Boeing joins battle over broadband satellites

Image: Satellite web
An artist’s conception shows a constellation of satellites in orbit. (Credit: OneWeb)

The Boeing Co. is laying out plans to put more than 1,000 satellites into low Earth orbit to provide broadband internet service – and it wants to make sure the Federal Communications Commission preserves the spectrum they’d use.

Boeing thus joins a debate that involves other would-be satellite constellation operators, including OneWeb and SpaceX, as well as the telecom ventures that are planning for 5G broadband mobile services. Like OneWeb and SpaceX, Boeing envisions using a satellite constellation to provide wide-ranging access to the internet and other high-speed data services.

“Next-generation broadband satellite systems can bridge the broadband gap because they are able to deliver advanced communications service to all users at the same cost regardless of location,” Boeing said this week in a filing with the FCC.

Boeing says the system it’s planning would use a range of the radio spectrum known as the V-band, plus another range called the C-band. The V-band is also being eyed by would-be 5G providers, but Boeing argues that the two types of services can co-exist.

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Spaceflight moves ahead on satellite portal

Image: Spaceflight Industries at work
One of BlackSky’s Pathfinder satellites undergoes final integration. (Credit: BlackSky)

Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries is moving ahead on two fronts to build an online portal for satellite imagery: It has secured $18 million in new venture capital, and is acquiring a Virginia-based company called OpenWhere to create the software platform for distributing the images.

“It’s all about the democratization of data about the planet,” Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight Industries, told GeekWire.

The current round of Series B financing is led by Mithril Capital Management, a San Francisco investment firm founded by Ajay Royan and PayPal veteran Peter Thiel. (Yes, that Peter Thiel.) Other contributors to the round include previous investors RRE Venture Capital; Razor’s Edge Ventures; and Vulcan Capital, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s investment arm.

By the time the round is complete, Spaceflight Industries expects to raise as much as $25 million. That would bring cumulative investment in the privately held company to $53.5 million.

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SpaceX joins battle over satellite bandwidth

Image: SpaceX Redmond
SpaceX’s Redmond office is the center for its satellite operations. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

SpaceX has provided a rare update on its Seattle-centric plans to develop a multibillion-dollar Internet satellite network, saying that the work is now at a “critical stage.”

That assessment is part of the company’s argument against giving away the bandwidth required for such a network for another purpose – specifically, for 5G mobile broadband services that would be offered by Dish Network and other members of an industry coalition.

The Multi-Channel Video Distribution and Data Service Coalition filed a petition on Wednesday with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday, asking that the Ku-band spectrum currently being reserved for satellite broadband should be reallocated for 5G services.

“There is simply no basis to jeopardize 5G deployment to give additional spectrum to a speculative NGSO (non-geostationary orbit) service that already has access to ample spectrum,” the MVDDS Coalition told the FCC.

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‘Space selfie’ project canceled; refunds offered

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An artist’s conception shows how an Arkyd 100 space telescope would have taken a “space selfie” from orbit. (Credit: Planetary Resources via Kickstarter)

REDMOND, Wash. – Three years ago, Planetary Resources raised more than $1.5 million on Kickstarter to build a space telescope that would let users snap selfies from orbit. Today, the company says it can’t follow through on the project – and is offering full refunds to its 17,614 backers.

“It’s a decision that we make with a heavy heart,” Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, told GeekWire during a visit to the company’s Redmond headquarters.

Lewicki said the support received during the Kickstarter campaign exceeded their wildest expectations, but it wasn’t enough to fund everything that needed to be done to turn the promised system into reality.

“We evaluated a lot of different opportunities with businesses, with educational institutions, with different outlets,” he said. “What we didn’t find, since the campaign closed a few years ago, was the follow-on interest to take it from a project and scale it into a fully funded mission. … We’re going to wind down the project and bring it to a close.”

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Planetary Resources focuses on Earth imaging

Image: Planetary Resources clean room
Planetary Resources’ Chris Lewicki and GeekWire’s Alan Boyle mug for the camera behind two Arkyd 6 satellites being tested for flight in Planetary Resources’ clean room. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

REDMOND, Wash. – Planetary Resources was founded as an asteroid mining company, but a fresh infusion of $21.1 million in investment puts the emphasis on a space frontier that’s closer to home: Earth observation.

“It leverages everything that we have been working on for the last several years … and it moves us forward in the direction of asteroid prospecting,” Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said this week during a tour of the company’s Redmond headquarters.

The Series A funding announced today will be used to deploy and operate Planetary Resources’ Earth observation program,known as Ceres. The lead investor is the OS Fund, founded by Los Angeles venture capitalist Bryan Johnson. Other investors include Idea Bulb Ventures, Vast Ventures, Grishin Robotics, Conversion Capital, the Seraph Group, Space Angels Network and Google co-founder Larry Page.

In a statement, Johnson said Ceres will represent “a seismic shift for the new space economy.”

Planetary Resources also announced it would be shutting down what was once a wildly popular Kickstarter project that would have enabled backers to take “space selfie” pictures with the company’s space telescopes. Lewicki said all 17,614 backers would be offered full refunds.

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Satellites show the hell that hit Alberta

Image: Alberta wildfires
A color-coded image from the Landsat 8 satellite’s Operational Land Imager shows fire and smoke in the vicinity of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. The red spots indicate active fires. Smoke appears white, and burned areas appear brown. The image was acquired May 5. (Credit: NASA / USGS)FireFiW

Canadian firefighters are still struggling to get a handle on wide-ranging wildfires in Alberta’s oil-sand country, and satellite images are helping them see the big picture.

