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Virgin Orbit scores its first orbital launch

Eight months after an unsuccessful first attempt, Virgin Orbit finally lived up to its name today and used an innovative air-launch system to send 10 satellites to orbit.

With backing from British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system capitalizes on a concept that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded 17 years ago.

The air-launch concept won SpaceShipOne a $10 million prize back in 2004. Today, it plays an essential role not only for LauncherOne, but also for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system and the Stratolaunch venture that Allen founded in 2011.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, serves as a flying launch pad for the two-stage LauncherOne rocket.

During last May’s first full-fledged flight test, the rocket’s first-stage NewtonThree engine lit up for only a few seconds before a breach in the propellant system forced a shutdown. No such glitch arose today.

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Cosmic Space

Intel office enlists AI to analyze satellite images

U.S. intelligence officials today launched a program to develop new satellite image analysis tools that use machine learning and other tricks of the artificial intelligence trade.

In a news release, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity announced that contracts for the Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique program, or SMART, have been awarded to teams led by BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, which has offices in Seattle as well as Herndon, Va.; Accenture Federal Services, with offices in Arlington, Va.; Kitware, headquartered in New York; and Systems & Technology Research in Woburn, Mass.

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Antenna venture gets a $30M boost from Korea

Hanwha Systems, a smart-technology company headquartered in South Korea, has agreed to make an $30 million investment in Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp. — with an eye toward getting a foothold in the market for antennas capable of linking up with satellite constellations in low Earth orbit.

The equity investment deal follows up on an $85 million funding round led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in August. Gates has backed Kymeta since its launch as a next-generation antenna venture in 2012.

Kymeta is in the midst of the commercial rollout for its latest connectivity offering, a hybrid cellular-satellite broadband service known as Kymeta Connect.

The service relies on an innovative flat-panel antenna called the u8. Metamaterial-based electronics allow Kymeta’s antenna to lock onto satellites without the need for moving parts.

Kymeta Connect currently takes advantage of satellites in geostationary Earth orbit, or GEO. But its system can be upgraded for compatibility with the broadband satellite constellations that are taking shape in low Earth orbit, or LEO — including OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s future Project Kuiper constellation.

That meshes perfectly with the plans being laid by Hanwha, a global conglomerate involved in industries ranging from telecommunications to aerospace and finance. Hanwha Systems Co. focuses on smart technologies in defense electronics and information infrastructure.

“The objective of our investment in Kymeta is to enter the LEO satellite antenna market early on, and diversify our technology portfolio,” Youn Chul Kim, CEO of Hanwha Systems Co., said in a news release. “With the expertise of HSC’s top-notch defense communication and radar technologies, we are joining hands with this promising U.S. satellite antenna company. All these efforts will further strengthen HSC’s aerospace systems capabilities.”

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Cosmic Space

OneWeb adds 36 satellites to revived constellation

Less than a month after emerging from bankruptcy, OneWeb resumed its campaign to provide global satellite internet access today with the successful launch and deployment of 36 satellites.

The satellites were sent into low Earth orbit by a Soyuz rocket that lifted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East at 12:26 GMT (4:26 a.m. PT). Nine batches of satellites were dropped off in their target orbits over the course of nearly four hours, and OneWeb confirmed signal acquisition for all 36 satellites.

This was the first fully commercial launch from Russia’s Vostochny complex. Europe’s Arianespace consortium managed launch logistics.

Today’s operation brings OneWeb’s constellation to 110 satellites, with hundreds more due for launch in the months ahead. OneWeb says it’s back on track to provide broadband data services to customers in northern latitudes — including Alaska, Britain, Canada and northern Europe — during 2021, with global service to follow in 2022.

OneWeb’s prime rivals in the market for satellite internet services from low Earth orbit are SpaceX, which has already launched nearly 1,000 satellites and is offering limited beta service; Telesat, a Canadian satellite operator targeting the start of service in 2022; and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is aiming for a debut in the mid-2020s.

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How Amazon’s cloud and satellite ventures mesh

Amazon Web Services and the Project Kuiper satellite internet venture may be separate domains of Jeff Bezos’ business empire, but even Amazon’s executives admit there’s a lot of potential for synergy.

That’s one reason why the prospects for Project Kuiper shouldn’t be underestimated, even though Amazon is lagging behind SpaceX and OneWeb in the commercial satellite space race.

Project Kuiper announced last year that it intends to put 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, creating a constellation that would provide broadband internet access to the billions of people around the world who lack high-speed connections.

“Access to broadband is going to be very close to being a fundamental human need as we move forward. … It’s also a very good business for Amazon,” CEO Jeff Bezos said at last year’s re:MARS conference.

