SDA is requesting proposals for a demonstration of laser communications between orbiting satellites and aircraft in flight.

As it prepares to start deploying a mesh network in low Earth orbit, the Space Development Agenc (SDA) is looking out for proposals for a demonstration of laser communications between orbiting satellites and aircraft in flight.

Last month, the agency issued a “special notice” asking vendors to submit by Sept. 2 proposals on how they would conduct a live demonstration of laser crosslinks between SDA’s Transport Layer satellites and a moving aircraft.

An SDA-funded experiment to test out this technology was launched in June 2021 but was unsuccessful. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems launched two cubesats carrying optical communications terminals to test inter-satellite links but the cubesats never reached their intended orbit and the company was unable to establish contact. One of the goals of the experiment was to establish optical communications between the satellites and an optical terminal on a General Atomics unmanned aircraft. 

In the new solicitation, SDA asks vendors to figure out a way to connect one or more of the 20 Tranche 0 Transport Layer satellites — projected to launch in September — with an aircraft that would be chosen by the vendor. 

SDA is interested in a live flight demonstration but also would consider a phased experiment, starting with space to ground, space to a moving ground vehicle, and space to an airborne platform.

“This demonstration is concentrated on space to airborne test only to research, design, develop and test,” said the solicitation. “Testing must include successful demonstration of pointing, acquisition and tracking, and the capability to acquire and maintain the link with stability to pass up to 1 gigabit per second test data.”

Experts say optical communications between air and space is a tough technical challenge due to the difficulties of pointing and navigating while maintaining a link to a moving aircraft. It also requires correcting the turbulence in the atmosphere that interferes with lasers.

The ESA (European Space Agency) is making efforts to restore operations of the Sentinel-1B radar imaging satellite that malfunctioned more than sic months ago and will instead move up the launch of a replacement.

ESA said in a statement that the agency and the European Commission, partners on the Copernicus series of Earth observation satellites, had given up trying to restore the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) payload on Sentinel-1B and was ending the spacecraft’s mission more than six years after its launch. That payload malfunctioned in December 2021 and ESA has been working since then to try to recover it.

summary of the investigation into the SAR payload failure concluded that two 28-volt power regulators for the SAR payload malfunctioned. One is needed to operate the payload. Efforts to restore them failed other than one case in April when the main regulator turned on for 4.4 seconds before turning off again. That provided “valuable observations to identify possible failure modes,” the summary stated.

The report concluded the most likely reason the power regulators failed was “a potential leakage of a ceramic capacitor” found in both regulators that had to be replaced during manufacturing and testing of the payload. The replacement was soldered in a way that may have damaged it.

“The conclusion drawn by the Anomaly Review Board is that it is impossible to recover the 28V regulated bus of the satellite’s C-band synthetic aperture radar antenna power supply unit, which is needed to provide power to the radar electronics,” Simonetta Cheli, director of Earth observation program at ESA, said in the statement announcing the end of the Sentinel-1B mission.

There had been rumors in recent days that ESA and the European Commission had given up on efforts to recover Sentinel-1B. the last public update on recovery efforts was in April. An ESA spokesperson said Aug. 2 that the agency was still “gathering some additional information” and coordinating with the commission about the mission.

Sentinel-1B operated in tandem with Sentinel-1A, launched in 2014, to provide SAR imagery for a variety of Earth science applications. Sentinel-1A remains operational but has the same potential flaw in its payload power system. The ESA investigation noted that the payload power system on Sentinel-1A has not experienced any problems since launch and, since the Sentinel-1B anomaly, its performance is being closely monitored.

“The permanent unavailability of Sentinel-1B satellite represents an important loss for the European Union’s space program and the European Commission is engaged to mitigate its impact,” Paraskevi Papantoniou, acting director for space in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Defence, Industry and Space, said in the statement.

In the near term, ESA and the European Commission are buying SAR data from other satellites. That includes Canada’s Radarsat-2 and Radarsat Constellation Mission, Germany’s TerraSAR-X, Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed and Spain’s PAZ.

