Category: Ground Segment

Speedcast’s Beylier on M&A ‘speeding ticket,’ Carnival contract issue, uneven bandwidth availability and IoT

P.J. Beylier. Credit: Speedcast and WTA
PARIS — Satellite services provider Speedcast has had a rough few months. The delayed rebound of the energy markets and a technical glitch in the ramp-up of its large Carnival Cruise contract, among other issues, caused a 65% drop in its stock price since late June: http://bit.ly/2ZqQbxF
Chief Executive P.J. Beylier survived a board shakeup that resulted in the departure of its chief financial officer and is now charged with turning a showcase M&A company into one focused on organic growth.
Beylier addressed these issues Sept. 10 during Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week. Here are excerpts from his remarks.
Why remain a publicly traded company?
“We have been publicly listed for five years. The first four years have been fantastic. The past 12 months have been painful. Other companies in this sector have gone through that. We’re not the only one.
“We decided five years ago to list. At that time it was opportunistic more than anything else. I think it has been good for us. With respect to the last 12 months, when you look at what happened, the situation with energy where we are expecting it to start recovering, there is an overreaction and the snowball effect of the public markets.
“Some of the pain was self-inflicted. We made some mistakes. Now we are very focused on organic growth, getting our systems and processes where they need to be. We’ve grown a lot, very quickly, integrating all the different companies. We’re getting a speeding ticket. Now we’re focusing on furthering integration. But we are excited and convinced about the power of the platform that we have been building over the last five years.
“The company is solid and we have capabilities that are second to none in the industry and we are in a very strong position to generate organic growth above what the market will achieve in the coming next ew years. We’re very focused on that and going through the pain but that is part of the experience.”
Speedcast provided a record 3.174 Gbps of throughput to the Carnival Horizon ship during the ship’s inauguration in 2018. But it was provided by several satellites while the ship was in New York harbor and is not reflective of average bandwidth available. Credit: Carnival
What happened with the Carnival Cruise contract that caused costs to rise?
“It’s an issue we will all be facing as an industry. We are a little bit ahead of the pack. To bring the level of bandwidth that our customers need, and the price points they expect, we need to go beyond what we have done in the past in the type of capacity we are using.
“We need the ability to go through a maximum number of options. On a cruise ship, we need to be able to use C-band, Ku-band and Ka-band. To do that we are using tri-band antennas, and there are some teething issues with that. They work on some Ka-band satellites but not as well on others.
“As we are fixing some of these communications it has led us to use higher-cost Ku-band capacity instead of the Ka- band we wanted to use. But we’re getting there.”
Despite all the new capacity coming into the market, you have difficulty duplicating the 1-Gbps-level bandwidth in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean during the trans-Atlantic passage?
Today we are serving ships with 4,000 to 8,000 people aboard, and 400-500 Mbps is becoming common. That is far from enough, because when I say 400-500 mbps this is adding both directions — so maybe 200 Mbps down.
We think this 500 Mbps will become a gigabit, or a gigabit and a half, and 2 gbps potentially. Today we are facing some limits to that. We have delivered 3.2 gigabit to one cruise ship, but this was using different satellites and to a place where we could use different satellites. [New York City harbor]
We are going to be faced with a situation where we can deliver a gigabit to a ship in the Caribbean, but we cannot deliver that 1 gigabit when that ship crosses the Atlantic to go to the Mediterranean. So there are regions where we have access to significant capacity, and there is more coming, and there are regions where we are lacking capacity.
So yes, there is a lot of capacity coming. But it’s not a homogenous picture. there are differences from region to region and frequency to frequency.
When you say a lack of capacity, do you mean there is no capacity available or that it’s too expensive?
Both. Over the crossing we have issues with the amount of capacity available and we have a price issue.
Do you see a long-term need to continue to use C-, Ku- and Ka-band, plus L-band?
We still use a lot of C-band and we would like to continue to use C-band. We have customers who want 99.97% availability for critical applications and we can achieve that only with C-band spectrum. L-band works as well but it’s not the same amount of bandwidth.
I could see customers dividing applications, with noncritical applications going to Ku and Ka and the more critical ones staying with C-band. We are very agnostic in terms of spectrum. For customers who need a lot of spectrum we need Ku-band and probably Ka-band as well to get to that price point.
So I think you will continue to see us using those three spectrums, L-band as a backup as a troubleshooting when things are down.
Our mission is not to fill assets in the sky. It is to satisfy the customer. We are dealing more and more with hybrid networks, with LTE, and in dozens of key ports, big wireless radio hubs so that when the ship is in port, where they may not be able to use the satellite, depending on the regulation, they have connectivity.
You reported having 20,000 IoT devices under contract. Is that a growth area?
We are seeing growth in IoT, meaning narrowband applications. For years we have been talking about more and more megabits, but there is a significant opportunity in IoT for narrowband to connect a growing number of objects.
What is the ARPU for your IoT business?
Let’s assume it is around $10 per month per device.
What’s your latest thinking about whether new flat-panel antennas will be a growth driver for your markets?
In cruise, flat panel is not key, nor is it for energy and offshore. But it could be interesting for commercial shipping and yachts with 60-cm antennas. Current antennas are complex to install, configure and maintain. The idea of an antenna that you throw on the ship with no maintenance because there are no mechanical parts is a game changer.
The same is true for land mobility. Having a small, low-cost antenna that we can install on various assets that move around with a decent amount of bandwidth Government, NGOs and the UN could use this too. That could be very interesting.

