Tom Choi creates small-GEO satellite manufacturer promising < $1M per Gbps, including launch

Saturn Satellite Networks CEO Chief Executive Jim Simpson. Credit: Boeing
SINGAPORE — The founder and former chief executives of satellite fleet operator ABS have joined forces to create a new satellite manufacturing company targeted at nations that would like to operate satellites but have been unable to afford them.
It is not a new idea, but Tom Choi is persuaded that is latest venture, called Saturn Satellite Networks, will find a niche building 2.5-kW satellites with digital processors and a capability of up to 80 Gbps of throughput for the HTS version. The satellites would be manufactured in the United States.
Jim Simpson, a former ABS chief executive and now Saturn’s CEO, and Choi outlined Saturn’s ambition here June 17 at the Satellite Industry Form organized by the Asia Video Industry Association (Avia).
They said Saturn has hired a veteran payload builder in Colorado and a veteran satellite platform production facility in California to build Saturn’s early satellites, and that a transaction was under way that would enable Saturn to own at least part of its production facility for future orders.
The company has received one order already and has booked a $10 million first payment as part of that order, which would be for a bent-pipe satellite to be delivered in 2021, Saturn said in a statement. Choi said Saturn had also lined up a launch-service provider for its first customer.
Choi said non-disclosure agreements prevented him from disclosing the payload and platform providers and the selected launch service.
“What we looked at was a satellite that could cover just a country in an economical way, using digital processing, and in a form that could ride as a secondary payload,” Simpson said of the Saturn business model and its product line, called Nationsat.
“It really changed the economics of satellites, with the perspective that you are doing that with known technology. The interest level has been tremendous. Many countries would never be able to afford a  huge high-throughput satellite. We have developed a system that would cost $60-$70 million, launched, and could you provide 50 Gbps of throughput.”
That would enable Saturn to deliver an HTS satellite for less than $1 million per delivered Gbps of capacity, a long-sought goal among satellite fleet operators that London-based Inmarsat may have come close to with its recent order of three Airbus OneSat-model HTS satellites for $300 million. But this price does not include launch or insurance.
Choi started Saturn as a subsidiary of his Aerospace Internet Exchange, a wireless broadband platform whose Curvalux technology is designed to offer broadband network operators a solution that, at 3 watts, requires much less power than, say an LTE site.
Choi stressed that available power has also been a hindrance to the adoption of satellite broadband in many nations.
Choi and Simpson said reaction to the Saturn and Nationsat idea has been positive from the market and that the company has responded to multiple requests for proposals.

Facebook to satellite sector: We want more partnerships like what we’ve signed with Hispasat, Hughes, Viasat

Wesley Wong, Facebook’s head of connectivity partnerships and business development
SINGAPORE — Facebook told the satellite sector not to expect the social media giant to play the role of a wealthy global customer but that it will partner with satellite fleet operators trying to extend connectivity to unserved areas.
In the past three months, Facebook as established rural-Wi-Fi partnerships with Spain’s Hispasat fleet operator in Brazil, Hughes Network Systems in Brazil and Mexico, and Viasat Inc. in Mexico.
The arrangements include Facebook co-investment in the deployment of Facebook Express Wi-Fi hotspots that then connect to its partners’ satellites to provide a prepaid internet service to the immediate neighborhood.
It’s the kind of slow-going, village by village effort whose economics will take time to assess. But already Viasat has suggested that rural Wi-Fi could be more profitable than fixed consumer broadband: http://bit.ly/2XRIr82
Wesley Wong, head of connectivity, partnership & business development at Facebook, said the company is looking for other satellite partners to extend the effort in other regions.
“The model we have been exploring with these companies is satellite-enabled community Wi-Fi hotspots. And we’re seeing a lot of great traction form these companies getting out there. In the next 6-12 months, we’d like to see more organizations out here willing to take that step outside their comfort zone of B2B, to B2B2C. That’s what we’re looking for.
“These [unconnected] people have the means of paying for this kind activity.”
Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have had an on-again, off-again involvement with the satellite sector, with rumors of impending large investments that never occur in addition to small investments in atmospheric platforms to deliver regional.
Facebook and Paris-based fleet operator Eutelsat together purchased a share of the Amos-6 satellite owned by Spacecom of Israel to deploy connectivity in Africa. That agreement collapsed in the wake of the satellite’s September 2016 explosion during preparations for launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Eutelsat has doubled down on Africa with its own, dedicated satellite to launch later this year, but Facebook is no longer a part of the program.
Earlier this year, Amazon took the plunge, making regulatory filings for a thousand-plus satellite constellation in low Earth orbit, called Project Kuiper, to deliver broadband worldwide to unserved and underserved populations: http://bit.ly/2ZhzuoG
The Amazon decision spurred speculation that an Amazon peer like Facebook, Apple or Google might make a similar move.
Wong’s remarks here June 17 at the Satellite Industry Forum organized by the Asia Video Industry Assn. (Avia), suggest that this kind of investment is not an immediate Facebook priority.
A Facebook Express Wi-Fi installation in Kenya. Credit: Facebook
“In the past Facebook put out some effort that made us look like a potential customer, and then a potential competitor” to satellite operators, Wong said. “We have since learned in the last few years that there are some great organizations doing some amazing things here. We’re trying to figure out which one of hose align with our vision and what we can do to help to get what they’re doing to achieve what we want to get done.
“We’re not there to be a competitor, and we’re certainly not there to be customer. In the past we’ve been viewed as potentially a large customer. It’s not necessarily in Facebook’s DNA to buy a bunch of capacity,” Wong said.
Wong said the commercial satellite sector has not made enough of a name for itself in the unconnected world, making it more difficult to make inroads in markets that should welcoming satellite connectivity.
He credited SpaceX as an example of a company that has helped make space appealing far beyond the space industry.
In remarks that had some in the audience gritting their teeth, Wong said the terrestrial wireless sector’s industry associations do a much better job a promoting their industries to developing markets.
“GSMA serves industries that serve the end consumer,” he said of the lead terrestrial-wireless lobbying group, a regular adversary of the space sector in regulatory meetings on radio spectrum.
“That’s why they everybody knows them, that’s why they have a lot of power and that’s why the regulators care about them. The space industry has been comfortable supplying goods to businesses that give us great margins and keep us comfortable.
“But to take that last mile and get to the end consumer? That’s a lot of hard work. But once you’ve done that…. Some of the partnerships we have signed in the last three to six months have been with partners willing to take that leap, to expand the market into customers that some of the big global operators aren’t prepared to address. Once that’s done I think that raises the space industry’s profile to start making a difference in other peoples’ lives.”
“I work for a company that has obviously significantly high recognition among consumers and we are trying to figure out a way to work with companies that are making changes today so that they can reach the end user.
“We are focused on partner success. Here we’re in a room full of companies primarily from the Asia-Pacific but globally that can deliver connectivity anywhere in the world. How do we leverage that and work with these companies to ensure that they are successful?”

