hawthorne, California, sells phased-array antennas for aircraft and motor vehicles that work with existing geostationary satellites and will be compatible with future low and medium Earth orbit constellations, Eric Liu, ThinKom business development manager, said by email.

Phasor will be testing its low-profile electronically steered antennas on buses, cruise ships and yachts, while preparing for upcoming field tests of its aeronautical variant broadband antennas, Helfgott said.

Many more products are coming. IsoTropic Systems, Alcan Systems, C-Com Satellite Systems, SatixFy, AvL Technologies, Ball Aerospace, Rockwell Collins and Viasat plan to release flat panel antennas in 2019 and later.

With the help of these startups and veteran antenna builders, constellation developers hope to usher in a new era of satellite communications. Due to their shape, the new antennas fit well on cars, ships, trains and planes where aerodynamic drag and low profiles are key considerations.

Experts warn, though that the antenna technology is extremely complicated. To work with low Earth orbit constellations, the antennas need to track two or more satellites simultaneously — something parabolic dishes can’t do. They also need to be small and durable, prevent signal interference, instantly find satellites and secure links, degrade gracefully and have great signal efficiency.

“It turns out that according to the laws of physics, you cannot do all those things at the same time,” said Ralph Brooker, president of SatProf, a company that trains professionals to install satellite equipment. “You have to choose a subset.”

“What OneWeb wants in terms of target price is in the very low hundreds of dollars. We see a way to get there.” John Finney, Isotrop Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews
“What OneWeb wants in terms of target price is in the very low hundreds of dollars. We see a way to get there.”
John Finney, Isotrop
Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

Tim Shroyer, General Dynamics chief technology officer, adds a key issue will be preventing interference from adjacent satellites. Already a challenge for geostationary systems, future constellations with thousands of satellites pointing thousands of beams threaten to make interference a more serious problem.

Nathan Kundtz, Kymeta Corp. founder, and chief executive and president, agrees the new antennas are difficult to produce. “It is hard and we’ve done it,” Kundtz said. “We have every intention of continuing to improve. There is real value that will accrue to ourselves and to those who build upon our foundation in having that real-world experience.”

For now, flat panel antennas are aimed at “deeper pocketed, niche enterprise or government customers, who need it and can afford it,” said Dallas Kasaboski, Northern Sky Research senior analyst.

Eventually, flat panel antennas could reach a far wider audience just like flat panel TVs did. Large plasma televisions cost $20,000 when they first appeared 20 years ago, primarily in hotels and corporate offices. “It took a few leaps and bounds of technology and price before we were all buying them in department stores,” Kasaboski said.

Dramatic price reductions could lead to greater demand for flat panel antennas but there is the chicken-or-egg problem.

“In order to drop prices, you need market,” Kasaboski said. “In order to access that larger market, you need lower prices.”

Where are the orders?

Flat panel antenna manufacturers hope to move toward high-volume production by aligning themselves with constellation developers and investors who recognize lower prices could lead to widespread adoption.

London-based Isotropic Systems is developing a terminal compatible with OneWeb’s planned broadband constellation.

“What OneWeb wants in terms of target price is in the very low hundreds of dollars,” John Finney, Isotropic Systems founder and chief executive, said in March at the Satellite 2018 conference in Washington. “We see a way to get there.”

The profit margin for consumer terminals will be a fraction of the margin for aeronautical terminals, Finney said, but the high volumes will affect the entire supply chain and help Isotropic slash costs throughout its portfolio.

Suppliers are waiting eagerly for those bulk orders.

“In most of the ground station product business, a big order is 1,000 of something, a really big order is 10,000 and a bluebird is in the six digits approaching seven digits,” said Steve Richeson, sales and marketing vice president for Mission Microwave Technologies, a Sante Fe Springs, California company that supplies antenna components. “There is a lot of talk of partnerships, but where are the orders?”