China’s IAC attendance, Galileo’s 7-day outage, ESA’s future budget: Jean-Yves Le Gall updates all three

UPDATE Sept. 17: This story was updated to reflect the European GSA’s comment on the Galileo outage and board of inquiry.
PARIS — U.S. visas for Chinese nationals seeking to attend the October International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, July’s seven-day outage of Europe’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing system and the upcoming European Space Agency (ESA) conference to set multi-year budget and program priorities were among the subjects addressed by Jean-Yves Le Gall.
Le Gall is president of the French space agency, CNES, which is ESA’s largest contributor. He is also chairman of the ESA council, which is preparing the Nov. 27-28 ESA ministerial conference in Spain, and chairman of he board of the European GNSS Agency, GSA, which manages Galileo.
International Astronautical Congress aims for 10,000 — how many Chinese?
He is also president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), which organizes the annual IAC conference, which is perhaps the biggest space-sector meeting of the year.
Le Gall said he bet NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine that this year’s IAC, scheduled for Oct. 21-25, would surpass the 10,000-registrant market.
Some 4,330 abstract proposals were submitted.
But this year’s meeting comes at a time of rising tensions between the United States and China. How many Chinese papers will be presented, and how many Chinese will arrive in Washington, will depend on the U.S. State Department’s visa requirements.
“We have sent several messages to the U.S. administration” about the visa issue, Le Gall said. “At this point I have no information of any difficulties in getting visas. I cannot predict what will happen between now and the end of October, but at this point our Chinese colleagues have not had problems with visas.”
Galileo July outage: Still no word on root cause
Galileo service shut down on July 11 and took seven days to recover following an unspecified anomaly at one of its two main ground stations: http://bit.ly/2XOqcQ9
Two months later, the board of inquiry established to determine the cause of the problem and prevent its recurrence has still not rendered its conclusions, Le Gall said. He declined to discuss what happened until the inquiry is terminated.
“There are two ground stations, and while one was undergoing maintenance, the other had a problem,” he said.
The GSA said on July 19, after service was restored, that the issue was related to an anomaly in “the calculation of time and orbit predictions, which are used to compute the navigation message. The technical incident affected different elements of the ground facilities.”
Le Gall conceded that communication about the event fell short. A system managed by three organizations — the European Commission as owner, the GSA as operator and ESA as technical lead — makes it difficult to coordinate communications.
In a Sept. 17 response to Space Intel Report inquiries, the GSA said:
“Further to the Galileo technical incident in July 2019, the European Commission set up an independent Inquiry Board to investigate the incident and provide recommendations for the future. The first meeting of the Inquiry Board took place on 5 September 2019. Preliminary recommendations are expected in October, with the final recommendations by the end of 2019.”
ESA ministerial: 14-plus billion euros, if all goes well
Le Gall said ESA’s 22 member governments are still determining their level of space spending for the next three years even as they debate with each other how much ESA’s new budget should be.
One reason for optimism, Le Gall said, is that the usual push-me, pull-you between the agency’s two biggest members, France and Germany, has become less contentious. He agreed there are still points of disagreement on spending details, but said 80%-90% of the issues have been resolved between the two nations. The current proposed total spending, including payments from the European Commission, Eumetsat and others, is about 14.25 billion euros ($16.2 billion).
ESA’s current budget proposal, subject to change, is that its general operating budget, couple with its mandatory-contribution science program, be financed at 4.3 billion euros for the three years starting in 2021.
Exploration would receive nearly 2 billion euros for Europe’s role in the International Space Station and future exploration missions.
An ESA budget line relating to industrial competitiveness in satellites would receive 2.4 billion euros, mainly for Earth observation and telecommunications-related spending.
Launch services: How and how much to compensate for market decline?
That leaves the “access to space” budget line, which includes work on the future Ariane 6 heavy-lift and Vega C light launchers, and technology investment into future launcher technologies including a possibly reusable rocket first stage.
Le Gall said this budget has been tentatively set at slightly more than 2.6 billion euros. He did not provide a breakdown of the different spending categories.
One of the potentially contentious budget lines will be to compensate industry —- ArianeGroup, OHB SE, Avio SpA, Ruag and others — for the collapse of the market for large telecommunications satellites.
This market may or may not be rebounding but has been the life blood for Europe’s Arianespace launch service provider over the past 40 years.
How, and by how much, to mitigate the the impact of this market development on Europe’s launcher sector is almost certain to be an issue at the ministerial conference.

