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Phase Four aims for constellation orders

Beau Jarvis, Phase Four's new chief revenue officer, previously worked at Planet refining product features, the business plan and revenue generation. He also was HawkEye360's chief revenue officer, leading early sales and marketing efforts. Credit: Phase Four

SAN FRANCISCO –Phase Four, an El Segundo, California startup, is expanding its leadership team as part of a campaign to aim its electric propulsion system toward the growing satellite constellation market.

“From a sales perspective when people want to order hundreds to thousands [of thrusters] obviously that’s a much more compelling opportunity than selling one or two,” said Beau Jarvis, who joined Phase Four in September as its chief revenue officer. “The goal is to be able to scale up the production of our system so we can address the needs once satellites become mass manufactured at scale.”

Before joining Phase Four, Jarvis was international sales vice president for Earth observation constellation operator Planet and chief revenue officer for Hawkeye 360, a startup building a radio frequency monitoring constellation.

In June, Phase Four made another key hire. Laura Overly, former supply chain lead for Millennium Space Systems, the military small satellite company Boeing is purchasing, became the Phase Four’s supply chain and materials director.

Phase Four is developing and testing electric thrusters for in-space transportation. Radio frequency waves generate plasma in the thrusters. The first flight demonstration is scheduled to occur later this year on an Astro Digital cubesat. NASA also plans to test one of the firm’s thrusters in space.

Although its technology has not yet flown, Phase Four has conducted the type of flight qualification and testing common among traditional aerospace systems. “We are not launching something hoping it works,” Jarvis said. “We are testing so we have a very high degree of confidence that it will work.”

Phase Four hired Laura Overly as its supply chain and materials director. She will oversee the firm's global supply chain strategy, seeking to improve delivery time and reduce costs. Credit: Phase Four
Phase Four hired Laura Overly as its supply chain and materials director. She will oversee the firm’s global supply chain strategy, seeking to improve delivery time and reduce costs. Credit: Phase Four

That approach works well for constellation developers who require significant testing and validation before they will consider a system but are “less concerned about the fact our propulsion system hasn’t been on a satellite before,” Jarvis said.

The products Phase Four is developing “fit squarely in terms of specifications and performance into the small satellite realm,” Jarvis said. “We are able to adapt the system to work on satellites smaller than 50 kilograms all the way to larger classes of small satellites that will be part of communications mega-constellations coming online. We are not just going after the nanosatellite or cubesat market.”

To meet the needs of the emerging constellation market, Phase Four plans to offer quality products and speedy delivery, Overly said.  “The targeted lead time is three months from time of order to time of delivery which is unheard of for a propulsion subsystem,” she added.

Overly, who previously worked at Aerojet in Redmond, Washington, and at the NASA Johnson Space Center’s White Sands Test Facility, said the relationships she has cultivated during her career will help her meet the challenge.

While many space companies have reduced their dependence on suppliers in favor of vertical integration, Phase Four is not taking that approach, at least not initially.

“As we go forward and learn more about our customers and our products, that could change,” Overly said. “But for the time being, we are looking for valued partnerships with our suppliers.”

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LeoSat and partners put satellites on a diet

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

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – With partners Hispasat of Spain and Sky Perfect Jsat of Japan, LeoSat Enteprises will look for ways to make its satellites “better, faster, cheaper and lighter,” Mark Rigolle, LeoSat chief executive, told SpaceNews.

Since Luxembourg-based LeoSat designed satellites for its planned low Earth orbit constellation two to three years ago, spacecraft technology has improved. In many cases, the cost of component technology has decreased, as well. The price of laser optical heads, for example, which LeoSat needs for its inter-satellite links, have fallen dramatically, said Michael Abad-Santos, LeoSat senior vice president Americas.

