Tag Archive for: LEO

SpaceX has successfully launched what is believed to be the first 5G cellular standard satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO). The satellite, called Sateliot_0 or “The GroundBreaker,” weighs 22 pounds (10 kilograms) and will serve as an orbital data relay for a constellation of over 250 spacecraft. These satellites will communicate with terrestrial cell towers and address gaps in data networks worldwide. The GroundBreaker was launched using a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX’s facility in Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Sateliot, the Barcelona-based company responsible for The GroundBreaker and the Sateliot_X constellation network operator, believes that this technology will enable global access to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Sateliot stated that it is leading a revolutionary change where cellular terrestrial telecom and satellite connectivity are seamlessly merging for the first time in history. The company aims to address an 85% gap in mobile connectivity across the globe and has a vision to apply its technology to various public and private markets, such as road, rail, air, and sea transportation, with the potential to increase the efficiency of numerous industries. Sateliot’s goal is to expand the possibilities of connected devices by connecting the IoT to a cohesive network between ground and orbital cellular relays. By doing so, the company aims to offer a seamless switch between terrestrial and non-terrestrial 5G networks without requiring additional hardware or modems. Sateliot intends to keep the existing sim cards and mobile operators of users with standard roaming agreements, which could facilitate worldwide massive adoption of the Internet of Things.

Sateliot_0 is the first satellite in a constellation that will grow in number, with each spacecraft orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and covering an area three times the size of Texas. The company has reported sales of over $1.3 billion as its first satellite begins operating. Sateliot has yet to announce the launch date and vehicle for its next satellite, but on the company’s website, the “Next Mission” page suggests that the public should “stay tuned” while showing an image of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy liftoff in the background.

The number of mega-constellations being planned or developed is increasing. In addition to SpaceX’s well-known Starlink broadband satellites, the European Union and China have their own constellations in progress. Amazon, an online retailer and web services giant, also intends to launch its own constellation called Project Kuiper, beginning in 2024.

Manufacturers who previously focused on producing big geostationary satellites have successfully broadened their product lines to attract new customers.

At the Satellite 2023 conference, Cyrus Dhalla, the senior vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman Tactical Space Systems Division, stated that the satellite industry has transformed entirely instead of being on the brink of change. The era of ordering 20 geostationary communication satellites yearly has gone. Claude Rousseau, the moderator of the panel and NSR research director, said that nowadays, there are around 10 to 14 annual orders.

Thus, satellite manufacturers have shifted to offer small and medium-size satellites to both commercial and government clients. Furthermore, many nations now demand their independent space capability, and as a result, satellite companies have extended their services to government clients. Jonathan Caldwell, the Lockheed Martin military space vice president and general manager, made this observation.

Radically Reduced Price

According to Jonathan Caldwell, Lockheed Martin now produces more small satellites than large ones. He also mentioned that the commonality factor is crucial in small satellite manufacturers.

Caldwell also pointed out that Terran Orbital, a Florida-based company that won a $2.4 billion contract to provide satellites for Rivada Space Networks, is among the firms that Lockheed Martin is supporting. Caldwell expressed confidence in Terran Orbital’s capacity to manufacture 300 Rivada satellites quickly and efficiently, saying that they would deliver on the contract.

Caldwell also stated that Terran Orbital’s ability to expand its small satellite manufacturers capabilities would enable Lockheed Martin to provide customers with satellites at a “radically reduced price point.”

Risky Business

Jean-Marc Nasr, the executive vice president of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, mentioned that small satellites are proving to be profitable for Airbus because of standardization, even though larger satellites are more expensive.

Airbus is selling its Arrow 450, which is produced by Airbus OneWeb Satellites, to various customers, including Northrop Grumman. Nasr forecasts potential sales of 500 to 1,000 units in the next five years. Building large satellites for specific customer requirements is more hazardous than mass-producing small satellites, Nasr said.

He advises companies to master their supply chain and continuously scrutinize their make-or-buy decisions. If other firms can produce parts or components more efficiently, it’s best to enter into long-term agreements with them to keep costs in line, according to Nasr.

GEO Remains Important

Thales Alenia Space supplies small satellites through its partnership with BlackSky, with a market driven by both telecommunications and Earth observation, according to Hervé Derrey, the CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

Despite the growth in small satellite demand, Derrey emphasized the continuing importance of large geostationary satellites. He also mentioned that specific telecommunication missions would be challenging and expensive to accomplish with satellites in low or medium-Earth orbit.

More Smallsat Orders

U.S. government customers have clearly expressed their desire to rely less on large satellites.

“They’re going to continue buying some capabilities in GEO,” Dhalla said. “We are seeing orders for much smaller satellites.”

Even satellites once considered mid-size, like Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar platform, looked big to a recent factory visitor.

