Launch of satellite telecommunications Astranis has achieved a key technical milestone with its MicroGEO product, a small geosynchronous communications satellite that it will use to launch its first commercial service starting next summer for customers in Alaska. This is an important milestone for Astranis, as the MicroGEO satellite test article that passed this cycle of thermal vacuum qualification testing will form the basis for a planned line of first products, designed to provide a Affordable high speed broadband to specific geographic markets using individual spacecraft, region by region.
Having already successfully met its technical requirements in terms of radiation, which is particularly powerful in the target orbital band where the Astranis MicroGEO will operate in a fixed position above Earth, this means that the startup’s technology has crossed the line. last major technical step on its way. at launch and operation. I spoke to Astranis CEO and founder John Gedmark about this achievement, and he said if the MicroGEO qualifying test article would still undergo a series of remaining tests before it launched on a SpaceX rocket the year next before its operational date scheduled for summer 2021, it is a great achievement that represents years of work by the team.
“It was a huge amount of work for the team, and I’m sure, as you can imagine, these things aren’t easy,” said Gedmark. “People might not understand how extreme the temperatures are in which a satellite has to operate: we were doing tests ranging from 150 degrees Fahrenheit to -180 degrees Fahrenheit. Just imagine this temperature variation on a large electronics box. “
This is incredibly impressive, considering that while they have improved dramatically over the years, even modern consumer electronics can have challenges with much less extreme temperature swings. And qualification testing for equipment designed to operate in space is actually performed to a standard 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter and colder than expected orbital temperatures, just to provide the equipment with a safe operational buffer. Temperatures can vary so wildly because the orbital environment lacks the insulating layer of the atmosphere, which means it is very cold when the sun is on the other side of the Earth and extremely hot when the sun shines directly on the spaceship.
The Astranis MicroGEO satellites will operate in geostationary orbit (GEO), which means that they will sit in a high orbit (higher than what is known as “ low earth orbit ” or LEO, which you may have heard about it because that’s where SpaceX’s Starlink satellites work.). The GEO band is where the existing satellite communications infrastructure operates today – but they are very large, mostly aging and expensive satellites that provide the backbone of networks, including those used for in-flight Wi-Fi and on cruise ships.
Astranis equips its GEO satellites with much more modern telecommunications equipment and makes its spacecraft much smaller. The company is betting that it can deploy smaller GEO satellites at a much more affordable price, to serve very specific geographies. Its first satellite will serve Alaska, as mentioned, through a partnership with satellite television and Internet service provider Pacific Dataport. This is expected to triple the bandwidth available to the state, while keeping costs affordable for customers. After that, the goal is to continue building and launching similar satellites to serve small and medium-sized countries, states and other regions.
This model differs significantly from what SpaceX and others do working on the LEO communications constellations. Gedmark described the costs and benefits of both, and why he thinks what Astranis is doing is probably the best solution in terms of business model and efficiency for a small and young company.
“We’re big fans of what some of these other companies are trying to do with the LEO constellations – it’s just a very different approach,” he said. “We have the ability to set up one satellite at a time and concentrate the bandwidth where it is. necessary, and do it quickly. The smaller constellations are really an all-or-nothing proposition – the entire constellation has to be in place to begin service. And then they also have other challenges to overcome, such as ground antennas, unique tracking. “
Gedmark notes that you have to deploy lots of satellite dishes around the world for LEO constellations to be effective, which comes with its own costs and risks. Astranis, however, is compatible with the existing infrastructure already used in the internet and satellite communications, which greatly facilitates serving customers. Additionally, since it can launch satellites individually to serve specific regions, it can add revenue in stages over time, while LEO networks will need a huge initial capital investment before the money starts. actually to come from business customers.
“They can certainly be successful,” he said. “I just think it’s going to take them a while and we’re optimized for speed. Whether it’s a US state like Alaska, or a small or medium-sized country, we can give them extra bandwidth that they can use as soon as possible and, and provide them with just that. price. “