LeoSat’s plans to launch 78 operational satellites and six in-orbit spares to create a high-speed, secure data network linking sites of multinational corporations and government agencies. Under the current design, LeoSat can fit eight satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 or Arianespace Ariane 6 rocket. The goal is to reduce satellite mass to fit more satellites on each launch vehicle, Rigolle said Oct. 10 at Satellite Innovation 2018 here.

“The holy grail would be to launch one plane [of 14 satellites] at a time,” Rigolle said. “That would be a fantastic goal to achieve. We are not there yet.”

Reducing the number of launches would have a dramatic impact on the cost of LeoSat’s constellation and the amount of money the startup needs to raise.

“If we can get the number of required launches down from 14 to seven or from 12 to six, we could make savings that take the $3.5 billion plus down to close to $3 billion,” Rigolle said. “If the per unit cost of building the satellites could be pushed down by a few million a piece, it chips at the cost and improves the total viability of the project.”

LeoSat announced in July that Hispasat matched Sky Perfect Jsat’s investment in its constellation. Rigolle, former chief executive of O3B Networks, said he was determined to join forces with fixed satellite service operators because he saw how important the support of fleet operator SES was to O3b.

“I don’t think O3B would have made it without the backing of SES,” Rigolle said. “One thing I’ve tried to do is to attract one or two FSS operators to put their knowledge, their dollars and their credibility behind LeoSat. Skyperfect Jsat and Hispasat, our two key strategic investors, will play a similar role in our development as SES was prepared to do for O3B in terms of optimizing the design to achieve certain things you cannot do with terrestrial technology.”

Those relationships are helping LeoSat attract customers. With a team of two salespeople, LeoSat has forged memoranda of understanding with customers worth more then $1 billion, Rigolle said. Those commitments will help the company line up export credit and debt financing for the constellation, he added.

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Loon offers network controller for new constellations

Loon balloons carry LTE base stations to extend internet service to remote areas. This Loon is flying over New Zealand. Credit: Loon

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Loon, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is promoting networking technology and user interfaces it developed to operate its high-altitude balloons for constellations of nongeostationary orbiting satellites.

“Our network on Loon and these low Earth orbit and medium Earth orbit constellations have a lot of similar challenges in network operations,” Brian Barritt, Loon technical lead, said Oct. 10 at Satellite Innovation 2018 here.

It’s common for people seeking access to the network to be moving around. In these networks, though, the middle of the network is also moving.

“The path the data may take, especially if your constellation has inter-satellite links or if it has multiple spot beams, can change very rapidly,” Barritt said.

Those changes can cause service disruption. To prevent that, Loon developed a temporospatial software defined network controller for both wired and wireless networks. It looks forward over time to predict connectivity and quality by evaluating the positions of all the ground stations, user terminals, satellites and taking into account global weather, Barritt said.

In addition, customers can load the controller with their network service goals like latency requirements.

“It’s up to the controller to figure out what inter-satellite links and ground segment routers to traverse, what gateway links to use how that should be transitioned over time,” Barritt said. “It avoids any disruption to network flows by pre-scheduling routing table changes, tasking changes to steerable beams and radio resource management, changes to channel and channel bandwidth all together in unison. So there is no delay, no disruption.”

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Telesat says ideal LEO constellation is 292 satellites, but could be 512

Erwin Hudson, Vice President of Telesat LEO, said the operator's business plans center on a constellation with 292 satellites. Credit: Brian Berger/SpaceNews

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Telesat says the desired size of its future low Earth orbit broadband constellation is more than twice the number of satellites authorized by U.S. regulators, and could ultimately scale to 512 spacecraft.

Canada-based Telesat received approval for a 117-satellite network from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in November, triggering a regulatory deadline to have at least half that number in orbit within six years and the total in nine.

Speaking at the World Satellite Business Week conference here, Erwin Hudson, Telesat LEO vice president, said the operator’s true ambitions are much larger.

“Our business plan is largely based around 292 [satellites], but the system is designed to scale to 512, and we can scale to 512 if … once we get fully underway, we can justify that on a business and economic basis,” he said.

