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Microsoft and SpaceX ramp up satellite cloud access

With SpaceX’s help, Microsoft is taking the next step toward merging cloud computing with available-anywhere satellite connectivity.

Today Microsoft announced the start of a private preview for Azure Orbital Cloud Access, which lets users link up with the cloud in a single hop from virtually anywhere via SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.

For now, the preview is limited to Microsoft Azure’s government customers. But Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft strategic missions and technologies, said “we are currently working toward general availability and commercial expansion.”

“That timeline will be determined by the evolution of our work with our private preview customers and customer feedback,” Zander told GeekWire in an emailed response to questions.

Today’s announcement, timed to coincide with the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, comes nearly two years after Microsoft announced that it was teaming up with SpaceX on satellite cloud access.

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Satellites plus cellphones add up to a new frontier

Today’s big iPhone reveal adds Apple to the list of companies aiming to combine the power of satellite communications with the power of everyday cellphones — a list that includes other tech heavyweights such as T-Mobile and SpaceX, Amazon and Verizon, OneWeb and AT&T. Also on the list: a startup that’s carving out a niche on the satellite-cellular frontier.

“We’re years ahead of anybody else, and so we’re in a great position,” said Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Virginia-based Lynk. “We’ve been talking for a while about what a huge business this is, and a bunch of other companies are now starting to wake up.”

Specialized satellite phones have been around for decades, but the new crop of space-based telecom services is meant to make use of the billions of smartphones that are produced for the general market.

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SpaceX will build new satellites to boost T-Mobile’s signal

T-Mobile subscribers will be getting a satellite upgrade to their wireless service, thanks to a newly announced partnership that takes advantage of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

But don’t expect to start streaming high-definition videos via satellite to your T-Mobile connected devices immediately: The beta version of Starlink’s broadband boost is due to roll out in select areas by the end of next year, after a series of SpaceX satellite launches.

That rollout will begin with text messaging, including SMS, MMS and messaging apps. Voice and data coverage will come later.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laid out the details behind the deal today during a live presentation at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas.

Sievert said the partnership calls for creating a new network, composed of Starlink satellites that can use T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. He said the vast majority of smartphones already on its network would be compatible with the new satellite-plus-cellular service.

“You can connect with your existing phone,” Sievert promised. He said he expected to include the Starlink-enabled service free with T-Mobile’s most popular plans. With less popular plans, a monthly fee might be charged, he said.

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T-Mobile and SpaceX strike Starlink connectivity deal

The CEOs of SpaceX and T-Mobile will join forces to reveal how their companies will work together to increase wireless connectivity.

Details about the announcement, set to be live-streamed at 7 p.m. CT (5 p.m. PT) Aug. 25 from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas, haven’t been made public. But the plan seems likely to involve using SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and T-Mobile’s cellular network to boost subscribers’ access and both companies’ fortunes.

“This is something special,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet.

Mike Sievert, the CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile, will join Musk for the presentation on YouTube.

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Old satellites could get a new lease on life via the cloud

What do you do with an aging weather satellite? If you’re the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you turn to Microsoft Azure and a Seattle-area startup called Xplore to find out if there’s a cheaper way to keep it going.

After a yearlong demonstration project, the three partners determined that there is a way, thanks to cloud computing and cloud-based mission control software.

“Our work with NOAA and Xplore is driving innovation to virtualize satellite ground station operations in the cloud,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me. “And this is empowering agencies to tap into the newest commercial technologies and unlock new levels of resiliency and global capacity for critical mission operations.”

The demonstration — conducted under the terms of a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA for short — showed that cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, NOAA-18, in a way that met NOAA’s specifications.

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NASA funds big ideas from small businesses

How do you keep moondust from gumming up the works in NASA’s future spacesuits and spacecraft? That’s one of the issues addressed in the latest batch of projects backed by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

“NASA is working on ambitious, groundbreaking missions that require innovative solutions from a variety of sources – especially our small businesses,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a news release. “Small businesses have the creative edge and expertise needed to help our agency solve our common and complex challenges, and they are crucial to maintaining NASA’s leadership in space.”

Four SBIR research contracts will go to Washington state companies. And two of those contracts are going to Everett-based Off Planet Research. One Off Planet project focuses on the development of a flexible fiber seal that will hold up in dusty environments.

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NRO strikes multibillion-dollar deals for satellite images

Three satellite imaging companies are in line to receive billions of dollars from the National Reconnaissance Office over the next decade, thanks to a string of contracts announced today.

The companies are the same satellite operators who won study contracts from the NRO three years ago: BlackSkyMaxar Technologies and Planet.

BlackSky, which got its start in Seattle and is now headquartered in Virginia, says its contract for Electro-Optical Commercial Layer imagery sets up a five-year base subscription with a starting value of $85.5 million, plus options to extend the contract to 10 years. If all options are exercised, total contract value would be $1.021 billion.

Colorado-based Maxar, which was the first to provide commercial satellite imagery to the NRO, would be paid $300 million per year for the first five years, plus options for $1.74 billion in the following five years. Total potential value would be $3.24 billion. California-based Planet didn’t disclose the value of its contract.

BlackSky’s stock nearly doubled in value today, ending the trading session at $2.33 per share. Maxar’s share price rose almost 18% to close at $28.86. Meanwhile, Planet’s stock was up 14%, finishing up at $5.73.

Frequently updated commercial imaging has proven its value to the U.S. intelligence community in crises such as the war in Ukraine. The NRO said today’s deals represent the agency’s largest-ever commercial imagery contract effort.

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Spaceflight’s latest orbital tug debuts on SpaceX launch

A new type of controllable orbital transfer vehicle built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. made its debut today when SpaceX sent dozens of satellites into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission, which is part of the company’s rideshare program, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:35 p.m. ET (11:35 a.m. PT):to send 59 small spacecraft to space. Minutes after stage separation, the Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster made a rare land-based touchdown at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, not far from the launch site.

The piggyback spacecraft were to be deployed from the rocket’s upper stage into low Earth orbit, or LEO, over the course of a little more than an hour. One of those spacecraft is Spaceflight’s Sherpa-AC1, the latest in the company’s line of Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles, also known as space tugs.

Sherpa tugs are designed to go out from their launch vehicles and deliver an assortment of small satellites to different orbits. The tugs can also carry hosted payloads, which do their thing while remaining attached to the tug.

The Sherpa-AC adds capabilities for attitude control (hence the “AC”) and tracking. An onboard flight computer keeps track of the tug’s location in space, and a command and control system can keep the spacecraft pointed in the right direction. There’s also a two-way communication system, an electrical power system and a basic thermal control system.

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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.