French Kineis satellite IoT/M2M startup secures go-ahead funding

Kineis Director-General Alexandre Tisserant. Credit: Kineis
PARIS — The French government-backed Kineis satellite IoT/M2M startup, which has struggled in the past 8 months to secure the needed $120 million in estimated capex, appears to have turned the corner with the adhesion of two large customer sets.
The two customers are French telco Bouygues Telecom’s Objenious by Bouygues program, part of the LoRa Alliance including on-board systems designer Stycker and IoT platform builder Wisebatt; and the WIZE Alliance including Suez, GRDF, Sagemcom and Accenture.
It is unclear whether the two groups are investing in Kineis. But their in-principle commitment as large customers was enough to secure a funding round enabling Kineis to sign Authorization-to-Proceed contracts with the Kineis industrial team.
The ATPs will be signed with Nexeya/Hemeria as platform provider and Thales Alenia Space (TAS) as satellite payload prime.
The French space agency, CNES, had already agreed to be among the early Kineis investors and has viewed the project as a showcase of French NewSpace potential.
The addition of established French industrial giants to Kineis’s customer set is almost certain to change the correlation of forces between Kineis and the ELO project backed by satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat and land-based IoT provider Sigfox, who together are planning their own IoT constellation.
Kineis’s original backer was CLS of Toulouse, France, a CNES affiliate that manages the Argos program of satellite sensors that track wildlife worldwide.
The CLS idea was to merge its long history in satellite animal tracking with a global IoT platform for land and maritime users: http://bit.ly/2UK2F67
Kineis Chief Executive Alexandre Tisserant discussed the importance of the new customer deals.
What do these two groups want from Kineis?
Bouygues Telecom, which is part of the LoRa alliance, is interested in building a hybrid  satellite/terrestrial telecom network.
The WIZE Alliance, with Suez and GRDF, the energy companies, already uses terrestrial technologies for automatic meter reading and want to add onto that a satellite solution.
Why is Bouygues, a telco, interested in your narrowband solution?
Today there are large industrial sites spread around the world, with spare parts produced at these different sites before being assembled into systems in Europe or elsewhere.
Nexeya/Hemeria’s Laurent Javanaud in front of a mockup of the ANGELS cubesat, a co-investment of Nexeya and the French space agency, CNES, to be launched in late 2019. Credit: CNES via Youtube
The component owners need to follow them while in transit, because sometimes the get lost. So this is a way to optimize the supply chain.
What they use today is essentially a terrestrial solution, which is low-cost but also less autonomous than they would like. They really need something hybrid, and Bouygues Telecom approached us to become part of what we are doing.
And the WIZE Alliance with Suez, GRDF, Sagemcom and Accenture?
That came almost as a surprise for us. It demonstrates the enormous potential of Kineis. Suez does a lot of energy distribution as wel as automatic reading of its meters. One might think this is done well enough with terrestrial networks.
In fact, no. Suez tells us that even in France, 90% of their network is connected via the terrestrial solutions, leaving 5-10% that do not work with terrestrial networks. And 5%-10% is important to them. If you have 5,000 or 10,000 points that cannot be captured by the network in a given region, that means having to send technicians out each month to read the meters. Comparing the cost of that to having a satellite solution, we can save hem a substantial amount.
We have other industrial partnerships in the works, but these two seemed particularly important to highlight. Bouygues already has a connectivity network but realizes it needs satellite to complement its offer. Suez and GRDF are large industrial companies who want to develop this as well.
These are both big players. What was Kineis’s special appeal to them?
First is that they want a solution that works right away. We can launch our satellites in three years to reinforce our position. The fact that we already have satellites in orbit that function with the Argos technology was a strong argument that attracted them to us.
They know we already have something that works. We have 20,000 Argos buoys in the field. We are not starting with just a concept, even on the satellite side.
Is there an overlap in the territories of  Bouygues and WIZE?
We have two very different partnerships with them. They are two players with distinct and separate activities. WIZE will use it for its own industrial requirements. For them it is an internal demand they have.
For Bouygues, it is an offer they will make available for their different industrial partners around the world.
And the technologies are not exactly the same. WIZE wants VHF band, and Bouygues wants to make a combined offer with the LoRa alliance in that band around 800 MHz. So it’s not the same technologies.
WIZE is mainly for fixed applications and meter reading. Bouygues is for mobile applications.
You need 100-120 million euros to fund development. Where are you now?
I cannot give financing levels now because we are completing our cap table and until it’s finished I can’t disclose amounts. But I can tell you that with the support we have now we are starting the industrial project and have committed to start work with our industrial partners.
You can imagine that we would not do this if we had empty pockets. We have enough confidence in this financing to be able to start the industrial work.
Normally when one talks of strategic partnerships, that means investment.
We have strategic and commercial partnerships. They are strategic in the sense that without them we would not do the project.
You are starting with 25 satellites in a single order?
Yes. Initially we wanted to build 20 satellites right away and then launch five or 10 more after four or five years. The work we have done since then on the satellites’ likely lifespan, plus the launch question, have led us to a solution where we launch 25 satellites right away — five orbital planes of five satellites each.
With that we have enough to assure a constellation life of eight years.
We are now planning an orbit of 650 kilometers. Each satellite has a life expectancy of 6-8 years, and since we need 20 satellites to do the mission, we launch 25 from the start and that gives us enough to maintain the constellation for eight years.
TAS does the payload and Hemeria (the former Nexeya) is building the platform. Has the role of TAS changed since the original plan?
We did reorganize the project. Kineis manages the entire program and we are reinforcing our team with engineers, notably from CNES, and we contract with Thales Alenia Space for the ground segment and with Nexeya for the platform and for the integration. But it’s Kineis that is the pilot of the program.
The ANGELS satellite will demonstrate some of your technologies. What is its status?
It is on schedule for a launch mid-October this year and it is obviously important for proving part of our technology, including industrial engineering behind ANGELS for what needed to be miniaturized on the satellite. That work is pretty much behind us now, which helps us start Kineis today. We have debugged much of the system with ground testing.
There is of course the in-orbit data on the performance of the platform that will be important for us, and that timing works well: Assuming an October launch of ANGELS, we at Kineis will complete the PDR by the end of the year. So that works well in terms of timing.
If the launch is delayed, will that affect your timing?
I don’t think so. We are not that worried about a couple of months. The most important thing with ANGELS is the miniaturization . Flight results will be needed to fine-tune certain aspects, and we have time to do that.

Three Atlas 5 Centaur upper-stage breakups in GTO in less than a year, and the cause is a mystery