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Amazon’s Project Kuiper shows off satellite antennas

Amazon’s Project Kuiper hasn’t yet said when it’ll start launching satellites or providing broadband internet access from above, but it is sharing details about how customers will get their data.

The $10 billion project, which aims to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit, will use an innovative type of phased-array antenna that overlays one set of tiny elements on top of another set, Amazon said today in a blog posting. “This has never been accomplished in the Ka-band,” the company said.

Amazon says the innovation should result in a lightweight, low-cost customer terminal with an antenna that’s only 12 inches (30 centimeters) wide. The hardware is being developed primarily at Project Kuiper’s research and development facility in Redmond, Wash.

“If you want to make a difference for unserved and underserved communities, you need to deliver service at a price that makes sense for customers,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon. “This simple fact inspired one of our key tenets for Kuiper: to invent a light, compact phased-array antenna that would allow us to produce an affordable customer terminal.”

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SpaceX wins $885M for Starlink rural broadband

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network — which relies on hundreds of spacecraft built in Redmond, Wash. — has been awarded $885.5 million in federal subsidies to boost high-speed internet service to rural Americans.

The awards are part of a $9.2 billion allocation made under the terms of the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction.

In all, 180 bidders won subsidies that are to be paid out over the next 10 years. Only one other satellite broadband provider is on the FCC list: Hughes Network Systems, which will receive $1.3 million to serve rural sites in Rhode Island.

The FCC said the RDOF program will provide $222.8 million to support broadband service to rural communities in Washington state. SpaceX is due to get the biggest share of those subsidies, amounting to $80.4 million. Washington also leads the state-by-state list for SpaceX subsidies.

More than 5.2 million homes and businesses are expected to benefit from the program, in which funds were allocated through a reverse auction.

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Kymeta rolls out next-gen connectivity service

Kymeta Corp., the Redmond, Wash.-based connectivity venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is making the next generation of its hybrid satellite-cellular mobile service for voice and data available to commercial markets starting today.

And although commercial availability of Kymeta’s u8 terminal and Kymeta Connect service marks a milestone, the company’s executives consider the government and military market to be just as important.

“Government and military need the most reliable and seamless connectivity to safely fulfill their missions,” Walter Berger, Kymeta’s president and chief operating officer, said in a news release. “These men and women often go to the most remote or disaster-stricken areas of the world, and they need reliable communications to rescue lives, keep property safe and complete missions.”

During beta testing, the u8 system faced a trial by fire — literally.

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Spaceflight goes big on orbital transfer vehicles

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. today unveiled two new options for its Sherpa orbital transfer vehicle — one that uses an environmentally friendly chemical thruster system to help get small satellites where they need to go, and another that’s powered by an electric propulsion system.

Such options add propulsive capability to the standard Sherpa-FX model, which is due to make its first flight as a secondary payload for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch by as early as December.

For years, Spaceflight has served as a broker and concierge for other people’s payloads — basically bundling small satellites for launch on rockets ranging from the Falcon 9 to Rocket Lab’s Electron and India’s PSLV.

The company hit a significant milestone in 2018 when it arranged for the launch of 64 satellites on a single Falcon 9. During that mission, a pair of free-flying spacecraft served as deployment platforms.

That blazed a trail for the Sherpa program, and the effort got an extra boost this year after Spaceflight Inc.’s acquisition by Japan’s Mitsui & Co. “Really, the next step in building out this cislunar space transportation company that we care to become is the Sherpa program,” Grant Bonin, Spaceflight’s senior vice president of business development, told me. “Sherpa was an early vision of the company, but we really revived it this year.”

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Satellite attacks could spark a new nightmare

In the years ahead, the long-running nightmare of the nuclear Cold War — mutually assured destruction — could return in a new context on the final frontier, a Pentagon adviser said today at a Seattle-based space policy conference.

Brad Townsend, a space strategy and policy adviser to the leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised the alarm about anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs, during a virtual symposium sponsored by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center.

He noted that China and Russia are already experimenting with methods to disable other nations’ satellites in the event of a future conflict. But in the course of destroying an enemy satellite, attackers could set off a catastrophic chain reaction of out-of-control orbital debris.

Such a phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the Kessler syndrome, has fed into the plotlines for movies such as “Gravity” and novels such as “SevenEves.” But Townsend warned that the threat is more than just a science-fiction possibility.

“If nations start arming with ASATs as a way to deter other nations from attacking their orbital assets, they risk creating a new form of mutually assured destruction,” he said.

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