Sky and Space Global begins 10-day road show to secure crucial investor backing

Credit: Sky and Space Global
PARIS — Startup satellite IoT/M2M provider Sky and Space Global (SAS) has begun a 10-day road show in Asia and Australia to make a do-or-die case to investors to fund new satellites that the company says will carry it to recurring revenue.
In its latest presentation, SAS asks investors to see it as occupying a sweet spot between other satellite operators, narrowband and broadband, some of which are themselves in startup phase and looking for financing.
Credit: Sky and Space Global
SAS is asking shareholders to purchase 1.5 billion new shares, at 1 Australian cent each, to raise 15 million Australian dollars ($10.5 million): http://bit.ly/342vUlA
As of Sept. 13, SAS had a market capitalization of 61 million Australian dollars, with 2.1 billion shares held by 9,400 shareholders.
The funds will be used to pay satellite manufacture GomSpace of Denmark and Sweden to build eight 6U cubesats to be launched in time to begin revenue generation in late 2020. These satellites will use an inclination to provide coverage between 60 degrees North and 60 degrees South latitude.
These satellites then will be complemented by SAS’s larger 3U constellation in equatorial orbit that will focus on the company’s core equatorial markets. The first three of these satellites have been in orbit since 2017.
Credit: Sky and Space Global
SAS said it had signed agreements with more than 50 customers, “providing material revenue opportunity once first commercial satellites launched.”

Hughes: Early data shows $150-$200/month revenue from community Wi-Fi in South America, Africa, Russia

Credit: Hughes Network Systems
PARIS — Satellite broadband hardware and service provider Hughes Network Systems’ early experience with rural Wi-Fi in South America, Africa and Russia has shown that each installation generates, on average, monthly revenue equivalent to two U.S. fixed broadband subscribers.
Hughes Chief Executive Pradman P. Kaul said it was too soon to say whether this figure would hold up as Hughes expands its community-Wi-Fi service, but that the early results show each installation producing $150-$200 per month.
“Community wifi is exciting for markets to address people who can only afford $5-$10 per month by combing them to get ARPUs of $150-$200 per month,” Kaul said here Sept. 10 during Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week.
“This represents our initial experiences in these countries. It varies from country to country, but that is the general ballpark. I think it is sustainable. We’ll learn a lot more in a year or two. But it is a number that is standing up right now.”
One industry official familiar with community Wi-Fi in Mexico said that in some cases it can return $500 a month in gross revenue, but that a provider like Hughes or its U.S. competitor, Viasat Inc., will take home no more than half of that or less after paying local partners and what this official said is often-onerous government license fees.
Another industry official with experience in Brazil agreed. “Some governments, and Brazil is one of them, talk about universal access to broadband but then make it difficult for a service provider to make it a profitable business,” said this official, who does not work for Hughes or Viasat.
Hughes has said that a community-Wi-Fi terminal typically needs to have a capacity of up to several hundred Mbps to afford download speeds of 10 Mbps or more per user. Each Wi-Fi unit can cover a 500-meter area, depending on the local geography.
Hughes’s Russian partner, KB Iskra, has installed high-power Wi-Fi access points to provide coverage of more than 1,000 meters from the terminal, enough for an entire small village.
“Typically, each VSAT supports 20 to 30 subscribers, each paying on average 50% less each month than individuals with home-based service in urban areas, thanks to the cost-sharing model. The company has installed more than 600 shared VSATs, and now provides affordable service to almost 20,000 regular Wi-Fi users who would have otherwise remained unconnected,” Hughes said of the KB Iskra experience in eastern Russia.