Telesat awarded two study contracts this summer, one to Airbus and another to a team made of Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space, to conduct detailed analyses of how to build the constellation and associated ground systems. Hudson said Telesat expects to downselect during the second quarter of next year.

Telesat is not alone in planning a constellation larger than first pitched to regulators. OneWeb received FCC authorization in June 2017 for 720 satellites, but nine months later returned to request U.S. market access for an additional 1,260 satellites.

Erwin said LEO systems have to “scale in chunks” because of the need to add new satellites to multiple orbits all at the same time in order to increase the total throughput of the system.

“We have natural break points set at 112,192, 292, [and] 512, and that’s how the constellation naturally scales. Our initial constellation is targeted at 112. We are looking at 292 as the full constellation.”

Erwin said Telesat is prepared to request an amendment to its FCC license, but didn’t give a timeline for when that would occur.

With 292 satellites he estimated Telesat would have five to six terabits per second of total usable capacity globally. Erwin defined usable capacity as “sellable capacity,” not capacity that is stranded over empty swaths of ocean or unoccupied land. When the satellites aren’t over populations, Telesat can run them at a lower energy level, using the idle or less demanding time to save power and recharge spacecraft batteries, he said.

Erwin said Telesat sees strong demand for LEO broadband in the markets of aviation, maritime, and backhauling cellular data. Providing consumer internet to homes is not currently part of Telesat’s core business plan because the electronically steerable antennas that would be needed are still unaffordable for such customers. As antenna prices come down, he said Telesat would take another look at consumer intent broadband, a market dominated geostationary satellite operators Viasat and Hughes Network System, whose residential customers only need a comparatively cheap modem and parabolic dish to get online.

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O3b MEO constellation grows to 16 with latest Soyuz launch

An Arianespace Soyuz launches from the Guiana Space Center March 9 with four O3b satellites. Credit: Arianespace video still.

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz rocket from Arianespace successfully delivered four telecommunications satellites into medium Earth orbit for fleet operator SES.

The rocket took off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana at 12:11 p.m. Eastern March 9 after a 33-minute delay caused by high altitude winds. The four 700-kilogram satellites separated from the rocket’s upper stage two hours after liftoff in pairs 20 minutes apart.

The launch is Arianespace’s second launch of the year and first since an inertial navigation system with incorrect launch data led an Ariane 5 rocket slightly off course in January. Arianespace said at the time of the Ariane 5 investigation that future missions were proceeding as scheduled.

However, on March 5 Arianespace chose to delay the Soyuz launch by three days for “additional checks at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) as part of the resumption of launches,” according to a company statement. Spokesperson Aaron Lewis declined to say if they delay was related to the European Space Agency’s recommendation that Arianespace vet launch documents and mission parameters more diligently before launching.

Luxembourg-based SES now has 16 high-throughput Ka-band satellites circling the Equator at an altitude of 8,000 kilometers, about one fourth the distance from the Earth as geostationary orbit, where most telecommunications satellites operate. SES took full ownership of O3b in 2016, pairing O3b’s MEO satellites with its GEO fleet.

SES was an early investor in O3b back in 2009, four years before the company had any spacecraft in orbit and when the idea of putting broadband-optimized satellites in MEO instead of the traditional geostationary orbit faced substantial industry skepticism. O3b has championed MEO’s lower latency, or lag time, as an advantage over GEO.

In a post-launch speech at the CSG’s Jupiter control room, SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell said the four new satellites should enter service May 17, increasing the capacity of the O3b fleet by 38 percent. The new satellites also increase O3b’s reach by five degrees further from the Equator, up to 50 degrees north and south latitude.

Halliwell, an SES employee for 31 years and CTO for the past seven, said he plans to retire next year, and that today’s launch will likely be his last visit to the CSG.