The Atlas 5 Centaur rocket lifts off on Oct. 17, 2018, carrying the AEFH-4 military communications satellite for the US Air Force. This is one of three Centaur stages that have broken up in orbit in recent months. Credit: ULA
PARIS – In-orbit explosions of three Atlas 5 Centaur upper stages in recent months have created more than 1,000 large pieces of debris in geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), increasing the amount of space junk circling in this orbital region by 50%.
Atlas 5 prime contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) said it has no idea what caused the explosions and that the company proceeded with its usual passivation procedures to empty the stages of stored energy.
Orbital debris experts say the huge spike in the quantity of space garbage and the unusually high number of large pieces of debris risks collision with operational spacecraft in medium-Earth and geosynchronous orbits, the neighborhoods of global navigation systems and communications satellites, respectively. 
The first Centaur breakup, on August 30, 2018, produced more than 577 new large fragments to GTO, increasing by more than 25% the number of tracked objects in the region, according to Vladimir Agapov of the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics in Moscow.
The spent Centaur stage, designated by NORAD as 2014-055B, was orbiting at roughly 8,200 x 35,100 km when it broke up after four years in orbit. Launched in September 2014, the Atlas 5 carried the Lockheed Martin-built CLIO satellite, a classified U.S. government mission, to GTO.
The debris is now dispersed in orbits with perigees ranging from 5,270 to 17,850 km and apogees between 32,825 and 43,240 km. Tracked by European and Russian telescopes, the debris fragments are crossing operational altitudes of all GNSS systems. Agapov said they will begin passing into the GEO operational belt within the next 18 months.
“Surprisingly there are many quite large objects – 36 — with average reflecting surface area more than 1 square meter and 135 with estimated mass of more [than] 1 kg.,” Agapov said in a Sept. 29 presentation to the International Academy of Astronautics in Bremen, Germany.
In March this year, a second Atlas 5 Centaur broke up, contributing additional debris in the same orbital region as 2014-055B, according to the Deimos Sky Survey observatory in Spain. Dubbed 2009-047B, it was launched September 8, 2009, with the Lockheed Martin-built PAN/USA-207 satellite, also a classified mission.
The Centaur was orbiting at roughly 6,600 x 34,700 km altitude when Russian and European telescopes observed the upper-stage breakup, yielding detailed images of the central rocket body and between 40 and 60 fragments larger than 30 cm.
Within two weeks, a third Centaur, 2018-079B, had blown apart. The April 6 event was confirmed by U.S. Air Force Space Command in an April 24 tweet. The Centaur had been orbiting at 8,600 x 35,000 km for six months following its October 17, 2018, launch, which carried the Lockheed Martin AEHF-4 military communications satellite satellite to GTO.
Following the breakup, the Air Force said it was tracking just 14 associated pieces of debris with “no indication caused by collision.”
Despite the low number of fragments indicated by U.S. military officials, data from observatories outside the U.S. show the combined Centaur fragmentation events contributed well over 1,000 new large objects to GTO in a period of seven months.
“These breakups have generated more than 1,200 large pieces of debris, so these were fragmentations that required substantial energy,” said one European government official. “The energy provoking these events comes from either an internal or an external source. If the stages were passivated, that should mean there is no internal energy source remaining.”
Atlas 5 prime contractor ULA says the cause of the explosions – the first known fragmentations of the Centaur on record – is a mystery, even after reviewing its Centaur passivation procedures.
“From a broad perspective, ULA prepares the Centaur stage by performing a series of steps to render the stage inert after completion of the mission. Those steps include depletion of all residual propellants, venting of propellant tanks, and safing vehicle batteries,” ULA said in a statement to Space Intel Report.
Asked to amplify this statement, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said during the Satellite 2019 conference in May in Washington, D.C., that the company had conducted special reviews of its passivation procedure in the wake of the breakups and had found nothing that might provide answers.
But given the quantity of large fragments resulting from the debris-shedding events, it is unlikely that any of the three Centaurs exploded on impact with other circling space junk, orbital debris experts assert.
External energy can come from collisions with debris or with micrometeorites.
“But in this orbital region, the density of possible sources is very low and the likelihood of three collisions in eight months is just about zero,” the European government official said. “Either they were not correctly passivated, or there is a mysterious, unknown external source, and a maneuver that went badly. At this point we have no idea.”
Prior to fragmentation, the three Centaurs were orbiting in similar high-perigee GTO orbits between 6,600-8,600 km, a region that contains other Atlas 5 Centaur rocket bodies. These include: 2018-022B, launched March 1, 2018 carrying the GOES-17 spacecraft; 2016-071B, launched Nov. 19, 2016 carrying the GOES-16 satellite; 2014-020B, launched April 10, 2014 carrying the USA-250 satellite; and 2009-064B, launched Nov. 23, 2009 carrying Intelsat-14.
Most launches to GTO lack enough fuel to de-orbit spent rocket stages after completing their primary mission. For this reason, the U.S. government gives launch service providers options for disposing of spent rocket bodies: removal from orbit through a controlled re-entry or an escape trajectory, or maneuvering to designated disposal orbits.
For missions to MEO and GEO, the disposal orbit comprises a band with a perigee greater than 20,700 km and an apogee of no more than 35,300 km.
ULA suggested in 2014 that half its launches do not comply with the upper stage disposal guidelines of the U.S. government. Most ULA launches are for the U.S. government.
The Centaur upper stage. Credit: NASA
“For as much as half of our current launches we are able to utilize excess performance and design trajectory solutions which allow for compliant disposal of our upper stages,” ULA said in a 2014 paper, “Orbital Disposal of Launch Vehicle Upper Stages.”
According to the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA), recent data indicate that the number of break-ups in geosynchronous orbit is higher than previously estimated.
“It also appears that objects in GEO tend to release extremely lightweight objects with high area-to-mass ratios, such as pieces of thermal blankets, and with strongly perturbed orbits that require frequent re-observations,” Holger Krag, head of ESA’s space debris office, said in a May 6 post on the agency’s web site.
“There are numerous debris reduction and mitigation guidelines that can be applied at the design, manufacturing, launching, operating or disposal stage of any mission, but the challenge has been getting the global community to apply these in a consistent way,” Krag said. “Applying these guidelines generally adds cost or reduces the useful life of a satellite, even if only slightly, so it’s always been a tough sell.”
Amy Svitak is a Space Intel Report contributing editor.