Among the space assets tracking the conflagration around Fort McMurray are Landsat 8 and the Suomi NPP satellites. Those spacecraft and their images are jointly managed by NASA and other agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Department.

Landsat provides pictures in infrared as well as visible wavelengths, which makes it easy to identify hotspots and help planners on the ground identify the worst fires. Suomi NPP bristles with Earth-observing instruments, including radiometers and spectral imagers that can track fire, smoke and weather systems day and night.

The satellite readings give emergency response agencies a wide-angle view on the crisis in Alberta, which already has forced more than 80,000 people to flee Fort McMurray. The area has been a center for efforts to extract petroleum from the Athabasca oil sands, so much so that Fort McMurray picked up the nickname “Fort McMoney.” It’s a big reason why Canada ranks No. 3 in proven oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) – and why crude oil prices rose this week.

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How a satellite aided scientists on Viking quest

Image: Childs and Parcak
Archaeologists Chase Childs and Sarah Parcak remove an upper grass layer at the Point Rosee site in Newfoundland. (Credit: Greg Mumford / UAB)

Archaeologists worked hard to unearth what might well be only the second Viking site ever discovered in North America – but they had a little help from a higher power.

To be precise, 386 miles higher, in the form of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite.

It was the satellite’s near-infrared imagery that set Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her colleagues on a quest to excavate the site on the southwestern coast of Newfoundland, known as Point Rosee.

“It screams, ‘Please excavate me!’” said Parcak, who won a $1 million TED Prize for her satellite sleuthing in Egypt.

Her quest in Newfoundland is the focus of a two-hour PBS/BBC documentary titled “Vikings Unearthed,” which makes its PBS broadcast debut on Wednesday and is available online for streaming via the “NOVA” website on

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Wayward boat blamed after aborted launch

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The Falcon 9 rocket’s engines flare during a last-second shutdown. (Credit: SpaceX via YouTube)

A wayward boat and a load of liquid oxygen that got too warm forced SpaceX to abort what might have been a successful launch of the SES-9 telecommunication satellite today, just as the engines were firing up.

The snags mean SpaceX will have to wait until at least Tuesday for the next opportunity to launch its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and to try landing the first-stage booster on an oceangoing platform in the Atlantic.

Today marked the third scrub for the launch, which is aimed at putting Luxembourg-based SES’ satellite into orbit to provide TV and data services to customers in the Asia-Pacific region. The first two delays were due to concerns over chilling down the rocket’s liquid oxygen propellant to the optimal temperature. Liquid oxygen played a role in today’s postponement as well, but there were a couple of additional twists.

The countdown was held up for more than a half-hour because an unauthorized vessel was in the “keep-out zone,” which is meant to keep boat traffic out of harm’s way as the rocket passes overhead. After a helicopter went out to shoo the ship out of the zone, SpaceX got clearance to launch at 7:21 p.m. ET (4:21 p.m. PT).

When the countdown clock reached zero, the engines flared up – and then immediately shut themselves down.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a tweet that the shutdown was triggered by a low-thrust alarm about the engines. He said rising temperatures in the liquid oxygen tanks contributed to the weak thrust, and suggested that the launch might have gone ahead if it weren’t for the earlier countdown hold.

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Space archaeologist kicks off online quest

Image: Sarah Parcak
Archaeologist Sarah Parcak wants to create a crowdsourcing project called Global Xplorer, using $1 million in seed money from TED. (Credit: Ryan Lash / TED)

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak says she’ll use this year’s $1 million TED Prize to create a game that gives players the chance to make real-life discoveries of ancient sites.

The project, known as Global Xplorer, was announced Feb. 16 at the TED2016 conference in Vancouver, B.C. It follows through on the TED tradition of giving its prize recipients a million dollars to help one of their dreams come true.

“I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe,” said Parcak, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “By building an online citizen science platform and training a 21st-century army of global explorers, we’ll find and protect the world’s hidden heritage, which contains clues to humankind’s collective resilience and creativity.”

Parcak was chosen to receive the prize last November, in recognition of her use of satellite imagery to look for archaeological sites that have literally been covered by the sands of time.

In 2011, her team at the Laboratory for Global Observation identified 17 potential pyramids in Egypt, plus more than 1,000 forgotten tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements. More recently, the lab has been documenting ancient sites facing destruction due to looting and civil strife in Egypt and the Middle East.

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Now it’s easier for feds to buy a launch

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Spaceflight’s SHERPA carrier is set to deploy 87 satellites. (Credit: Spaceflight)

Federal agencies can now buy a satellite launch as easily as they buy pencils, thanks to a new arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight.

OK, maybe it’s not quite that easy. You still have to get the go-ahead to put something into orbit, whether you’re a climate scientist at NASA or Agent Fox Mulder at the FBI. But once that go-ahead is given, the launch can be ordered from a standardized menu instead of going through a months-long contracting process.

“What this does is make it a more expeditious process,” Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, told GeekWire.

Spaceflight is the first launch service provider to be awarded what’s known as a General Services Administration Professional Services Schedule. That means any federal official who’s authorized to spend the money can order a CubeSat or a MicroSat launch online, via the GSA Advantage’s eBuy site.

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