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Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Amazon makes a huge deal for satellite launches

Amazon has secured as many as 83 launches on three types of heavy-lift rockets to put more than 1,500 satellites into low Earth orbit for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation over the course of five years.

If Amazon follows through on all the reservations announced today, the campaign would carry a multibillion-dollar price tag and arguably represent the space industry’s largest launch procurement for a single commercial project.

“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said today in a news release. “This approach reduces risk associated with launch vehicle stand-downs and supports competitive long-term pricing for Amazon, producing cost savings that we can pass on to our customers.”

Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to offer satellite broadband internet service to tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved. The $10 billion project has been in the works for three years, and won the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead in 2020. But it’s considered far behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service, which is already available on a limited basis.

Like Starlink, Project Kuiper is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. More than 1,000 Amazon employees are currently working on Kuiper, and the project’s careers website lists more than 300 open positions.

Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices & Services, said Project Kuiper is making good progress. “We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system,” he said. “These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission.”

Twelve launch reservations have been made with Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Those launches would use Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is closing in on a first launch in 2023 or later. Amazon also has an option to buy up to 15 additional New Glenn launches.

Amazon has reserved another 38 launches on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is due to have its first liftoff as early as this year. Those missions would be in addition to nine previously reserved launches on ULA’s existing Atlas V rockets.

New Glenn and Vulcan are designed to lift off from separate launch complexes at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Arianespace has agreed to set aside 18 launches of its heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket, which is due to make its debut as early as this year at the European consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the launch contract with Amazon is “the largest we’ve ever signed.”

The FCC license requires Amazon to launch at least half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation by 2026, and today Amazon said its procurement plan should meet that schedule. That translates to more than 1,618 satellites, potentially launched by the nine Atlas V rockets and the rockets mentioned today.

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Kymeta and OneWeb strike deal on satellite broadband

Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp., the mobile connectivity company backed by Bill Gates, has signed a distribution partner agreement with OneWeb to offer satellite broadband services around the globe.

The agreement clears the way for Kymeta to resell OneWeb services in conjunction with fixed-site and mobile hardware solutions to government and commercial customers globally.

Today’s announcement comes as Kymeta sharpens its focus on commercial, government and military customers — and as OneWeb copes with challenges related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Just three months ago, the two companies agreed to adapt Kymeta’s u8 flat-panel antenna system to support communications with OneWeb’s satellite constellation in low Earth orbit, or LEO, with an eye toward bringing the system to market by the end of this year.

But that was before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, setting off a cascade of economic sanctions and broken business ties. Russia’s Soyuz rockets, which have launched all 428 of the OneWeb satellites currently in orbit, are no longer an option. This month, Russia canceled a scheduled launch and seized 36 of OneWeb’s satellites when the venture refused to change its British-Indian ownership structure and guarantee that the satellites wouldn’t be used for military purposes.

This week, OneWeb announced a deal to have future satellites launched on SpaceX’s rockets. That deal is unusual, because OneWeb’s broadband service is arguably a competitor for SpaceX’s Starlink service. Starlink is already available in selected markets — including Ukraine — while OneWeb hasn’t yet begun service.

In today’s announcement, Kymeta and OneWeb talked up the promise of satellite-based mobile connectivity.

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Bill Gates gives another boost to next-gen antennas

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is doing it again: He’s the lead investor in a new $84 million funding round for Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp., the mobile connectivity startup he helped foster a decade ago.

Kymeta says the fresh infusion of equity investment will be used to accelerate the production of its flat-panel antennas and set the stage for expanding its offerings for defense customers, as well as for users of satellite broadband services that are being offered from low Earth orbit.

The funding announced today follows up on an $85 million round that was also led by Gates in August 2020, as well as a $30 million investment that was made by South Korea’s Hanwha Systems just a few months afterward. Kymeta says Hanwha is also participating in the new round. All of the equity investments announced to date add up to nearly $400 million — with Gates playing a principal role ever since the company was spun out from Intellectual Ventures in 2012.

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Falling Starlink satellites highlight space traffic concerns

SpaceX says that most of the satellites it launched last week for its Starlink broadband internet constellation are doomed to fall from orbit due to a solar storm.

Based on the company’s analysis, as many as 40 of the 49 satellites — which were built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. — will plunge through the atmosphere and burn up. Some have already made the plunge.

“Ah, how I love the smell of burning satellites in the morning,” Marco Langbroek, a satellite consultant at Leiden University in the Netherlands, joked in a tweet.