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India’s Antrix says it can handle foreign launch competition, but domestic competitors could be tough

Antrix Chairman Rakesh Sasibhushan. Credit: ESA
PARIS — India’s government-owned commercial space arm, Antrix, is more worried about the coming domestic competition for the launch of small satellites than about any threat from non-Indian launchers, Antrix Chairman Rakesh Sasibhushan said.
Whether that local competition will come is still uncertain, but a Space Act in preparation by the Indian government and likely to be presented for government approval this year would open the way to much more competition in India’s largely closed satellite and rocket sector.
“India is pretty much a closed market and we are not exposed to very high levels of competition,” Sasibhushan said here June 14 a the Paris Air Forum, organized by La Tribune. “[Non-India] NewSpace companies definitely will give us some competition, but the real compeition will come from the Indian side, which is development small launchers that take advantage of India’s low cost of manufacturing.”
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), of which Antrix is a part, has maintained a tight grip on most Indian space activity. China, for example, has witnessed a flowering of commercial ventures including launch-service providers, while India has not.
Sasibhushan said one reason is that India’s corporate giants have steered clear of the space business because they are leery of its high cost and low profit margin. The absence of influential companies in the space sector has allowed the government to resist change despite what’s going on in the rest of the world.
“We see that there are no big corporates in space,” Sasibhushan said. “The companies that I have talked to are very skeptical because they are public companies that must answer to their shareholders. Unless they make a big move, they will not be able to put pressure on the government to change.”
Sasibhushan said the new Space Act has the potential to burst open India’s commercial space scene, similar to the effect 20 years ago of India’s telecommunications liberalization.
Starting in 2015, India’s PSLV rocket has developed a good supplemental revenue stream by launching multiple small satellites as secondary payloads on missions usually carrying an Indian government satellite as the main passenger.
Spire Global and Planet, operators of the largest NewSpace commercial constellations, have both made regular use of the PSLV. Sasibhushan said these and other NewSpace companies have accounted for 50-60% of Antrix’s launch revenue.

Lockheed Martin: We’re getting more RFPs now for large satellites than for small ones

Richard F. Ambrose, executive vice president for space, Lockheed Martin. Credit: Yahoo Finance
PARIS — Lockheed Martin is fielding more RFPs for large satellites than for small ones as the market bifurcates to both smaller and larger platforms, with commercial companies now looking at 30-kilowatt spacecraft that would ride alone in one of the new, 7-meter-diameter fairing rockets in development, a senior Lockheed official said.
Richard F. Ambrose, executive vice president for space at Lockheed Martin, said small satellites get most of the industry’s attention these days, but that the market is still interested in larger satellites too.
“We’ve heard talk about small satellites replacing large ones, but we’re seeing all of the above,” Ambrose said here June 14 at the Paris Air Forum, organized by La Tribune. “It’s not either/or, its “and.” I have more RFPs for large satellites. I am talking about commercial.
“Arianespace just launched [in February] our large satellite for Arabsat, the largest commercial satellite we’ve built at 20 kilowatts. Now we have phone calls coming in for 30-kilowatt satellites.”
Lockheed Martin’s in-house production lines produce satellites form the LM 50 to the largest LM 2100 platform. It is also a shareholder in smallsat builder Tyvak, and in smallsat launch service provider Rocket Lab. It is therefore likely that Ambrose sees a broad cross section of the market crossing his desk in one way or another.
“We are seeing the market go down multiple channels,” Amrbrose said. “People were saying satellites would only be smaller. But as [satellite] operators sort out their business models, some will want bigger satellites at GEO [geostationary orbit]. Some want LEO orbit and a few want MEO. But the large satellites are getting larger.”
It has long been true that satellite operators have designed their fleets as a function of the capacity of available commercial launch services. The bigger the rocket, the bigger the satellites have gotten as fleet owners seek the scale economies of packing lots of payload on a single platform.
But with the collapse of the GEO market in the past three years and the interest in non-GEO orbits for constellations of smaller satellites, it looked like the large rockets’ future may lie only in stacking multiple spacecraft under a single fairing.
That may still be the case, but Ambrose said some operators plan to use this new launch volume to design huge spacecraft.
“Some launch companies are talking about seven-meter fairings, and we’re actually getting requests,” Ambrose said. “I thought they were for multi-satellite launches on them, but no: It was for one satellite that would sit inside a seven-meter fairing. That would be a very big satellite.”

No commitments, but U.S. Senate FCC hearing plays on C-Band satellite alliance’s court

