All posts in “Satellites”

The world’s largest plane took flight on Saturday and there are big plans for its future

This thing is a beast.
This thing is a beast.

Image: Matt Hartman / AP / Shutterstock

That’s one big plane. 

The Stratolaunch, the world’s largest aircraft that just so happens to be designed to “enable airline-style access to space,” successfully took flight for the first time in the Mojave Desert on April 13. The plane is the brainchild of Paul G. Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, and sports an impressive 385-foot wingspan. 

That’s not all that makes this plane remarkable. According to the company, the Stratolaunch has a max takeoff weight of 589,670 kilograms and will one day assist in the launching of rockets — and satellites — into space. 

“We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” Jody Allen, the trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, is quoted as saying in a press release announcing the launch. “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”

Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975. He died late in 2018 as a result of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Importantly, Saturday’s flight was just a test — no rockets were launched from the giant plane as it soared at 17,000 feet. Instead, notes the press release, the pilot “[performed] a variety of flight control maneuvers to calibrate speed and test flight control systems, including roll doublets, yawing maneuvers, pushovers and pull-ups, and steady heading side slips.”

Still though, if the Stratolaunch ends up working as intended, this test marks a big step in the journey toward reducing the cost of putting satellites into space. Which, frankly, makes this freakishly large plane all the cooler. 

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Watch OneWeb’s first six global internet satellites launch today

After four years and more than $2 billion in funding, OneWeb is ready to launch the first six satellites out of a planned constellation of 650 with which it plans to blanket the world in broadband. The Arianespace-operated Soyuz rocket will take off at 1:37 Pacific time from Guiana Space Center. You can watch it live at OneWeb’s site here.

OneWeb is one of several companies that aims to connect the world with a few hundred or thousand satellites, and certainly the most well-funded — SoftBank is the biggest investor, but Virgin Group, Coca Cola, Bharti Group, Qualcomm, and Airbus have all chipped in.

The company’s plan is to launch a total of 900 (650 at first) satellites to about a 1,100-kilometer low Earth orbit, from which it says it will be able to provide broadband to practically anywhere on Earth — anywhere you can put a base station, anyway. Much cheaper and better than existing satellite connectivity, which is expensive and slow.

Sound familiar? Of course SpaceX’s side project Starlink has similar ambitions, with an even greater number of satellites planned, and Swarm is aiming for a smaller constellation of smaller satellites for low-cost access. And Ubiquitilink just announced this week that its unique technology will remove the need for base stations and beam satellite connections directly to ordinary phones. And they’ve all launched satellites already!

The launch vehicle fueling today at GSC.

OneWeb has faced numerous delays; the whole constellation was originally planned to be in place by the end of 2019, which is impossible at this point. But delays are the name of the game in ambitious space-based businesses, and OneWeb hasn’t been just procrastinating; it’s been girding itself for mass production, raising funds to set up launch contracts, and improving the satellites themselves. Its updated schedule, as it states in the mission summary: “OneWeb will begin customer demos in 2020 and provide global, 24-hour coverage to customers in 2021.”

At a reported cost of about a million dollars per satellite — twice the projected cost in 2015 — just building and testing the constellation will likely rub up against a billion dollars, and that’s not counting launch costs. But no one ever said it would be cheap. In fact, they probably said it would be unbelievably expensive. That’s why SoftBank and the other investors are “committing to a lot more capital,” as CEO Adrián Steckel told the Financial times last month.

The company also announced its first big deal with a telecom; Talia, which provides connectivity in Africa and the Middle East, signed on to use OneWeb’s services starting in 2021.

Soyuz launches could carry more than 30 of these satellites each, meaning it would take at least 20 to put the whole constellation in orbit. This first launch, however, only has six aboard; the other spots on board the mass launch system have dummy payloads to simulate how it should be going forward.

A OneWeb representative told me that this launch is meant to “verify the satellite design and validate the end to end system,” which is probably a good idea before sending up 600 more. That means OneWeb will be testing and tracking these six birds for the next few months and making sure the connection with ground stations and other aspects of the whole system are functioning properly.

Full payloads will start in the fall, after OneWeb opens its (much-delayed) production facility just outside Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

You can watch the launch at OneWeb’s site here.

Swarm Technologies raises $25M to deploy its own 150-satellite constellation

Swarm Technologies is one of several companies looking to populate low Earth orbit with communications satellites, setting itself apart with the sheer smallness of its devices — and of course with the notoriety of having defied the FCC and earned a fine. But investors are bullish, and the company has just raised a $25 million round A to put 150 of its tiny SpaceBEEs in orbit.

There are many communications markets to be served from space: Starlink wants to do mobile broadband; Ubiquitilink wants to eliminate “no signal”; and Swarm is taking aim at embedded devices, the so-called internet of things.

IoT devices don’t need high speeds or low latency; the data they produce can usually wait a few minutes, or even days. While they very well could be registered on your ordinary wi-fi network or even connect by a cellular connection, it’s easy to see that they would benefit from a separate form of connectivity more suited to their needs.

This is especially true when you consider how areas like farms and wildernesses are being outfitted with sensors to monitor soil, warn of poachers or lost hikers, and otherwise provide some basic data on the huge swathes of land that are more or less off the grid.

Swarm has developed something entirely new: a low-bandwidth, latency-tolerant network that is extremely inexpensive, low-power and very easy to integrate for things that need to be connected anywhere in the world,” said Sky Dayton, EarthLink founder and leading participant in the round alongside Craft Ventures, Social Capital. 4DX Ventures, and NJF Capital.

The focus at Swarm now is on speed and cost reduction. Especially in space, there’s a strong argument to get something, anything in place so you can demonstrate the utility of your service, however limited, while others are still at the drawing board.

That’s what the $25 million will be dedicated to — expansion and in particular the deployment of a 150-satellite constellation over the next 18 months.

Of course the success of the company’s ambitions here depend much upon finalization, regulatory approval, manufacturing, and launch schedules. But Swarm’s satellites really are small — so small that the FCC was leery about allowing them to be launched — so dozens may well be launched at a time.

The company has already launched and tested a few of its satellites, but I’ve asked when they’ll have a finalized design and can begin manufacturing and launching them. I’ll update this article if I hear back.

To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the US.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“UbiquitiLink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.