The four satellites launched today are part of an eight-satellite order O3b Networks made in 2015 to incumbent supplier Thales Alenia Space, prior to SES ownership. The other four satellites launch early next year, Halliwell said, on another Arianespace Soyuz. Those satellites will compete the first-generation O3b constellation.

SES placed an order in 2017 with Boeing for seven second-generation satellites for a constellation called O3b mPower, designed to deliver 10 terabits of throughput. O3b mPower is scheduled to start launching in 2021. SES has not yet selected a launch provider for the O3b mPower satellites. 

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FCC chairman urges approval for SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation

FCC chairman Ajit Pai. Credit: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants his agency approve SpaceX’s 15-month-old application to serve the U.S. with its proposed megaconstellation.

In a statement released just days before SpaceX launches its first two prototype satellites, Pai urged support of the company’s application within the FCC, saying Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX can help reach rural and isolated parts of the country with high-speed Internet.

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies. SpaceX’s application — along with those of other satellite companies seeking licenses or access to the U.S. market for non-geostationary satellite orbit systems — involves one such innovation,” Pai said.

SpaceX’s demo satellites launch Feb. 17 on a Falcon 9 rocket along with a Spanish radar-imaging satellite called PAZ. The satellite pair, dubbed Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, will deploy at the same 511-kilometer altitude of Hisdesat’s PAZ, then rise to a 1,125-kilometer orbit to test technology for a constellation of some 4,500 broadband satellites.

SpaceX is one of 11 companies that all followed OneWeb in asking permission to sell telecommunications services in the U.S. with new non-geosynchronous satellite systems in 2016. Since then the FCC has approved three applications: OneWeb for 720 LEO satellites, Telesat Canada for 117 LEO satellites, and Space Norway for two highly elliptical arctic-focused satellites.  

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” Pai said.

That none of the three companies the FCC recently approved are America-based isn’t fully accurate. OneWeb is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, but was first licensed in the United Kingdom.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared his plans to enter the satellite business by building thousands of small satellites and launching them into low-Earth-orbit to bring true broadband internet service to millions beyond the reach of terrestrial offerings in 2015. Musk’s Jan. 16, 2015 announcement in Seattle, leaked onto YouTube by an attendee, came just two days after OneWeb announced that Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm had agreed to invest in its rival system.

SpaceX is not the first of the megaconstellation hopefuls to stake their claim with a demo satellite. Telesat and fellow Canadian company Kepler Communications both launched satellites in January — Kepler a cubesat on a Chinese Long March 11 and Telesat a larger 168-kilogram smallsat on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

OneWeb’s first 10 satellites launch in May on an Arianespace Soyuz, and unlike its competitors, will be operational spacecraft, not demos. Though that first launch slipped by two months, OneWeb plans to begin service a year or two ahead of SpaceX and Telesat.

SpaceX Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in late October that SpaceX was within a “few months” of launching the demo satellites to validate in-house technology before proceeding with construction and launch of some 4,500 satellites. SpaceX has kept busy since then; it has launched six missions in the past 15 weeks, including last week’s impressive debut of Falcon Heavy and January’s shrouded-in-mystery launch of the classified Zuma payload.

Cooper, when testifying in Congress alongside OneWeb Founder Greg Wyler, said SpaceX plans to start launching operational satellites in 2019, and hopes to have a fledgling service ready by 2020 or 2021 with around 800 satellites in orbit. Wyler said OneWeb will be serving customers in 2019 with its first generation constellation, delivering 500-Mbps internet connections to customers, and that by 2021, OneWeb should have its second-generation constellation already in orbit, providing individual users with 2.5 Gbps of high-speed internet, a five-fold increase over the first generation.

OneWeb’s first constellation will consist of 900-satellites, with Soyuz rockets launching 32 satellites every 21 days throughout 2019. However, assuming an uninterrupted launch campaign, OneWeb will need until at least 2020 to complete the full first generation. Soyuz is OneWeb’s primary launch vehicle; of the company’s other launch providers, Virgin Orbit LauncherOne missions can only carry two or three OneWeb satellites at a time, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn won’t be ready until 2020 at the earliest.