U.S. sports network ESPN said its use of satellite C-band is increasing, not decreasing. Credit: ESPN
PARIS — A U.S. Senate committee spent a full morning grilling the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on its practices but the only comments on C-band spectrum clearing centered on how fast it could be done.
In the latest illustration that the C-Band Alliance of satellite operators may be about to win their case, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee made no comments on how the 500-MHz slice of spectrum would be cleared, or whether allowing satellite operators — all non-U.S.-based companies — to manage the auction and reap the proceeds is justified.
Instead, the few statements made about the issue were about the urgency of clearing spectrum to keep up with other nations in 5G deployment, an advantage that the C-Band Alliance has played up as perhaps its strongest card.
“Mid-band spectrum is particularly important to the initial deployment of 5G. But the United States currently lags behind our competitors in the availability of mid-band spectrum,” Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi said in a statement.
How soon can it be done?
“We are working through some of the very complicated issues with respect to C-band,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said during the June 12 hearing. “We are looking forward to moving forward as quickly as we can. Just a couple of days ago we received a very complex auction design from one of the parties that has offered a solution hat we need to evaluate.”
In his written comments to the committee, Pai said the C-band issue, which concerns spectrum between 3.7 and 4.2 GHz, would be dealt with “in the coming months.”
The C-Band Alliance of Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat submitted to the FCC their auction plan, which they have promised would see part of the spectrum made ready for terrestrial 5G use within 18 months of an FCC order, and the rest 18 months later.
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has spearheaded the FCC’s C-band clearing discussion, said he was optimistic about an early resolution but repeated his hope that the C-Band Alliance could find another 100 MHz in addition to the 200 MHz the satellite operators have agreed to clear.
“I remain hopeful that the satellite incumbents recognize the great need for such frequencies and are willing to part with closer to 300 or more MHz, assuming the requisite technology can accommodate this amount,” O’Rielly said in his written statement.
The C-Band Alliance said June 13 that “the maximum we can do now and fast — an early tranche in 18 months, with the full 406 Partial Economic Areas of the continental US in 36 months — is 200 MHz,” Alliance spokesman Markus Payer said in a statement.
“We’ve done all homework to come to that conclusion. We need thousands of filters and new satellites, and the content companies need to be protected. Longer term, the technology will tell us what’s possible. But for now, we’re focused on [200 MHz].”
Broadcasters back C-Band Alliance proposal as best of the lot, insist on new C-band satellites
On June 7, six large U.S. broadcasters — CBS, Discovery, Walt Disney, Fox, Univision and Viacom jointly urged the FCC to accept the C-Band Alliance proposal and to limit the clearing to 200 MHz, which includes a 20-MHz guard band.
“Only the C-Band Alliance gives serious attention to how the commission could preserve reliable video delivery over the C-band,” the companies said in a joint statement. “A critical aspect of the CBA’s plan is that no more than 200 MHz of spectrum will be reallocated.”
The statement used an example the ESPN sports network, saying that its C-band use has been increasing, not decreasing, in recent years, with an additional 1,300 video feeds provided to the network over C-band. In 2018, ESPN said it acquired nearly 29,000 sports feeds over C-band.
“One one day alone last month, ESPN relied on 143 C-band feeds in the production of content,” the broadcasters’ statement said.
The broadcasters also addressed the need for additional C-band satellites to be launched to accommodate the loss of 200 MHz of spectrum rights.
“Overall capacity available in the industry depends on both the amount of spectrum in the band and the number of satellites providing service over that spectrum,” they told the FCC. “To put simply, the less spectrum that is left for video downlinks, the more satellites we need in the sky…. The FCC should require any plan it approves to ensure that the necessary sateltweis will be launched.”
The C-Band Alliance’s two biggest providers of capacity in the United States, Intelsat and SES, have committed to ordering four new C-band satellites each if the FCC approves their auction plan. Six would be launched with two held on the ground as spares.

Thales Alenia Space Stratobus faces imminent test with European Defense Fund HAPS bid

 
Yannick Combet, Stratobus Venture leader. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