British military announces competition for Skynet 6 operations without a Skynet 6 program, adds SigInt to a proposed radar constellation

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. Credit: Wikimedia
PARIS — The British Defence Ministry has added signals intelligence to the payload it wants on a future high-resolution radar intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system.
Given the political turmoil in Britain, whether the multi-satellite system will be contracted anytime soon is unknown. But the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), an arm of the Defence Ministry, has awarded Airbus Defence and Space a contract to design cluster of satellites to carry both a synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) and radio-frequency collection payload.
“This addition to our capability is a valuable part of the future of Defence Space. Partnership between DSTL and Airbus on this project secures UK jobs as well as continuing to exploit advances in the UK space sector.”
The project, called Oberon, is intended to enable Airbus to produce a demonstration payload in 2022, with an operational system “as early as 2025,” Airbus said in a Sept. 11 statement.
Colin Paynter. Credit: Airbus
“Project Oberon builds on Airbus’s expertise in space radar technology developed over 40 years,” said Colin Paynter, managing director of Airbus Defence and Space UK. “I look forward to seeing this study leading to a new world-class surveillance capability for the UK MOD, helping to protect our armed forces across the world.”
The UK military’s interest in a radar system, which it does not currently have, has been known for some time. Airbus and is subsidiary, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), in 2018 launched the NovaSAR satellite, which has been used by British defense authorities to test a future operational system of several satellites.
But the signals-intelligence payload appears new. It follows the launch this year of the first spacecraft for two commercial SigInt systems, Hawkeye 360 in the United States and Unseenlabs in France. Both companies view the military market as among their most promising.
Also on the British Defence Ministry’s agenda is what to do about the next-generation milsatcom system, Skynet 6. Airbus’s multi-year contract to manage the current four-satellite Skynet 5 network expires in 2022, and the ministry has said it wanted a competition for the follow-on contract.
That is what Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced Sept. 11.
In a speech to the DSEI conference, Wallace said:
“Fifty years ago Britain put its first satellite, Skynet 1, in space. Today we’re having to deal with increasing threats to satellite-based navigation. So the need for robust communications has never been more vital.
“That’s why we’re developing Skynet 6, which will give our forces unparalleled capacity to talk to each other in any hostile environment. And I can announce the launch of a new competition for an industry partner to operate and manage the ground stations, infrastructure and technology involved in this program.”
It is unusual for a customer to announce a competition for a services contract before the hardware whose services are to be managed is decided. But that is the case here.
Airbus in 2017 was awarded a design contract for a single Skynet 6A satellite, which was supposed to be a gap filler between the current Skynet 5 and the future Skynet 6 systems. But more than two years later, there is still no Skynet 6A construction contract, and British defense authorities remain undecided on what the full Skynet 6 system will look like — a partnership with private industry, as in Skynet 5; a conventional procurement of hardware to be operate by the ministry, as seemed to be the ministry’s priority; a defense payload on a satellite system built in partnership — no decision has been made.
Still, Airbus made the best of the Wallace statement.
“We welcome today’s announcement from the UK MOD that they are looking for a supplier to provide the next-generation secure milsatcom service as part of the Skynet 6 military satellite program,” said Richard Franklin, head of secure communications at Airbus. 
“Airbus has an outstanding track record of being the pioneer of secure milsatcoms within a commercial framework – having provided the UK MOD and its allies with resilient and secure milsatcom services and support for more than 15 years under the Skynet 5 program. 
“As well as taking the technical, commercial and financial risk, on behalf of the MOD, we have developed the system from two Skynet 5 satellites to a fleet of four providing near global coverage when combined with the previous Skynet 4 generation spacecraft.  Airbus operates and manages services for a fleet of seven spacecraft giving the MOD access to the most secure satcom services in the world enabling operational effectiveness. A capability which will endure far beyond the contractual end date offering outstanding value for money.”

Fleet Space’s $7.35M Series A round to help double work force, add capacity to meet existing customer IoT demand

