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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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Astra and LeoStella make a deal for ion drives

Astra Space says it’s made a deal with Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella to provide multiple electric propulsion systems for LeoStella’s small satellites, with deliveries due to begin later this year.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

LeoStella is a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space that builds satellites for BlackSkyLoft Orbital and other customers. California-based Astra Space’s main business line has to do with launching rockets, but last year the company acquired Apollo Fusion, which makes electric propulsion systems.

Electric propulsion systems, also known as ion drives, can provide a gentle but steady oomph for spacecraft by shooting out beams of ions. The Astra / Apollo Fusion systems can make use of xenon or krypton.

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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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Xplore acquires mission control software company

Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore says it’s acquired the assets of Kubos Corp., the creator of cloud-based mission and flight control software for satellites.

Xplore’s co-founder and CEO, Jeff Rich, said in a news release that Kubos’ Major Tom software platform would be used for Xplore’s first space mission, due for launch as early as this fall, “and for all future missions.”

Financial terms of the acquisition were not released — but Xplore is taking on key Kubos employees, including co-founder and ex-CEO Tyler Browder, as part of the deal. “I’m delighted to join the Xplore team as business development director for mission operations,” Browder said. “In my new role I will continue to build and grow the Major Tom platform into an expanded service offering.”

Founded in 2017, Xplore aims to provide “space as a service” — a business model that offers data products, sensor tasking, mission operations software and payload hosting to customers. The company is developing the hardware for its missions, including Xcube nanosatellites and Xcraft satellite platforms, at its 22,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Redmond.

Its first planned mission is designed to put hyperspectral and high-resolution video imagers into low Earth orbit. Xplore has said future missions could go to farther-out destinations, including the moon, Mars, Venus and asteroids.

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Spaceflight Inc. encounters successes and setbacks

Thanks to its role in handling pre-launch logistics, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. can claim a share of the credit for two successful satellite deployments that took place within 24 hours this week — but it’s also facing a rift in relations with SpaceX, one of its longtime launch partners.

First, about the successes: On Friday, SpaceX launched 40 satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket, as part of a mission known as Transporter-4. Spaceflight Inc. handled the arrangements for flying several of those satellites.

Spaceflight also played a supporting role in today’s launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Two Earth observation satellites were successfully sent into orbit for BlackSky, a Virginia company that was once Spaceflight’s corporate sibling and still has a significant workforce based in Seattle. Spaceflight Inc.’s role and the Seattle angle were recognized in Rocket Lab’s mission patch for the launch, which includes the Space Needle in its design.

“Thanks for another great launch day!” Spaceflight told Rocket Lab in a tweet. In contrast, Spaceflight’s interactions with SpaceX have become less cordial and more complicated over the past few months.

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Seattle’s Space Needle rises on a space mission patch

What could be more fitting than to put Seattle’s Space Needle on the patch for an actual space mission?

Even though this particular mission is due to be launched half a world away, there’s more than one Seattle connection to the Rocket Lab mission that’s due for liftoff as early as April 1.

The payloads for the launch from Rocket Lab’s base on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula are two satellites built by a Seattle-area manufacturer, LeoStella, for BlackSky’s Earth-observing constellation. LeoStella is a joint venture co-owned by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian venture; and BlackSky, which is based in the Washington, D.C., area but has a Seattle office.

Most significantly, preparations for the launch were handled by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc., which specializes in making the arrangements for putting small satellites like BlackSky’s spacecraft into orbit.

On the patch for the mission, whimsically dubbed “Without Mission a Beat,” the Space Needle rises to the right of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle.

“It’s a great patch, no?” Jodi Sorensen, Spaceflight Inc.’s vice president of marketing, said in a tweet. “The Needle’s a nod to @SpaceflightInc, and we love it!”

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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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Radio astronomy director cuts through the static

There are plenty of astronomers who worry that the thousands of satellites that are being launched into low Earth orbit for global broadband internet access will cast a pall over their scientific observations. But Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, says the future looks bright.

And he means that in a good way.

It’s not just that he’s confident astronomers will deal with the challenges posed by potential interference from all those satellites — including the latest batch of 47 Starlink satellites, which were built at SpaceX’s factory in Redmond, Wash., and sent into orbit today from Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“We will find a solution,” Beasley told GeekWire. “We’re not going to be the ones that cause all of the concerns here for SpaceX. It could be that our optical [astronomy] friends will do that, but that’s OK.”

Beasley, an Australia native who’s headed the National Science Foundation’s leading center for radio astronomy for the past decade, is also optimistic about the prospects for the NRAO’s next giant leap: the Next Generation Very Large Array.