Antenna manufacturers working with non-geostationary constellation developers say it’s too soon to order parts or begin producing antennas for the new networks. Instead they are refining the technology and focusing on ease of manufacturing.

“We’ve already delivered phased array systems with all the key components into our core government markets,” Moosbrugger said. “Now, we are focused on driving into high gear with designs that could be manufactured in high volumes. Our technology maps directly into non-geostationary satellite constellations.”

Although OneWeb plans to launch its first 10 satellites later this year and SpaceX is flying prototypes for its broadband constellation, those constellations are not operating yet.

“To launch the constellations, they need to have confidence there is user terminal technology available,” Kundtz said. “The best way we can provide that is by being in the market with user terminal technology that can address those constellations. They can see those products and understand how they will connect to the next generation of satellites.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 27, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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Antenna builder ThinKom makes push for constellation market

ThinKom antennas

WASHINGTON — ThinKom’s recent collaborations with satellite operators Telesat and SES have the antenna builder jockeying to compete with Viasat, Isotropic Systems and others in the race to build affordable high-tech antennas that can link with satellite constellations in non-geosynchronous orbits.

Hawthorne, California-based ThinKom tested a phased array antenna with SES in August, practicing links with O3b satellites in medium Earth orbit as they rose over the horizon and then tracking them for 30 minutes each. Last month, ThinKom and Telesat announced plans to test an antenna with a Telesat prototype satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) and to collaborate on business-grade terminals for Telesat’s planned 120-satellite LEO constellation.

Satellite operators and constellation ventures that want to offer broadband from space are increasingly focused on low-cost, flat-panel antennas that can track satellites in different orbits and support more throughput for higher data speeds than traditional dish antennas. The absence of such flat-panel antennas, as constellations start launching and high-throughput geostationary satellites grow in number, has satellite operators “all pretty much desperate to see somebody bring a solution to market,” according to Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics.

“That’s why the Inmarsats, SESs and Intelsats of the world have been investors in companies like Kymeta and Phasor, because they need to see these products to come to market,” he said.

ThinKom is best known for its ThinAir Ku3030 antennas that inflight connectivity provider Gogo builds into its 2Ku airplane Wi-Fi terminals. ThinKom also builds enterprise antennas for customers in defense, oil and gas, and other markets.

Bill Milroy, ThinKom’s chairman and chief technical officer, said his company intends to use the same phased array technology it has used for antennas on aircraft and other “on the move” platforms to create lower cost antennas for the non-geosynchronous-orbit constellation market.

In an interview, Milroy said he is cautiously optimistic about new satellite constellations, believing one or more new systems will be successful.

ThinKom has been burned once by constellation hype. In 2000, when the company was founded, its first contract was with Teledesic, a large constellation venture that collapsed three years later.

“We never got a dime out of them,” Milroy said. “We won the consumer premises equipment deal with Teledesic just as the wheels were coming off.”

Milroy said ThinKom is in discussions with another LEO satellite program for consumer terminals that would be significantly cheaper than those in the works for Telesat and SES, but declined to give names.

SES is attempting to cultivate commercially viable flat-panel antennas for O3b mPower, its next-generation constellation, having contracted with Viasat, Alcan Systems and Isotropic Systems last year to build electronically steered antennas. Though not included in that list, ThinKom has every intention “to make sure our terminal is mPower capable,” Milroy said.

“It would be dumb for us not to,” he said.

ThinKom’s approach differs from SES’s other three partners in that its antennas don’t use electronic steering, despite being relatively flat. The aeronautical antenna it is testing with SES is 20 centimeters thick and uses mechanical systems to track satellites.

Milroy said mechanical steering has the advantage of being able to link with satellites very close to the horizon — its O3b test closed links 13 degrees above the ground — but can be slow when switching links from one satellite to another. Whereas a ThinKom antenna requires around half a second to switch satellites, an electronically steered antenna has the potential to switch in microseconds, he said.