Competitor Telesat, which operates a fleet of 15 geostationary telecommunications satellites today, has yet to select a manufacturer for its 117-satellite LEO internet constellation. After choosing a builder this year, Telesat expects to begin launching small satellites in 2020, and beginning service in 2021.

Cubesat-operator Kepler is less of a competitor to SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat given its focus on connecting low-data Internet-of-Things devices. The company has a second cubesat prototype launching this year, and has also not picked a manufacturer for its full 140-satellite system. Kepler’s larger operational constellation will also sport intersatellite links to downlink information for other spacecraft, including satellites and space stations.

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OneWeb spars with SpaceX, Boeing, SES and Space Norway over FCC coverage rule

The FCC is reconsidering a nationwide coverage rule for NGSO networks. Not every company agrees that’s a good idea. Credit: FCC

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Federal Communications Commission requirement that developers of non-geostationary-orbit (NGSO) satellite systems provide full coverage of the United States to get market access has  prospective megaconstellation operators pitted against each other.

The FCC, in a notice of proposed rulemaking that closed Jan. 29, asked for input on whether it should maintain the nationwide coverage requirement, noting that some proposed systems are not designed to reach all of the continental U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

OneWeb, with investors Intelsat and Hughes, and Alaska’s governor were alone in showing favor for the rule. On Jan. 29, the three companies wrote the FCC saying that removing the rule would negatively impact the development of rural connectivity.

“The Commission must not abandon its duty to facilitate broadband access for rural parts of the United States, relying solely upon the premise that this would make it cheaper or easier for a few NGSO [fixed satellite service] operators to design and build their systems,” the companies wrote. “This would be an arbitrary and capricious agency action that fails to properly account for the public interest and runs counter to record evidence demonstrating that the domestic coverage rule will help bridge the digital divide across the United States.”

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker wrote the commission Jan. 2 saying that “the incentive for generalized non-geostationary, fixed-satellite service systems to provide service to all of Alaska in addition to the contiguous states disappears with the removal of the domestic coverage requirement.”

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said in October that the company’s first customer will likely be in Alaska. Local telco Alaska Communications in May signed a Memorandum of Understanding to become OneWeb’s first reseller in 2019.

“We would like to see more satellite systems follow [OneWeb], and the domestic coverage rule ensures just that,” Walker wrote.

OneWeb, Intelsat and Hughes said the commission should keep its coverage rules and allow waivers “where justified,” as was done for Space Norway and O3b Networks.

SpaceX, Boeing, SES and Space Norway all took the opposite view.

“Eliminating the rule will ensure that the Commission does not retain outmoded regulations that may effectively preclude an innovative NGSO design that would meet an identifiable market need,” SpaceX wrote Jan. 29.

Boeing wrote Jan. 29 that the company “fully concurs with Governor Walker regarding the substantial public interest benefits that NGSO satellite systems can provide in closing the digital divide,” but disagrees that operators lack motivation to connect Alaska absent FCC regulations.

The FCC last year licensed two NGSO systems that meet its coverage rules — OneWeb and Telesat.

Ironically, Space Norway, though not planning to cover the entire U.S., said that without the waiver given for its two-satellite, highly elliptical orbit system, the company would be barred from serving the only U.S. state its system will reach — Alaska. Space Norway argued regional NGSO systems like its proposed Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission should be excluded from the domestic coverage requirement.

SES, responding to the FCC on behalf of its medium-Earth-orbit constellation called O3b, said the existence of multiple proposed constellations that include coverage of the entire U.S. negate Walker’s argument that rural areas would be overlooked.

“With several NGSO systems poised to offer ubiquitous domestic coverage, the Commission has no compelling policy reason to retain the requirement and continue to constrain system designs for future NGSO applicants,” SES wrote.

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