TOULON, France — The Thales Alenia Space-led team developing the Stratobus high-altitude platform (HAPS) for surveillance and, later, telecommunications services has until Aug. 28 to submit a bid to the European Commission for development funding under the new European Defense Fund.
The fund, which will be expanded in the commission’s proposed seven-year budget starting in 2021, has about 500 million euros to spend before then and has opened a HAPS budget line that Stratobus officials say is well-fit for their system.
But the European Defense Industrial Development Program’s (EDIDP) funding comes with a catch: Bidders must include complementary funding from at least three European Union government defense ministries, plus an indication from these governments to purchase the commercial HAPS product.
The contract structure is unusual and was decided to drive home the point that while EDIDP may finance only up to a program’s Critical Design Review, its ambition is to assure that funded projects make it into production.
Yannick Combet, the Stratobus program head at Thales Alenia Space, said the Stratobus bid is likely to include the defense procurement agencies from Spain and Italy in addition to France, but that there are backup scenarios if Spain or Italy are unable to make the commitment by the RFP’s deadline.
“This is a little complex and takes time,” Combet said here June 5 during a Stratobus presentation at CNIM, a Stratobus partner that is building the platform’s structures and the pod suspended under its belly to carry 250 kilograms of payload.
“There are letters of intent that must come from the partner MODs,” Combet said. “Because of the complexity, we are have several other options available whatever the decisions made” by Spain and Italy by Aug. 28.
Sratobus has received some 45 million euros ($50 million) in French government funding so far: http://bit.ly/2wJdNBL
Combet said it will take another 150 million euros to complete development and build a test Stratobus in 2022 or 2023, and then to move to a commercial version the following year. The EDIDP funding, if it comes, could cover 50-70 million euros of that amount.
The Stratobus schedule as of June 2019. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
CNIM earlier this year demonstrated its belief in Stratobus and, more generally, in the market for large, tethered balloons by purchasing an 85% stark in Airstar Aerospace from Airstar Group. Thales Alenia Space remains a minority shareholder.
Philippe Lazare, director of the CNIM facility here, said the company estimates that future Stratobus business could generate 30 million euros or more in annual revenue with a production run of 10 Stratobus models per year.
Combet said Thales Alenia Space has received multiple queries from prospective Stratobus customers, all of them interested in maritime surveillance, border patrol and other ISR applications. None so far for telecommunications, he said, and that’s fine with Stratobus for now.
“Our thinking on this point has not changed: If the technology works as we are designing it, we will not have much trouble selling it,” Combet said. “It’s more likely we’ll have concerns about the production rate. Fifteen per year is not enough. We have been contacted by potential customer for 10s of models.”
CNIM has built a 1:1 model of the Stratobus pod and support structure. Credit: CNIM
Stratobus measures 140 meters in length, with a diameter of 30 meters. It is designed to remain steadily in place, even in relatively high wind, for up to a year at 18-20 kilometers in altitude before being brought down for what’s expected to be minor maintenance.
After five years, major maintenance work is performed before it is ready for another five-year duty cycle.
The briefing here covered the steps Stratobus designers are taking to mitigate the wear and tear expected from exposure to ozone and ultraviolet rays at that altitude. “Ozone is bad, UV is bad. Together, they are worse,” Combet said.
The Stratobus team is involved in French and European preparations for the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19), scheduled to start in October. Organized every four years by the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), this year’s conference features HAPS radio frequency allocation as a major topic.
Combet said Stratobus’s early market is surveillance, not telecommunications, because the designers want to gradually increase its flight envelope for the first units, which would be difficult to accept for a telecom customer.
“We have to centers of focus on the regulatory side,” Combet said. “One is the ITU for frequencies, which is important to us. The second is aeronautical regulations with the ICAO, and for EASA [the European Union Aviation Safety Agency].”
Stratobus certification by French and European civil-aviation authorities will not be done for the first demonstration model, but will be completed for operations of the first commercial Stratobus. HAPS platforms as yet do not benefit from a clear regulatory framework.