Quilty said the ability of ThinKom antennas to maintain links with satellites so close to the horizon is noteworthy compared to electronically steered antennas since the sharper the angle, the harder it is for them to stay connected.

ThinKom is targeting $10,000 for enterprise, or business-grade, terminals. Milroy said he envisions reaching volumes of around 10,000 or more enterprise terminals a year for Telesat, providing enough scale to keep prices low.

For consumer terminals, ThinKom is targeting “sub-$1,000” prices. Whether that will be low enough for commercial success is still to be determined. Quilty said consumer prices will need to be “way lower,” to make an impact.

“For a consumer terminal to be affordable with subsidization and volume, I would say sub-$500 at least,” he said.  

OneWeb and SpaceX have both mentioned consumer satellite broadband as a target market for their constellations of thousands of satellites.

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Kepler, Phasor test flat panel antenna with LEO cubesat

Phasor Antenna Kepler

WASHINGTON — Startups Kepler Communications and Phasor said Sept. 10 that they successfully demonstrated a link between Kepler’s cubesat and a Phasor flat panel antenna.

The test, according to the companies, “represents the first example of a wideband [low-Earth orbit] satellite to have been auto-acquired, auto-tracked, and communicated with, by a commercial flat panel, electronically-steerable antenna.”

Antennas that use electronics instead of mechanical systems to track satellites are considered important, if not critical, for low-Earth orbit broadband systems. Electronically steered antennas can link to two or more satellites simultaneously — a feat that single dish antennas cannot perform.

Kepler and Phasor said the test showed the antenna tracked Kepler’s first cubesat to 20 degrees above the horizon. Kepler co-founder and vice president of business development Jeffrey Osborne told SpaceNews by email that the tests show the company should be able to achieve a 10 Mbps downlink, 10 Mbps uplink connection with a 30-square-centimeter Phasor antenna. The test used a “representative antenna,” instead of a final product, he said.

Phasor anticipates releasing its first antennas late this year or in the first half of next year.

“The Kepler-Phasor collaboration promises to bring to market real capabilities for a broad range of markets, including maritime, transportation, natural resources, defense, [Internet of Things] and a wide variety of other on-to-move applications” Phasor CEO Dave Helfgott said in a statement. “This is an exciting beginning, and we look forward to many more milestones to come.”

Kepler is planning a constellation of 140 Ku-band satellites by 2022 for connecting Internet of Things devices and serving as an in-space relay for other spacecraft using intersatellite links. The company has its second of three prototype satellites from ÅAC Clyde launching later this year, and has issued a request for information regarding the launch of up to 15 satellites by 2020.

Osborne declined to say what vehicle Kepler’s second satellite will launch aboard.

Having two satellites could allow Kepler and Phasor to do “handover” testing, where the antenna transitions communications from one satellite to another as they pass through the sky, but only if the satellites are close enough in space to be seen from the same spot on the ground.

Kepler hasn’t determined the orbit of the second satellite, he said.

In a statement, Kepler CEO Mina Mitry said customers using Phasor antennas could in the future switch between different satellite constellations to optimize data traffic management.

The companies said they will continue testing the antenna over the coming weeks.

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C-Com, University of Waterloo test hardware for new phased array antenna

A close up photo of a 16 by 16 integrated circuit module from C-Com that will form the basis of the company’s future phased array antenna. Credit: C-Com

WASHINGTON — Canadian satellite antenna manufacturer C-Com said June 21 it successfully tested the building blocks of a phased array antenna it hopes to sell next year.

Leslie Klein, C-Com’s chief executive, said the laboratory test with the University of Waterloo paves the way for a demonstration with two satellites in low Earth orbit by the end of this year.

Working with the university’s Center for Intelligent Antenna and Radio Systems, C-Com tested a module 1/25th the size of a phased array antenna that would match the performance of a small 65- to 70-centimeter dish antenna, Klein said by email.