Fleet Space CEO and Co-Founder Flavia Tata Nardini. Credit: Fleet Space
PARIS — Startup satellite IoT/M2M service provider Fleet Space of Australia has raised $7.35 million in Series A financing from venture-capital investors and will use it to double its work force and meet the demand from the 2 million LoRaWAN devices on Fleet’s waiting list as part of its Project Galaxy.
The company is offering service to devices at $10 per device per year. It is already servicing 1 million.
Fleet’s Series A of 10.8 million Australian dollars followed an earlier round of 5 million Australian dollars that was matched by the government of South Australia.
The Series A included returning investors Grock Ventures and Blackbird Ventures, plus Horizon Partners, Momenta Ventures and the Kennard family, which owns the Kennards Hire company, a Fleet customer.
Fleet launched four cubesats in 2018 and has already begun generating revenue.
Fleet Chief Executive and Co-Founder Flavia Tata Nardini addressed questions about where the company is now and where it’s going.
What is the status of your four satellites launched in 2018?
In the fall of 2018 we launched four satellites with RocketLab, SpaceX and Antrix [the commercial arm of India’s space agency]. They’re currently in orbit and they have achieved the main goals of their mission.
What is their expected operational life?
We expect our satellites to have a commercial lifespan of more than 3 years. Fleet is implementing more robust technologies in the main bus and in the payload but the goal of the satellite program is still progressing the satellite design to point that mass production is feasible.
What is the orbit of the current satellites?
The first four satellites that we launched in 2018 are all low Earth orbit satellites, in SSO. Moving forward, we plan to launch several of them in mid-inclination.
This Series A round will finance what specific developments?
With our latest raise, our focus is to launch more satellites to meet the immense demand stemming from Project Galaxy earlier this year. We currently have 1 million new devices registered and 2 million on our waiting list. Our goal is to launch more satellites within the year and into 2020 in order to meet our large and growing demand.
Credit: Fleet Space
We also want to grow as a team. We’re currently a small team of 15 people. In order to best serve our customers, we need to grow. With the new funding, we hope to double the size of our team by the end of the year.
Who is the prime contractor for your satellites?
We are currently finalizing it and we will announce in the coming months
Are the next satellites recurrent models of the first four, or are the first four considered demonstrators?
The first four satellites we launched at the end of 2018 (Centauri I & II and Proxima I & II) had very specific missions, preparing us for our full constellation. These next satellites will be more powerful to cater to the enormous demand we’re experiencing. Moving forward, we’re planning to implement new technologies in the comms payload and in the bus to make the technology even more efficient.
What are the principle differences/improvements?
The next satellite design is targeting a bigger spacecraft and payload, integrating a new protocol and new antennas, mainly combining some of the IP that we have developed internally in the past years.
What is Fleet’s assessment of the size of the network needed to provide a sustainable commercial service?
There is a massive opportunity for our technology, the global IoT market is expected to surpass $1 trillion in 2022, through increased use of industrial sensors in manufacturing, transportation, and other industries – most of which we’re currently working with. 
Fleet’s first key innovation was creating an edge-computing system in the Portal on the ground that it is able to handle most of the real-time intelligence, compensating for the latency issues in LEO. So we are already generating revenue providing commercial service to customers and we are now investing in even more robustness, reliability and security in the coming years. Each satellite we add to the network improves the service and allows us to tackle new markets and applications.
With the recent raise, we not only want to fill the demand we currently have, but also enter new industries as the application of our technology is vast. 

Eurospace steps up effort for space sector exemption from EU waste database rules

Eurospace Secretary-General Pierre Lionnet. Credit: Eurospace
PARIS — Europe’s space industry association, ASD-Eurospace, is urging the European Commission to grant an exemption to a coming European Union waste-disposal policy that Eurospace says would force publication of sensitive space technologies.
The decision to create a task force to address the EU’s Waste Framework Directive comes nearly a year after Eurospace asked the commission to formally exempt the space sector from rules designed to reduce waste on EU territory.
Materials designed for launch do not produce such waste and should be exempted from the regulation, which was adopted by the EU in July 2018 and is scheduled to be ratified by individual EU governments by July 2020, Aerospace said.
“At the end of its service life, space systems typically burn in the atmosphere or are re-/de-rbited and never come back to Earth,” Eurospace said in its letter. Notwithstanding that, Eurospace said the EU directive’s language appears to include space items.
Eurospace said it received no response to its October 2018 letter asking for a legal clarification.
For Eurospace, the problem is that under the directive, suppliers of identified waste items are required to notify the European Chemicals Agency of the presence of chemicals covered by the EU’s REACH — Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals — regulations.
The agency then will publish a database on these operations that will be accessible to waste treatment operators.
Eurospace argued that the notification requirement is already of minimal relevance to the space sector. The regulation language orders notification if:
“the substance is present in those articles in quantities totaling over one tonne per producer or importer per year; or the substance is present in those articles above a concentration of 0.1% weight by weight” http://bit.ly/2lsL6Xs
The space industry is “a user of chemicals in very small volumes, compared to other industry sectors,” Eurospace said.
But the main issue is that publishing details of certain space missions may run counter to other accepted standards including the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) or export licenses granted European companies under the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). Several EU nations have their own versions of ITAR restrictions that would restrict publication of the data.
“Information disclosed to waste treatment operators on the space systems concerned may breach confidentiality requirements associated to sensitive technologies (such as those covered by MTCR, or required by such customers as French DGA e.g.) and/or associated to export licenses; e.g. granted under ITAR,” Eurospace Research Director and Secretary General Pierre Lionnet said in a statement.
“The European space sector has noted that complying with the notification requirement to the ECHA database may thus be challenging in many cases. Regardless, it is considered as pointless and out of scope of the Waste Framework Directive for space systems that will end their life in space and will never be treated by waste operators, for whom the ECHA database is intended. Eurospace will further elaborate on the related issues in its revised Position Paper, which is due to be released shortly.”
Industrial members of the task force are Airbus Defence and Space, ArianeGroup, MT Aerospace, OHB SE, Ruag, Tesat and Thales Alenia Space. The 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is an observer, as are the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the national space agencies of France (CNES), Germany (DLR) and Italy (ASI).
 