What was OneWeb thinking? Virgin Orbit lawsuit raises the question. Answers await OneWeb response

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson at June 2015 contract signing ceremony. Credit: Arianespace
UPDATE June 10: OneWeb Ltd. asked the District Court handling the Virgin Orbit lawsuit for an extension, to the close of business on Aug. 5, to respond to the Virgin Orbit allegations. OneWeb said Virgin Orbit had agreed to the extension.
PARIS — Virgin Orbit’s lawsuit against customer OneWeb seeks $46.3 million in termination damages and paints a picture of what must be one of the worst launch contracts ever agreed to by a satellite operator.
For a startup company like OneWeb to commit to 39 launches aboard startup Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket — at $6 million per launch carrying just one satellite each — and agree to hefty termination liabilities may be a reflection of OneWeb’s mid-2015 optimism after it raised an initial $500 million.
It may be related to Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson’s investment in OneWeb equity, which came at the same time.
Or it could be that OneWeb, despite evidence to the contrary, believed that paying $6 million to launch $1-million satellites would be a smart move if the commercial launch market supply collapsed.
The reverse has happened. The market is awash in new small-satellite launchers and veteran rockets seeking to appeal to the satellite constellation market. At $6 million apiece, Virgin Orbit’s launcher is at the upper end of the prevailing price range.
Or OneWeb might have thought, improbably, that Virgin Orbit could step in if Europe’s Arianespace launch provider could not deliver on its separate contract for 21 launches aboard Russia’s Soyuz rocket, with each launch carrying more than 30 satellites.
OneWeb had yet to speak for itself as of June 6. The Virgin lawsuit was filed June 4 in the New York Southern District Court. Virgin’s attorneys said June 6 they had served OneWeb a summons on June 4 that ordered a response to the lawsuit by June 25.
But even without direct OneWeb comment, the lawsuit reads like a long notice of buyer’s regret.
Four ‘Initial’ and 35 ‘Remaining’ launches, all of them firm
The OneWeb-Virgin Orbit contract was signed in May 2015. The Virgin Orbit complaint says the deal included unusual contract language separating four “Initial Firm Launches” and 35 “Remaining Firm Launches,” for a total of $234 million.
The contract included options for another 100 launches.
The four Initial Firm Launches were to occur between July and December 2017. The 35 Remaining Firm Launches were scheduled to occur between April and September 2018.
Why OneWeb would commit to so many Virgin Orbit launches in 2017 and 2018, with strict termination penalties, is unclear. The company’s primary interest in 2015 was getting funding to build 900 satellites, later reduced to 650, and putting them into orbit as soon as possible.
LauncherOne was never going to be more than means of replacing defective or retired OneWeb satellites as needed, well after the initial constellation was in orbit.
At the time, Virgin had expected to start operations of its LauncherOne system in 2017. OneWeb had expected its first launches with Arianespace in 2017.
OneWeb has fallen behind schedule and launched an initial six satellites, on an Arianespace-provided Europeanized Soyuz, in February. VirginOrbit has yet to make an inaugural flight but has said it should occur this year.
The OneWeb-Virgin Orbit contract included high termination penalties that the two companies subsequently negotiated down to a total of $70 million if OneWeb cancelled the “remaining Firm Launches” deal.
Virgin Orbit said that starting in 2017 OneWeb began asking for a renegotiated contract to lower per-launch cost and reduce the total launches to be conducted. OneWeb also wanted to stretch out the launch dates under the contract.
The lawsuit makes no mention of whether OneWeb’s contract obligations to Virgin Orbit were subject to Virgin Orbit’s being operational in 2017 or 2018.
The lawsuit refers to multiple rounds of identical negotiations: OneWeb pleads that its investors would not accept such high termination liabilities, Virgin Orbit softens the terms. Then OneWeb returns asking for another reduction, and Virgin agrees again.
OneWeb cancelled the Remaining Firm Launches contract on June 14, 2018, but left the initial four-launch contract intact.
Virgin Orbit said OneWeb had already paid $26.25 million for the Remaining Future Launches, but interest and late-payment fees added to the $70 million termination penalty mean OneWeb still owes $46.3 million. The lawsuit says OneWeb “does not dispute” the $70-million liability.
The launch-service provider said its contract allows it to cancel the first four launches unless the current payment dispute is resolved. It has not yet decided to do so.