“Today we are a step closer to achieving our objective of developing and manufacturing an affordable intelligent antenna system capable of supporting the latest constellation of satellites,” Klein said in a statement.

Known for its iNetVu series of deployable dish antennas, C-Com has been developing a phased array antenna with the University of Waterloo for the past five years. The core Ka-band technology is designed for antennas that can link with satellites in geosynchronous, medium and low Earth orbits, something a single dish antenna cannot accomplish.

Klein, in an email, said the upcoming satellite test is to confirm the electronically steered antenna can track two satellites simultaneously. This is a required feature for low- and medium-Earth orbit constellations where satellites move so fast a single dish antenna will lose sight of one before finding and connecting to another. He declined to state which satellites the test will use.

C-Com is one of more than a dozen companies working to bring down the cost of flat-panel antennas, which historically have been used only for military applications and radio astronomy. Satellite operators and service providers view affordable flat-panel antennas as a much-needed breakthrough to bring satellite internet to more customers.

Klein said the cost of C-Com’s antennas will depend on the number of integrated circuits on the antenna, final antenna size and production volume. Antennas designed for geostationary satellites will need to be larger and will consequently cost more, he said.

Priced at $10,000, C-Com will be able to reach “a very large number of vertical markets” for constellation operators, Klein said.

“Much like the smartphone market, the first phones were expensive but affordable by those who needed them,” he said. “The same analogy will apply here, except that C-Com is entering the market with the computer equivalent of a minicomputer and not a mainframe.”

Many of C-Com’s existing antenna customers would be candidates to shift to phased array antennas, he said.

C-Com’s eventual goal is a consumer-grade antenna that can enable internet access to underserved populations, though such antennas would need prices well below $10,000. Klein said C-Com hopes to achieve reasonable consumer prices, perhaps below $1,000, through scale over time.

“It certainly is doable with large orders and large manufacturing runs,” he said. “Assuming a partial subsidy from the bandwidth provider to the customer for the antenna/transceiver and modem, there is no reason why these antennas could not be sold close to what consumer antennas are being sold for now.”

In a press release, C-Com said the antenna technology can be applied to 5G communications and radar systems. Klein said C-Com is also planning to develop a Ku-band phased array antenna.

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Oxford Space Systems raises $8.9 million for spacecraft component business

An Oxford Space Systems deployable antenna being tested. Credit: Oxford Space Systems

WASHINGTON —  Oxford Space Systems, a British startup that hopes to compete with space industry giants Harris Corp. and Northrop Grumman in the satellite component business, has raised 6.7 million British pounds ($8.9 million) from investors.

Longwall Ventures, a U.K.-based early stage investor, led the round, with IQ Capital, Foresight Williams, OTIF, Midven and Wren Capital participating.

Since forming in 2013, Oxford Space Systems has raised a total of 10 million pounds to build spacecraft antennas, deployable booms and other structures it says are lighter and simpler than those of other suppliers.

On June 14, Oxford Space Systems moved into its new Harwell Space Cluster headquarters, gaining access to an on-campus clean room for flight hardware assembly.

Mike Lawton, CEO and founder of Oxford Space Systems, told SpaceNews his company is unaffected by the struggles other component suppliers are facing with the slowdown in orders of commercial geostationary spacecraft.

“We are actually finding it quite hard to keep up with demand,” he said, describing early customers as operators of low Earth orbit spacecraft. “We have a huge amount of interest predominately coming from the U.S. and across Europe, so we don’t see any slow down.”

Oxford Space Systems has tested a 4-meter deployable antenna, and says it can scale that product up to 14 meters in diameter.

“That’s ultimately where we are going,” Lawton said.

The company’s first products target satellites in the 50- to 150-kilogram range, he said, with the first antennas being designed for synthetic aperture radar. Those antennas are up to five meters in size, he said.