18 nations, 63 satellites deployed, 1 held prisoner: Spaceflight’s SSO-A exploit may be a one-off

Credit: Spaceflight Industries
LOGAN, Utah — Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay didn’t summit Everest again after their historic success, and small satellite launch integrator Spaceflight Industries outlined why it’s unlikely to repeat its 53-customer, 64-satellite SSO-A rideshare launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018.
Here’s just a few of the data points along the way:
— Two large microsats weighing 350 and 600 kilograms drove the design specifications for the Multi Payload Carrier, built by Airbus Defence and Space. But neither satellite ended up flying on SSO-A.
— Customers dropping out and others coming in, and other specific payload alternations forced 196 “dispositioned” changes and 88 versions of the coupled-loads-analysis model.
— Twenty-two revisions of the Visio document tracking the location of satellites and deployers identifying the customers, the ports they were using, their separation system or dispenser.
— Sixteen failure review boards.
— Seventy-five non-conformance reports, 42 product deviations and 57 waiver requests.
SSO-A was delayed for well over a year for different reasons, which was part of the reason for payloads moving in and out of the mission.
“We knew we were going to have customers that would be changing in and out. We didn’t quite anticipate as many as we did, Spaceflight Mission Director Jeffrey Roberts aid here at the SmallSat Conference. “We also learned that the manifest could change weekly, if not more often.
“Why did we have numerous delays? Some of those were due to things outside our control,” Roberts said, citing the September 2016 Falcon-9 on-paid failure and the busy schedule at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“With regards to customers, about half were hurting because they needed to get to orbit. The other half were breathing huge sighs of relief because they could actually get to orbit” because of the delays.
Astonishlngly, seven satellites failed to show up in time and missed the launch, Roberts and Spaceflight Chief Engineer Adam Hadaller said in a paper published for the conference: http://bit.ly/2KU9Lxa
Another was lost for a week at a shipping hub. Spaceflight’s advice: “Pay the extra money for tracking sensors.”
18 governments, 264 people integrating 64 satellites. Credit: Spaceflight Industries
More than 30 organizations were responsible for the 64 satellites that finally flew on SSO-A. Some 235 people submitted badge requests to Vandenberg for satellite integration, plus 29 Spaceflight personnel.
Eighteen governments were represented on the mission, including the United States. Some of these had sensitive payloads on board. Each customer got a three-by-five-meter screened-off integration space for a maximum of five people at a time.
Sixty-four satellites were integrated in 60 days.
Licensing issues multiplied. The final mission design included two free flyers, the Airbus-built one and a lower free flyer built by LoadPath. Spaceflight’s design required no uplinks to the free flyers’ avionics, which caused worry at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Future iterations will have uplinks.
Shipping lithium-ion batteries by road required Department of Transportation clearance.
“We all understand the U.S. licensing regime pretty well,” Roberts said. “But what’s the licensing process for Brazil, Switzerland, Thailand, Kazakhstan? We had to know. The FCC looked at and said: Make sure your customers have licensing before we give you yours. So we had to do some learning there.
“Export compliance, if done correctly, will allow foreign customers, US commercial customers and US government customers to all launch on the same mission. We had them all here.”
Shipping lithium-ion batteries by road required U.S. Department of Transportation clearance.
No license (or a late one) = no get-out-of-jail card
One customer’s satellite was loaded onto the SSO-A stack on the assumption of an immediate license, which came several days too late: Spaceflight sealed the satellite into its dispenser and was not deployed or operated.
“This is an unfortunate example of uncertain regulatory requirements for a unique customer,” Roberts and Hadaller said. “We integrated them with the condition that they had to show licensing. They didn’t, so we sealed the container.”
That left 63 satellites to deploy — 15 microsats and 49 cubesats. All of them deployed. Four did not function and never made contact with their owners.
Spaceflight has previously described some of the difficulties in identifying all the SSO-A satellites, and said some satellite owners have not registered with the U.S. Air Force Combined Space Operations Center, CSpOC, which in the absence of another international body acts as the de facto global space traffic management agency: http://bit.ly/2vopMnO
Roberts said that as of Aug. 1, 12 satellites, or 18% of the total, had still not self-reported to CSpOC. It’s an example of the limits of self-reporting and one reason why some industry representatives, including Spaceflight, do not oppose new regulations.
Credit: Spaceflight Industries
Four of the satellites that have not reported to CSpOC are non-functioning. Roberts said he talked to two other owners during this year’s SmallSat. As for the other six, they have declined to contact CSpOC “despite repeated attempts, emails, phone calls, messages and understanding before the mission.”
The bottom line for Spaceflight: It’s not ruling out another SSO-A-size mission, but there has to be a better way, and given the evolution of the smallsat launch sector, there is.
Keeping 50-plus customers on one mission is extremely hard, especially in this industry, where not a lot of the customers are very mature. They don’t understand the timelines. Some experience test failures and have to pull off.
“This was very difficult to maintain. That’s why Spaceflight is looking more at smaller rideshare missions, half a dozen, a dozen customers at a time using some of the newer vehicles that are coming to market. But we’re not against doing another SSOA-type mission. So if the market demands that, we know how to do it and we will do another mission at this level.”