In an update, SpaceX stressed that the falling satellites “pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground.”

Nevertheless, the satellite failures draw attention to the challenges raised by the rise of satellite mega-constellations, even as the Federal Communications Commission considers SpaceX’s proposal to launch nearly 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites into new orbital configurations.

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Astronomers set up center to save the sky from satellites

The International Astronomical Union is heading up the creation of a new center to deal with the complications created by broadband satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

The IAU Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky From Satellite Constellation Interference will be co-hosted at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab in Arizona and the SKA Observatory’s offices at Jodrell Bank in Britain.

“The new center is an important step towards ensuring that technological advances do not inadvertently impede our study and enjoyment of the sky,” IAU President Debra Elmegreen said today in a news release.

Former IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti, the center’s director, said the memorandum of understanding creating the center was signed just a day earlier, and a website for the project hasn’t yet been established.

But the University of Washington’s Institute for Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology, or DIRAC, is already getting a head start on one of the center’s missions — cataloging astronomical images with satellite streaks so they can be made available for analysis.

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Mangata raises $33M for hybrid satellite constellation

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Mangata Networks, a Phoenix-based startup with links to the Seattle area, has closed a $33 million investment round for an innovative kind of satellite constellation for connectivity and edge computing.

The company received its initial seed financing in 2020 from Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Science Fund, which was backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and IV’s co-founder, Nathan Myhrvold. Since then, that investment fund has morphed into a Bay Area venture capital fund known as MetaVC Partners or Meta Venture Partners.

The idea behind Mangata Networks is to create an Earth-orbiting constellation with some satellites in highly elliptical orbit, or HEO, plus others in medium Earth orbit, or MEO. Those satellites would optimize connectivity with an Earth-based system of MangataEdge micro data centers, extending the power of cloud computing to edge networks that would be close to network users.

The newly announced Series A round was led by Playground Global, which previously led Relativity Space’s $35 million Series B round in 2018. Other investors include Temasek, KTSat, Scottish Enterprise and Promus Ventures.

“We are out to change the world, and that requires visionary investors and partners,” Mangata CEO Brian Holz said today in a news release. “These investors, whose intercontinental representation reflects our own global mission, are championing a new evolution in human connectivity.”

Mangata aims to start deploying ground-based community networks as early as 2023, even before its first satellites are launched. That will give the company a chance to test connectivity for 5G, IoT and Wi-Fi networks at the 5G Open Innovation Lab in Bellevue as well as at other trial sites in South Korea and Scotland. (NASA, Intel and T-Mobile created the 5G Open Innovation Lab in 2020.)

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Amazon shows how satellites can fill broadband gaps

Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t yet launched a single satellite, but in a video released this week, it’s talking up what its broadband internet constellation will be able to do for rural connectivity.

The video focuses on unmet broadband needs in Cle Elum (pop. 2,037), a town nestled in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state.

“Quite a few people move out to this area because it’s gorgeous, but people are reluctant to open small businesses due to the lack of reliable internet,” Audrey Malek, founding partner of Basecamp Outfitters, says on camera.

The solution — at least according to MiMi Aung, senior manager at Project Kuiper — is the 3,236-satellite constellation that her team is planning to start testing in orbit as early as next year.

“Even just right here in our backyard, right outside Redmond, there are areas where there is no internet connection, or extraordinarily poor connection, and we can make a huge impact right away,” said Aung, who came to Amazon from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she headed up the team behind the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

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Kymeta and OneWeb move ahead with satellite terminals

Kymeta Corp., the antenna venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has signed onto a joint development agreement with OneWeb to develop a flat-panel user terminal for OneWeb’s global satellite internet network.

The plan calls for modifying Kymeta’s u8 antenna system for fixed-terminal applications on land, with an eye toward supporting additional applications including mobile service in land-based and maritime settings.

Today’s announcement comes just weeks after Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta and OneWeb reported a successful test of Kymeta’s u8 technology, which takes advantage of an exotic category of electronics known as metamaterials. The technology makes it possible to “steer” an antenna electronically rather than physically moving it.

OneWeb is one of several ventures that is creating satellite constellations in low Earth orbit, or LEO, to broaden access to broadband internet service. SpaceX’s Starlink service is furthest along, but OneWeb is planning to begin limited service in the Arctic within the next few months. The plan calls for Kymeta’s terminals to enter the market as an option by the third quarter of 2022.