Longer term, Oxford Space Systems intends to move into production of larger antennas that would support direct-to-home television broadcasts and ultra-high-frequency military communications from multi-ton geostationary spacecraft.

Lawton said he sees Harris Corp. and Northrop Grumman as his biggest competitors in spacecraft antennas. Both those companies provide large unfurlable antennas for geostationary satellites. Harris built the antennas for Inmarsat’s first four Global Xpress satellites from Boeing; Northrop Grumman is building the unfurlable reflectors for the two Inmarsat-6 satellites Airbus is building.

Spacecraft booms and other structures have a wider supplier base that Oxford Space Systems competes within, he said.

What differentiates Oxford Space Systems, according to Lawton, is the type of flexible composite materials the company uses and a reversal of common hardware development practices. Lawton said Oxford Space Systems will prototype first, then backfill with mission analysis rather than engage in numerous design reviews ahead of hardware development.

Oxford Space Systems also builds its products “ITAR-free,” avoiding U.S.-supplied components that face export restrictions under International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

Oxford Space has a boom on ALsat-Nano, a joint cubesat project of the U.K. and Algerian space agencies that launched in 2016, and another on the University of Surrey RemoveDebris mission awaiting deployment from the International Space Station in the coming weeks.

The company’s first antenna launches in 2020 on the U.K. Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s Wideband Ionospheric Sounder CubeSat Experiment that Thales Alenia Space is building.

Oxford Space Systems employs 29 people, Lawton said, and has five open positions. The company hopes to raise another 1.3 million pounds by September to close its Series A financing round.

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Internet for the masses not a focus for Kymeta, Phasor

Flat panel antennas from Kymeta (left) and Phasor (right) promise to open new business opportunities for satellite communications companies, but widespread consumer broadband isn’t one of them.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX and OneWeb, two companies building thousands of satellites for broadband services, both expect to connect billions of the world’s least-served to the internet. The two most prominent developers of electronically steered antennas don’t share that aspiration, however.

Speaking at the Applied Innovation Conference here May 10, representatives from Kymeta and Phasor said their antennas are not currently being designed for consumer-focused satellite internet.

“I am telling you right now Phasor will never be at the very bottom of the food chain; we have no interest in that market,” said David Helfgott, founder and CEO of Washington-based Phasor.

Kymeta’s vice president of global network operations, Richard Hadsall, when asked by SpaceNews if Kymeta is interested in consumer broadband, simply said: “No.”

“Kymeta is really focused on the commercial enterprise and government market areas right now,” he said.

The absence of Redmond, Washington-based Kymeta, whose antennas starting shipping last year, and Phasor, whose antennas are slated for release this year, means satellite megaconstellation operators who expect to use electronically steered antennas will have to wait for other providers. Other companies like London-based Isotropic Systems and Alcan Systems of Darmstadt, Germany, are building electronically steered antennas with consumer broadband in mind, but those will take more time to reach the market. Isotropic and Alcan are both targeting 2019 releases of sub-$1,000 antennas. Kymeta and Phasor antennas, in contrast, have starting costs of tens of thousands of dollars.

New antenna systems are widely considered a requirement for the success of proposed low- and medium-Earth-orbit megaconstellations under development by OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat and others. That’s because such constellations will need antennas that can track hundreds or even thousands of satellites as they zip across the sky, maximize capacity from high-throughput satellites, and be inexpensive enough that diverse users can afford them.

Brad Grady, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, said his firm forecasts 1.8 million electronically steered, flat-panel antennas to be shipped between 2017 and 2027, with low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations driving 88 percent of demand.

“Broadband access as consumer-class connectivity services serving households, villages, etc., are really going to be driving the volume,” he said. “So of that 1.8 million … what we expect is about 1.5 million go just to broadband access.”

But Kymeta and Phasor said their focus is elsewhere.

Hadsall said Kymeta has been producing 70-centimeter Ku-band antennas since production began in October, and has delivered antennas to 23 customers around the world.