“Time has really changed hasn’t it, when you look at something that was considered small five to 10 years ago” and someone comments on how big it is, Dhalla said.

Going Faster

In the face of myriad market opportunities, Maxar Technologies will “leverage the commercial go-fast mentality” to meet customer demands for speedy satellite manufacturing, said Chris Johnson, Maxar Space senior vice president and general manager.  

In terms of software-defined satellites, Maxar is taking a different approach from some of its competitors.

“There’s another place that we can go to add value to a certain portion of the market, just like we had value proposition in the GEO market before,” Johnson said. “We are going to leverage a different price point.”

According to Globalstar, Apple is providing the company with $252 million to support and cover upfront costs for replenishing its low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation.

Apple is giving the funds as a prepayment for using the network to upgrade satellite services launched last year for its latest iPhone 14 Models, which can connect with one of Globalstar’s existing 24 satellites in LEO for emergency services outside cellular coverage.

Globalstar picked MDA and Rocket Lab in February 2022 to supply an initial 17 satellites for launch by the end of 2025 in a contract worth $327 million. The contract includes an option for up to nine additional satellites at $11.4 million each.

The satellite operator intends to fund any upfront costs not covered by Apple’s prepayment with its own cash.

Apple has already agreed to reimburse Globalstar for 95% of the constellation; however, it previously required the satellite operator first to raise third-party financing to fund the manufacturing contract.

Removing the need to raise this financing amid challenging macroeconomic conditions clears a significant degree of uncertainty for Globalstar’s constellation plans. 

Last year, the operator sought to extend payment deadlines under its manufacturing contract as rising interest rates made closing the financing difficult.

Globalstar’s shares jumped more than 10% on the news.

In a regulatory filing with the Securities Exchange Commission, the company said it expects the prepayment to be recouped in installments beginning no later than the third quarter of 2025.

Globalstar is allocating 85% of the capacity on its next-generation constellation to Apple. The operator plans to continue offering legacy services including connectivity for Internet of Things (IoT) devices with the remaining 15%.

Apple has not said how it could use Globalstar’s new satellites to improve satellite-enabled features. 

The company is currently offering its satellite-enabled SOS capability on iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro for free for two years.

During financial results, Eutelsat CEO Eva Berneke stated that a search for companies to construct OneWeb’s second-generation constellation would most likely commence by the end of June. The RFP (request for proposals) is anticipated to allow for launches to begin in 2025 or 2026 for a low Earth orbit (LEO) network with an estimated cost of $4 billion.

Gen 2’s needs will be covered by launch options reserved by the companies, which include new rockets created by Arianespace, Blue Origin, and Relativity Space. According to Berneke, replenishment plans for OneWeb’s current generation of 648 proposed satellites would only extend the constellation’s lifespan to 2027 or 2028.

The next-generation constellation is expected to enable faster speeds and denser coverage with many more satellites, even though the specifications have not yet been finalized. OneWeb has thus far deployed 542 satellites, while SpaceX and India’s space agency intend to launch a batch of satellites in late February and early March, giving OneWeb global coverage once they become operational by January 2024.

The French geostationary satellite operator, Eutelsat, is reportedly making good progress in obtaining the final regulatory approvals needed from France and the United States to acquire OneWeb through a merger deal that was announced last year. Unlike Viasat’s plan to purchase British operator Inmarsat, the Eutelsat-OneWeb deal did not raise any concerns from Europe regarding a potential reduction in competition in the satellite services market.

According to CEO Rodolphe Belmer, there were no regulatory questions raised that were not typical, and there is no overlap between OneWeb’s and Eutelsat’s markets, as they operate in different orbits with no competing capacities. However, Belmer emphasized the need for regulators to fully understand the satellite market, especially given the newness of the constellation market. Assuming that Eutelsat’s shareholders approve the transaction, the company expects to complete the OneWeb deal in the second or third quarter of this year.

Despite a declining market for satellite TV, OneWeb has provided a bright spot in the financial results of Eutelsat. For the six months ending December 2022, Eutelsat’s total revenues decreased by 6.1% compared to the same period in 2021, when adjusted for currency changes on a like-for-like basis.

However, fixed broadband revenues and sales of mobile connectivity services increased by 17% and 33%, respectively. Meanwhile, government revenues decreased by 20% due to non-renewals from the U.S. Department of Defense, and broadcast activity sales fell by 6.7%.

Eutelsat is also experiencing difficulties due to sanctions on Russian and Iranian channels, which are expected to cause a slight deterioration in revenues for the six months ending June. To pivot towards connectivity services, Eutelsat has heavily invested in geostationary communication satellites and has purchased OneWeb. Two of the four satellites launched for Eutelsat in the second half of 2022, Konnect VHTS and Eutelsat 10B, focus on broadband markets.