A new satellite, Sentinel-1C, is nearly ready for launch. ESA announced in April a contract with Arianespace for the Vega-C launch of Sentinel-1C. At the time the launch was scheduled for some time in the first half of 2023.

“Our focus is on fast-tracking the launch of Sentinel-1C,” Cheli said in the statement. “Now, thanks to the successful inaugural flight of the Vega-C rocket on 13 July, we, with Arianespace, are targeting the launch in the second quarter of 2023.” There was discussion early in the year, though, of moving up the Sentinel-1C launch to as soon as late this year.

Despite the failure of its SAR payload, the Sentinel-1B spacecraft itself remains operational. “We have Sentinel-1B under control,” Alistair O’Connell, Sentinel-1 spacecraft operations manager, said in a statement. “We perform regular monitoring of the spacecraft health and routine orbit control maneuvers.”

ESA will deorbit Sentinel-1B after the launch of Sentinel-1C. O’Connell said the spacecraft will comply with orbital debris mitigation guidelines that call for spacecraft to be deorbited within 25 years of the end of its mission. “In practice, the reentry duration is expected to be much shorter,” he said.

Canada’s Telesat is planning for a revenue hit in 2023 after being forced to retire its Anik F2 satellite from full service three years earlier than planned.

The aging Boeing-built satellite has been operating under a workaround mode for the past year after two of its four station-keeping thrusters suffered an anomaly.

One of the thrusters failed while the second continued to support operations with some constraints, Telesat said Aug. 5, enabling the company to avoid impacting Anik F2 customers that are mainly based in Canada.

However, this workaround required Anik F2 to use fuel faster than planned, which reduced the time it could maintain its position in geostationary orbit.

“We expected this approach would allow us to provide station-kept service until 2025,” Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg said during the company’s financial results call.

“But it now appears that we can only maintain station-kept service until the end of this year, at which point the satellite will be put in inclined orbit.”

Some services will be adversely impacted as early as February, Goldberg said, while “other services will degrade over time, depending on the size of the antennas receiving signals from the satellite.”

“As a result, beginning next year, we expect Anik F2 revenues will decline if we can’t find alternative ways to support the services.”

Mitigation techniques include adding tracking antennas at certain sites to extend customer service life, and repointing existing antennas to other Telesat satellites or third-party spacecraft.

Anik F2 currently represents about 8% of Telesat’s revenue, or around 50 million Canadian dollars ($39 million).

Telesat is set to lose around a third of Anik F2’s revenue next year if mitigation techniques are unsuccessful, Goldberg added.

This “likely would be somewhat offset” by reselling freed-up capacity for mobility services that Anik F2 would be able to support in an inclined orbit, he said.

Anik F2 launched in 2004 and was already operating beyond its 15-year design life when some of its thrusters malfunctioned. 

There is still no known cause behind the failure and the satellite was not insured at the time, Telesat spokesperson Lynette Simmons said. 

Mounting Telesat Lightspeed costs

Goldberg also disclosed higher costs and additional delays for Telesat Lightspeed, its proposed low Earth orbit broadband constellation.

During Telesat’s last financial update May 6, Goldberg said he expected to know where it stood with export credit agencies (ECAs) about completing the project’s financing by the end of June.

The company now expects to have that clarity in the fourth quarter and to have signed a term sheet by the end of the year, which Goldberg says is needed to “feel comfortable about making meaningful expenditures and moving forward with the program.”

Goldberg said Europe’s Thales Alenia Space, the constellation’s prospective manufacturer, was only able to send a final proposal for the project “a few weeks ago,” which was sent to ECA lenders earlier this week.

Pandemic-related supply chain issues have delayed and complicated plans for the constellation and other satellite projects across the industry.

Despite downsizing the proposed constellation by a third to 198 satellites earlier this year to keep within its $5 billion budget, Goldberg said delays and soaring inflation have increased costs by 5-10%.

To date, Telesat has lined up about 4.2 billion Canadian dollars to fund the project from existing financial resources and Canadian government funding, and had expected to substantially complete the final third of its cost with ECA debt.