UrtheCast looks to Deimos Imaging sale, new credit agreement this year to secure its future

Progress, but still many rivers to cross. Credit: UrtheCast Corp
UPDATE Sept. 12: UrtheCast said it secured financing to pay Land O’Lakes the $5 million due in October as the second of three tranches, totaling $20 million, for the GeoSys data-analytics acquisition from Land O’Lakes. The financing came in the form of convertible and non-convertible debentures with Vine Rose Ltd. and carries and an annual interest of 17%. In addition, UrtheCast paid a 3% fee of $150,000.
FREEPORT, Maine — Canadian Earth imagery and data analytics provider UrtheCast Corp. reported improved financial results for the three months ending June 30 but said its viability depends on finding new sources of financing and the sale of its Deimos Imaging subsidiary.
Vancouver-based UrtheCast said it has received non-binding expressions of interest from several prospective buyers of Deimos Imaging. Chief Executive Donald Osborne said in an investor call that he was optimistic about concluding a transaction “in the coming months.”
Deimos Imaging includes two satellites in orbit that provide much of UrtheCast’s current revenue, plus ground assets. The satellites are both operational but Deimos-1 was launched in 2009 with a 10-year design life, and Deimos-2 was launched in 2014 with a seven-year design life.
Deimos Imaging, now reported as a discontinued operation on UrtheCast’s books, generated 365,000 Canadian dollars ($279,000) in positive adjusted EBITDA for the three months, compared to a loss of 3.64 million a year ago.
UrtheCast said receipt of a delayed payment from a Deimos contract with the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA), combined with a sharp reduction in operating costs at Deimos, accounted for the change.
UrtheCast said it would be moving toward positive EBITDA this year, but it did not predict it would get there by then.
The company reported total revenue of 5.06 million Canadian dollars for the period, up from 1.5 million dollars a year ago. The operating loss was 3.2 million Canadian dollars, down from $4.3 million Canadian dollars a year ago.
Cash on hand as of June 30 was 2.94 million Canadian dollars, up from 1.4 million at Dec. 31, but less than what UrtheCast needs to grow its business by building and launching the UrtheDaily constellation of imaging satellites, with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Britain as prime contractor.
To fund that work, UrtheCast will need to secure new financing to replace the $142 million credit line that was terminated, by mutual agreement. The company said that delays in financing had already pushed the start of UrtheDaily operations to early 2022.
UrtheCast has booked more than $200 million in binding customer commitments for UrtheDaily data, sufficient to give the company confidence that it is on the right track.
UrtheCast’s purchase of the Geosys agricultural data-analytics business from Land O’ Lakes for $20 million will result in the company’s receiving Land O’ Lakes contracts totaling some $10 million per year.
UrtheCast made the first payment, of $5 million. A second payment of $5 million is due in October. Whether Land O’ Lakes will loosen the payment deadlines is unclear. UrtheCast Chief Financial Officer Sai Chu declined to speculate on that during the conference call.
The third and final Geosys payment, of $10 million, is due in April 2021.
The company’s $12 million loan from Bolzano Investments was amended in late June, increasing the interest rate to 17% from 14% and adding the Deimos assets as security.
A second Bolzano loan of $1.5 million, was concluded in June and a third, with Luna Ventures Inc., was concluded in July, for the same amount and with the same terms and conditions including 10.56 million in warrants for UrtheCast stock at 48 Canadian cents per share.