“Most of the high demand of those current 23 large customers are in that enterprise area of construction, mining, land mobile, agricultural and specifically [the Internet of Things],” he said.

Helfgott likened Phasor’s focus to that of LeoSat, a broadband startup designing a LEO constellation optimized for enterprise and other such deep-pocketed customers.

“LeoSat is really an outlier,” Michael Abad-Santos, LeoSat’s senior vice president of Americas business, said in comparing the company’s planned 84-satellite constellation to other megaconstellations in development. “We are not focused on this direct-to-consumer market. We are solely focused on the enterprise markets.”

While NSR projects consumer broadband to be the largest market by volume for flat panel antennas, Grady said it won’t be the largest revenue generator. Of the 1.8 million terminals to ship, 90 percent will be for broadband access and network backhaul, but will only comprise 30 percent of all revenue, according to the firm. Grady said antennas for inflight connectivity are likely to produce the largest chunk of revenues.

Kymeta’s focus on markets other than consumer broadband hasn’t stymied business with LEO satellite operators, Hadsall said.

“We are under contract for terminals to be delivered to be functional not only with the LEOs but continuing with GEOs, which the antennas are [functional with] currently. We are talking seven digits, the initial contract numbers for terminals.” he said.

Hadsall declined to name specific LEO operators, though Kymeta last year confirmed OneWeb was one of them.

Helfgott said Phasor is working with LeoSat and satellite Internet of Things startup Kepler Communications, and is in conversation with others. Even if there were no LEO constellations underway, demand generated from high-throughput geostationary satellites would still create “a very good market opportunity,” he said.

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German startup takes Kymeta-like LCD approach to flat panel antenna manufacturing

Alcan Systems is preparing to mass-produce a flat panel antenna using liquid-crystal display manufacturing lines. Photo shows prototype antenna hardware. Credit: Alcan Systems

WASHINGTON — To build flat panel antennas at prices low enough for the satellite industry to use them en masse, Kymeta teamed up with television manufacturer Sharp to build antennas with the same infrastructure used to mass produce liquid-crystal displays. Another company with some similarities to Kymeta plans to use the same approach for an antenna coming out in 2019.

Backed by fleet operator SES, the German science and technology conglomerate Merck Group and the Beijing Singularity Power Investment Fund, Alcan Systems of Darmstadt, Germany, is nearing completion of a phased array antenna for satellite broadband links. Those three investors collectively put 7.5 million euros ($9 million) into Alcan Systems last year to spur the development of a flat panel antenna that can connect to satellites in low, medium and geostationary orbits.

Esat Sibay, co-founder and chief financial officer of Alcan Systems, said the company isn’t making a new technology, just “finding a different way to produce it.”

“In terms of the core technology, we’ve solved all the problems we need to solve, so the real focus is on developing the product and the production capability so that we can get the cost down to the level we know it needs to be,” Sibay told SpaceNews. “Product finalization and production will be our main focus over the next 12 months.”

Alcan Systems, whose name stands for “Adaptive Liquid Crystal ANtenna,” is designing modular antennas to bring internet to mobile platforms (cars, planes, boats, and other vehicles), business networks and consumer broadband service — target markets for high-throughput satellites in any orbit.

Sibay said the company is aiming for prices “for the enterprise version under 10,000 euros and for the consumer version under 1,000 euros.”

Each electronically steered antenna should reach throughputs of 250 Mbps, and have switching speeds between satellites of 5 milliseconds, he said. Alcan Systems is 15 people today with near-term plans to grow fast, according to Sibay. “We aim to be double that over the next 12 months,” he said.

Alcan Systems’ antenna is based on research from Technical University of Darmstadt Professor Rolf Jakoby on using liquid crystals for radiofrequency communications. That research started in 2002, Sibay said, and grew into a larger project when Germany’s ministry of economics, BMWi, provided 650,000 euros in 2014. Two years later Alcan Systems spun off from the university with another 200,000 euros from BMWi, he said. Jakoby is an Alcan Systems co-founder and senior adviser.