However, Goldberg said the company will need to raise additional funds outside what it can secure from ECA lenders to cover increasing costs. 

The company will also need extra funds to meet the so-far-unknown “contingent capital” needs of ECA lenders. These funds would be set aside to deal with schedule delays, cost overruns, and other issues that could affect the multi-year project.

“Although we’ve been disappointed with the supply chain challenges and inflationary pressures that we’ve encountered, we remain extremely bullish about the opportunity Telesat Lightspeed gives us to grow our business,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg also sees no impact on its negotiations with French state-owned ECA lender Bpifrance following Eutelsat’s plan to merge with OneWeb, a LEO broadband constellation that would compete against Telesat Lightspeed. Bpifrance is Eutelsat’s largest shareholder.

He said, fundamentally, “these export credit agencies are there to support their domestic exporters” to help create jobs and develop technologies.

Schedule adjustments

Goldberg also suggested during Telesat’s financial results call that the company could look beyond Thales Alenia Space as the constellation’s prime manufacturer.

He said “they’re a good prime contractor, I think they’ve got a great track record, but we’re not locked into Thales.”

Telesat intends to provide an update on the constellation’s timing and deployment plan once it has secured its financing. 

The company’s last update in May pushed out Telesat Lightspeed service debut a year to 2026.

These delays also mean the company will likely need to request extensions for the deployment milestones tied to its spectrum licenses from the U.S. and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 

One of the Canadian company’s ITU filings for the project, relating to 72 satellites, requires Telesat to have 10% and 50% of the satellites in their assigned orbits by Jan. 1, 2023 and Jan. 1, 2026, respectively. 

Telesat reported 187 million Canadian dollars in revenue for the three months to the end of June, a 3% decrease compared with the same period last year when adjusted for changes in foreign exchange rates. 

Adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, fell 4% to 146 million Canadian dollars.

Benchmark Space Systems unveiled a collision-avoidance kit, at the Small Satellite Conference, which is designed to help small satellites dodge debris and steer clear of other spacecraft.

Benchmark is taking orders for its “Cola Kit,” which the company plans to begin shipping to customers in early 2023.

The Cola Kit is the size of a two-unit (2U) cubesat.

“If you give me 2U in an ESPA class [satellite], I can give you two to 10 collision-avoidance maneuvers for $100,000 to $150,000,” Chris Carella, Benchmark executive vice president of business development and strategy, told SpaceNews.

Benchmark developed the Cola Kit in response to demand from prime contractors that are equipping their spacecraft with electric propulsion systems but still lacking the ability to maneuver quickly in response to conjunction alerts.

“They are flying these high-cost, high-value assets, but they have this vulnerability that’s just not acceptable,” Carella said.

Orbital conjunctions are becoming more frequent thanks to the growing number of satellites launched and detailed information on objects in orbit being provided by companies.

The Cola Kit is our “response to all the great data that the space domain awareness and space traffic management companies are coming out with,” Carella said. “The Cola Kit is a cheap, small, lightweight insurance policy for your high-cost asset.”

Benchmark’s Cola Kit combines the company’s chemical propulsion tanks and thruster, which have flight heritage, with control electronics, inlet and outlet manifolds, and an adjustable mount.

In addition to avoiding collisions, the Cola Kit is designed to give satellites and orbital transfer vehicles the ability to perform controlled deorbits.

“We think the demand is strong enough for Cola Kits that when we have capacity on the production floor, we’ll use it to build metal plasma thrusters and Cola Kits,” Carella said.

Benchmark is forging partnerships to market Cola Kits with several electric propulsion and space traffic management companies. The first company to sign-on was space safety startup Scout Space.

“Scout will deploy our fleet of in-space and on-orbit systems to provide continuous situational awareness services to support sustainable space operations,” Scout CEO Eric Ingram said in a statement. “Scout and Benchmark have shared missions in the past and we have strong synergies in our respective roadmaps that highlight several opportuawnities to work cooperatively to bring pre-integrated, bundled solutions to benefit the market.”