Viasat says can keep leverage down while R&D/capex remains high; Viasat-3 service 2-3 years out, but Viasat-4 design begins

Eating the R&D and capex and de-levering, too. Credit: Viasat
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Broadband satellite services and hardware provider Viasat Inc. said it can maintain enough profitable growth in its business to offset the R&D and other expenses that come with a never-ending investment cycle to produce ever-more-powerful satellites.
The rap on Viasat, and on its satellite broadband competitor, Hughes Network Systems, has been that as soon as they reach good profitability from an essentially fixed-cost infrastructure, they are obliged to dive into another expensive investment cycle.
That remains the case, and Viasat has already begun early designs for a Viasat-4 generation of satellites 2-3 years before the three-satellite Viasat-3 generation is scheduled to enter service. But Viasat on Aug. 8 reported a sharp drop in leverage as profitability more than offset spending. Net debt as of June 30, at 3.3 times EBITDA, was down from 5x a year ago. Adjusted EBITDA was up 115% from last year.
Takeaways from Viasat quarterly results issued Aug. 8:
— Consumer broadband subscriber base up only marginally, to 587,000, but ARPU is up 16%, to $84.26, from year ago.
— Despite Viasat-3-related R&D, EBITDA growth has reduced leverage from 5x EBITDA to 3.3x.
— Government Systems rev up 37%; backlog up13% to $879M, not including $1B-plus in IDIQ contracts.
— 1,335 commercial aircraft now use Viasat’s connectivity service, up 76% from a year ago, plus 510 under contract awaiting delivery.
— 46 Boeing 737 MAX planes installed with Viasat IFC gear, but grounded.
“In the mid-term, we expect net debt to grow with ongoing investments in ViaSat-3 space and ground infrastructure,” Viasat Chief Executive Mark D. Dankberg said. “But corresponding adjusted EBITDA growth can maintain prudent levels of net leverage.”
Investors take note: There is no capex holiday — ever — but that shouldn’t mean no return on the invested capital. So onward and upward to Viasat-4.
“We’ve now made enough progress on ViaSat-3 to begin designing and analyzing a ViaSat-4 follow-on, that could achieve similar or better relative productivity advances as ViaSat 1, 2 and 3 did in their time,” Dankberg said, exhibiting the engineer’s penchant for using the past tense for a program whose design is completed even if it’s years away from revenue generation.
Viasat President Richard A. Baldridge said R&D spending on Viasat-4 likely will be less than Viasat-3, and that Viasat-4 would be able to use the Viasat-3 ground infrastructure.
Credit: Viasat
Operators of geostationary-orbit satellites in the past three years have been bombarded with questions over whether their model isn’t outdated relative to the multiple, and multibillion-dollar, low-orbiting constellations being designed from OneWeb, Telesat, SpaceX and Amazon, among others.
Dankberg has detailed his view of broadband GEO satellites’ inherent advantages over global LEO systems: http://bit.ly/2H89lBp The question for Viasat is, first, whether these constellations will be built, and second, whether once built they can generate a sufficient investment return to please investors and finance, immediately, the capex needed to replace a short-lived LEO satellite network.
During the Aug. 8 call, Dankberg updated his thinking and his defense of the GEO satellite model.
“We haven’t seen any technical architecture under construction or even proposed that we believe is comparable in the geosynchronous satellite space,” Dankberg said. “There are some LEO regulatory filings with aggressive and innovative payload architectures. But we believe the ViaSat-3 architecture is the most scalable, considering long-term trends and payload device integration.”
Addressing the GEO latency issue, not with LEO, but with a terrestrial in-home complement
The one advantage LEO systems highlight over GEO is the lower latency from operating closer to Earth. How many applications require low latency, and the size of the markets willing to pay for it, remains a debate.
Dankberg said one way of addressing the latency issue is by combining a terrestrial link with a GEO satellite — “essentially putting a router in a user’s home that allows them to optimally combine satellite bandwidth with some terrestrial bandwidth.
“It’s not as fast as the satellite, but has lower latency. By combining those two, we can create the effect of high-speed, high-bandwidth, low latency communications,” he said. “We are aiming to expand market tests that offer low latency comparable to that expected for LEO systems — suitable for gaming, for instance — to more U.S. customers this fiscal year. With continued success, those technologies could also meaningfully increase our addressable markets in the U.S. and internationally.”
More generally, he said, LEO-orbit broadband systems will need to impose bandwidth-volume caps on their customers to assure sufficient capacity in a given area, or charge prices that Viasat thinks it can beat.
Viasat announced development of a new-generation dual Ku-/Ka-band aero antenna for wide body aircraft that had begun the process of getting certified for commercial use. The company’s goal is to have three Viasat-3 satellites in service — over the Americas, EMEA and the Asia-Pacific — by late 2022, allowing airlines to start planning now for how to use the network.
“For a number of [airlines], a large fraction of their seat-mile expectations are in areas where we have Ka-band, and the Ku provides continuity and basically the same level of service that you would get from any other kind service in those Ku- areas. There are some that are depending on the delivery date of new aircraft where the Ku-/Ka- is also interesting.”
Viasat is one of several companies working on a dual-band antenna that would give airlines reassurance that if a large Ka-band satellite were to fail — just as Intelsat’s 29e satellite failed after less than four years in service — the airlines could shift immediately to Ku-band capacity.

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