Alcan Systems antenna Caravan_Fair_2017_20Alcan Systems’ flat panel antenna is designed to support the connected car and other vehicles, many of which present new broadband revenue opportunities for satellite operators. Credit: Alcan Systems.

Sibay said Jakoby’s work led to the creation of both Kymeta and Alcan Systems — a claim Kymeta disputes.

“Kymeta’s work draws on earlier work Dr. Jakoby did,” Sibay said. “[Alcan Systems] draws on some of the later work.”

Kymeta spokeswoman Lisa Dreher told SpaceNews by email that while Kymeta does use liquid crystals in its antennas like Alcan Systems, “that is where any similarities end.”

“The originating research behind Kymeta came out of work done by Kymeta’s CEO and President, Nathan Kundtz, while he was completing his Ph.D. in Physics at Duke University,” Dreher said.

Prior to Kymeta spinning out of business incubator Intellectual Ventures in 2012, “the team looked at the [liquid crystal] material that came out of Jakoby’s work, but his focus on phase shifters produced a material completely unsuitable for our application,” she said.

Both companies claim patents that make their antenna products unique. The fundamental difference between the two antennas is that Kymeta’s is based on a metamaterial it describes as “a glass structure similar to a liquid crystal display.” Alcan Systems’ product is a phased array antenna that uses liquid crystals in lieu of traditional semiconductor technology. Kymeta’s antenna is also designed to work with Ku-band satellites, while Alcan Systems is simultaneously creating antennas for Ku- and Ka-band systems.

Despite being different technologies, succeeding in mass production may well be the common denominator in determining whether either succeeds.

“For most of the flat panel antenna industry, the problem that they are facing is scale,” said Dallas Kasaboski, a Strasbourg, France-based analyst at Northern Sky Research focused on satellite antennas. “Even the most mature products in the market are still having difficulty scaling up.”

Mass production of flat panel displays rapidly transformed LCD televisions from luxury items into commodities. But Kasaboski said dramatically driving down the cost of flat panel antennas won’t be as easy.

“It’s hard to mass produce something that is this complicated and often has to be customized to pass certain regulations or performance criteria,” Kasaboski said. “The other challenge is that some materials can be lossy and inefficient. There is some criticism as to whether this would be a viable approach — using a mass-produced system that is perhaps less efficient than a robustly designed, smaller scale product. That’s a debate I have no answer for.”

For Alcan Systems, Sibay said work is ongoing to have its prototype antennas built on a mass production line. Arranging for that infrastructure, which would allow commercial units to follow shortly after prototyping, delayed the first antennas from this year to 2019, he said.

Onur Karabey, Alcan Systems’ chief executive and technology officer, said the company has been working with display makers in Asia and has shown it can produce antennas on their LCD production lines. Karabey said Alcan Systems’ antennas “are much simpler than LCD displays.”

“With displays you have different components — backlight, polarizer, color filters and so on — we don’t need those. Because the antennas are operating in different frequency bands than LCD displays — one is visible light, the other is microwave radiation — there are some differences, but the facilities and the production lines can handle this,” he said.

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U.S. military a potential big customer for satellite industry’s new low-cost terminals

U.S. Army soldiers set up a tactical satellite radio in Iraq. Credit: U.S. Army

Antenna suppliers Kymeta and Phasor predict the military will want to replace legacy satellite communications with flat panel terminals.

WASHINGTON — When U.S. special operations forces seize an enemy vessel, they bring aboard their own satellite communications gear, preferably equipment that they can quickly unpack and set up.

One of the systems they have tested is from flat-panel satellite antenna manufacturer Kymeta. About the size of two Pelican suitcases, the broadband kit bundles satellite service access with the company’s low-profile antenna. It is sold as an alternative to traditional satellite communications and parabolic antennas.