NanoAvionics gets ESA, EU funds to test intersatellite-link enabled IoT/M2M constellation

NanoAvionics Chief Executive Vytenis J. Buzas. Credit: NanoAvionics
PARIS — A consortium led by cubesat mission integrator NanoAvionics and including satellite ground network operator Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSat) and Antwerp Space has won a 10-million-euro ($11.2 million) European Commission grant to build 2-3 satellites to test a global IoT/M2M constellation for third-party service operators.
The NanoAvionics business is to offer to IoT operators a satellite infrastructure that would host payloads for several networks, a “constellation as a service” model that reflects a recent smallsat industry trend toward separating constellation operations from service provision.
Lithuania-based NanoAvionics is majority-owned by AST&Science of Miami, whose founder is Abel Avellan, who founded maritime connectivity and entertainment provider EMC before it was sold, for $550 million, to aero and maritime connectivity provider Global Eagle Entertainment.
AST&Science, which purchased a majority stake in NanoAvionics in March 2018, launched its first satellite, BlueWalker 1, in April aboard India’s PLSV rocket. The satellite, a technology demonstrator, is reported healthy in low Earth orbit.
NanoAvionics has launched two of its own cubesats, and has tested a non-polluting liquid chemical propellant that it says is in line with European Space Agency (ESA) and European Union regulations on in-space propulsion.
NanoAvionics previously had raised 4.5 million euros in four funding rounds, with most of the money in the form of grants from European Union agencies including the EU Executive Agency for SMEs, or small- and medium-size companies.
The latest funding round of 10 million euros is 45% from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research program, 25% from ESA’s ARTES technology program and 30% from private investors including NanoAvionics. The company declined to identify the other private investors.
In a written response to Space Intel Report questions, NanoAvionics said the funds would be used to launch 2-3 satellites, each weighing 16-34 kilograms, into a 450-600-kilometer low Earth orbit. The launch could occur as soon as late 2020.
Testing of the M6P cubesat bus. Credit: NanoAvionics
The company envisions a full constellation of 72 satellites for global coverage and fast response time to customers that could be launched in 2023 if market response shapes up as the company hopes.
NanoAvionics said the full constellation, based on its M6P bus, is expected to cost around 250 million euros to place into orbit. Each satellite would have up to 10U of payload volume for different IoT/M2M customers.
NanoAvionics would finance this by selling capacity to IoT/M2M service operators, several of which could place payloads on the NanoAvionics constellation and sign service-level agreements.
In addition to green propulsion, the NanoAvionics constellation is designed to employ inter-satellite links both among its satellites and between them and larger satellites in geostationary orbit operated by the established fleet operators.
Antwerp Space of Belgium, a subsidiary of European satellite systems prime contractor OHB SE of Germany, has developed a Ka-band inter-satellite-communications transceiver designed for cubesats.
“Each nan-satellite will be capable of communicating with GEO satellites,” NanoAvionics said. “NanoAvionics is negotiating with the five largest commercial GEO suppliers about relaying data via their satellites to areas where no ground stations are available, such as over the oceans.”
Direct communications from the IoT/M2M constellation to users would occur through KSAT’s global ground-station network of 180 antennas at 21 locations.
NanoAvionics Chief Executive Vytenis J. Buzas acknowledged that multiple IoT/M2M projects have been formed in the past several years. But “there is a clear lack of the satellite and ground infrastructure that is required for generating downstream revenue for an IoT market expected to reach $3.21 billion by 2023.”
Asked to explain the key differentiator in the NanoAvionics approach, the company said:
“The main advantage over other constellations will be the real-time connectivity due to the connection with GEO satellites, the geometrical shaped formation of the constellation, meaning equal distance between the nano-satellites enabled by the on-board propulsion and the inclusion of an existing network of ground stations provided by KSAT. Without the network of ground stations and GEO connectivity, constellations can only store and forward the date, leading to a time delay.”
Frank Zeppenfeldt of ESA’s ARTES unit said the ESA support “will fund the development of the inter-satellite link from smaller satellites in LEO to commercial GEO communication satellites and will demonstrate low-cost data-relay services.”

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