Kymeta is a six-year-old company backed by billionaire Bill Gates and satellite operator Intelsat. After a number of fits and starts, it has begun to produce satellite antennas the size of pizza boxes, and is working to persuade businesses to ditch their legacy communications products.

The company has been under scrutiny for whether it can deliver on much hyped promises of low-cost mobile connectivity. Kymeta is focused on the “connected car” and driverless car markets, but the government and military also are coveted customers.

In an interview with SpaceNews at the Satellite 2018 tradeshow, Kymeta CEO Nathan Kundtz said electronically steered flat satellite antennas are now in production, and more than 100 have been shipped to 23 countries.

“We’ve been working with government customers,” he said. The military is interested in using electronically steered antennas to replace mechanical systems, especially as the prices come down, he said.

Kymeta's mtenna electronically steered satellite antennaKymeta’s mtenna electronically steered satellite antenna

The antennas — which have no moving parts — have held up well on ships and in harsh terrain, he said. A mobile VSAT (very small aperture terminal) is in development for military and first responders. “When the Navy Seals need to overtake a vessel, they need communications. …They need a broadband connection that they can drop on the deck,” Kundtz said. The 28-inch antennas and broadband service also were installed on military mine-resistant armored vehicles. The users liked that the new service did not interfere with other communications.

Another benefit of flat panels is that they make ground vehicles less detectable, he said. “They don’t want folks to know which platform has a communications link on it.”

Kymeta sells products to the U.S. Special Operations Command through a contracting arrangement managed by Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Only Ku-band broadband service is offered, but the company is looking to add Ka band. “We haven’t announced plans yet. But that is coming,” said Kundtz. For now, “there is a desire to not confuse the market or cannibalize existing opportunities.”

An anticipated growth in commercial and government demand for small satellite antennas means more competitors are breaking into the market. The one most likely to challenge Kymeta is Phasor, a provider of broadband internet services for high-speed passenger trains with very low profile antennas. It is now moving into land-mobile, aeronautical and maritime satellite communications.

Kundtz said he did not consider Phasor a serious contender. “We don’t even compete with Phasor because Phasor doesn’t have a product to offer,” he said. “They’ve never sold or done a public demonstration of their system.”

Phasor maritime antennaPhasor maritime antenna

Phasor President and CEO David Helfgott told SpaceNews that the company’s first Ku-band electronically steered antennas are in beta testing and will be commercially available later this year. “Ka band will be kicked off later.”

The military will be a prime target customer, he said. “We are in conversations with lots of defense contractors. Our strategy is ‘modified commercial off the shelf.’”

Having worked with Army communications systems for many years, Helfgott said the military is hungry for innovation. “Land mobility is huge,” he said. “Users want to get rid of their huge antennas.” Any tracked or wheeled military vehicle that requires a low profile will be a candidate for a two-inch thick electronically steered antenna, he said. “That is wide open for us.”

Military platforms with mechanical antennas are “inherently less capable than electronically steered” models, said Helfgott. Shock and vibration degrade performance. “With no moving parts, you have a much more durable technology.”

He said Phasor is likely to do better than Kymeta in the military business. “Their antennas are more suited to lower cost, lower performance markets,” said Helfgott. “For mission critical communications, we really like our positioning in that space.”

“There is a lot of gaming going on, a lot of confusion” regarding the prices of electronically steered flat panel antennas. Commercial models range from $15,000 to $45,000, although executives say prices will fall over time as production ramps up. Many defense contractors have attempted to take military-based phased arrays down market, but have failed because of their high prices.

Phasor plans to launch its commercial antenna later this year but defense deals could take much longer. This requires partnerships with Pentagon contractors, he said. “It takes a really long time.”

The military and the defense industry know that commercial industry is where the innovation is happening in communications and information technology. “We’re able to move faster than defense programs,” Helfgott said. “The next five years are going to be very interesting.”

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