Tag Archive for: Telesat

On July 17th, a Rocket Lab Electron rocket successfully placed seven smallsats into orbit for three different customers. This launch not only marked a significant achievement in satellite deployment but also moved the company closer to realizing its goal of reusing the Electron rocket’s booster.

The launch took place at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand‘s Mahia Peninsula at 9:27 p.m. Eastern Time. Originally scheduled for July 14th, the launch was delayed to allow the company to make final preparations for both launching the rocket and recovering the booster.

During the mission, the Electron rocket’s kick stage executed multiple burns to deploy the payloads into their respective orbits. The deployment sequence began with four NASA Starling 6U smallsats and two Spire 3U smallsats, which were placed into a 575-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. Subsequently, after two additional burns, the kick stage released Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite into a 1,000-kilometer orbit approximately an hour and 45 minutes after liftoff.

Among the payloads were four NASA Starling satellites that will test autonomous swarm operations, two Spire satellites intended to enhance the company’s weather data collection capabilities, and Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite, the largest spacecraft on the mission. LEO 3, built by the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory for Telesat, will aid the Canadian satellite operator in ongoing tests for its future Lightspeed constellation, which had previously been carried out by another prototype satellite nearing the end of its operational life.

The “Baby Come Back” mission presented Rocket Lab with an opportunity to test the viability of recovering and reusing the first smallsats stage of its Electron rocket. As part of their ongoing efforts, the company introduced several modifications to the rocket and adjusted its recovery approach. The initial plan to capture falling boosters mid-air was changed to allow them to land in the ocean. The mission’s webcast showed the retrieved booster on a ship shortly before the final satellite’s deployment.

Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck, expressed their progress towards reusability, stating that they are now closer than ever to achieving the first relaunch of a booster. Beck mentioned that the recovered booster was in excellent condition.

Beck did not provide a specific timeline for when reusability might be achieved. However, the company plans to reuse a Rutherford engine on an Electron launch later in the year. Wayne McIntosh, the team lead for Electron reusability at Rocket Lab, outlined a series of flight tests in the works before actual reuse is considered.

McIntosh stated that there will be incremental changes introduced in future launches, with a significant shift in the 45th flight. This launch dubbed the “golden child,” will involve sealing changes that will enable accurate vehicle disposition for reuse. The “Baby Come Back” mission marked the 39th flight of an Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab’s recent launch marked its seventh mission this year, encompassing six orbital launches and the launch of the suborbital variant named Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE) from Virginia.

According to Peter Beck, the company’s CEO, Rocket Lab is sticking to its earlier projections of conducting up to 15 Electron launches in this year, a count that includes both orbital missions and HASTE flights. Beck acknowledged that the primary challenge in achieving this launch rate has been customer readiness. He mentioned that they anticipate a busy upcoming season as customers aim to finalize their preparations.

The shifts in the market, such as the bankruptcy of Virgin Orbit, have also influenced Rocket Lab’s operations. For instance, NorthStar Earth and Space, initially planning to launch their space situational awareness satellites with Virgin Orbit, switched to Rocket Lab and signed a contract to launch their first four satellites this autumn on an Electron rocket. Beck highlighted that Rocket Lab has observed increased interest from customers who had initially intended to launch with other providers. Notably, the NASA Starling satellites, originally slated for a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket launch, were eventually manifested for Rocket Lab’s mission.

Peter Beck noted that there has been a notable increase in defections from various emerging launch providers this year compared to previous years. Delays and concerns about early flight risks seem to be driving this shift. This trend indicates a degree of uncertainty and volatility within the industry as it continues to evolve.

Beck explained that in the early stages when all providers had only a few launches under their belts, the mission risk was relatively equal for everyone. However, as the industry matures and more launches are completed, the willingness to take on extra risk for potential cost savings diminishes. This is leading customers to opt for providers with proven track records and reliable services.

Rocket Lab has a launch planned for the end of the month, and the company intends to reveal further details about this upcoming mission in the near future.

Amazon and Telesat said Sept. 21 they have finalized spectrum arrangements to keep their planned satellites in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) from interfering with each other.

The coordination deals “ensure the coexistence” of their broadband constellations, the companies told the Federal Communications Commission in a letter.

Amazon secured a spectrum license for its Project Kuiper network as part of the FCC’s 2020 NGSO processing round, while Telesat’s Lightspeed was processed as part of an earlier 2016 round.

Neither company has started deploying their NGSO constellation, although Canada-based Telesat launched a prototype to low Earth orbit in 2018 on an Indian PSLV rocket.

Thales Alenia Space, which is slated to build Lightspeed, has suffered supply chain delays that have hampered the operator’s ability to fund the final third of the project’s cost.

As rising inflation and other economic pressures also take their toll, Telesat expects these supply issues have added another $250 million to $500 million on top of LightSpeed’s original $5 billion budget.

Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg said Sept. 13 he remains optimistic that the company will be able to secure these funds amid ongoing talks with export credit agencies. The operator envisages a network of 198 satellites in total.

Telesat said it expected to start providing Lightspeed services in 2026 in its last update on the constellation’s deployment timeline in May.

The delays have likely brought Lightspeed’s debut closer to the launch of Amazon’s planned Project Kuiper constellation.

Amazon has not said when it could launch Project Kuiper commercially, although the company must deploy half its constellation by 2026 under its FCC license. Amazon has to deploy the rest of Project Kuiper’s proposed 3,236 satellites three years later.

The internet giant has signed contracts worth several billion dollars to reserve launches for most of the constellation.

Rocket developer ABL Space Systems has been planning to launch two prototypes for Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation between October and December.

NGSO coordination

Parties in the same NGSO processing round have an equal right to the spectrum the FCC awards in that round. 

Factors including which NGSO system was first to provide services determine how they must share their spectrum if they cannot coordinate something more definitive amongst themselves.

However, there is currently no specific FCC rule obligating NGSO operators to protect services of constellations that secured spectrum in earlier processing rounds.

The FCC seeks to change this through a notice of proposed rulemaking released last year — not least because the rules do not cover the potential for NGSO operators to start services faster than those in earlier processing rounds.

Amazon and Telesat said their coordination agreements also cover the Canadian operator’s existing fleet of satellites in geostationary orbit.

OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, which connect broadband customers using Ku-band spectrum secured in the FCC’s 2016 NGSO processing round, announced a spectrum coordination plan in June for their current and proposed second-generation networks.

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.

DARPA is pursuing a new laser terminal design that would be compatible with any constellation.

Five commercial satellite operators — SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat and Amazon’s Kuiper — are among 11 organizations selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help develop laser terminals and technical standards to connect satellites in space.

Under a project called space-based adaptive communications node, or Space-BACN, DARPA is pursuing a new laser terminal design that would be compatible with any constellation and make it easier for government and commercial satellites to talk to each other.  

The Space-BACN program aims to revolutionize the way space-based communications work by developing low-cost, high-speed reconfigurable optical datalinks to connect various low-earth orbit (LEO) constellations.

DARPA announced Aug. 10 it selected 11 teams for phase 1 of Space-BACN. The goal is to create an internet of low Earth orbit satellites, “enabling seamless communication between military, government and commercial and civil satellite constellations that currently are unable to talk with each other,” Greg Kuperman, program manager at DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said in a statement.

CACI, MBryonics and Mynaric were selected to develop a small optical terminal. II-VI Aerospace and Defense, Arizona State University and Intel Federal will work on a reconfigurable optical modem and will help define the interface between system components.

The five satellite operators will help define command-and-control requirements to support optical intersatellite link communications across constellations.

Phase 1 of Space- BACN will last about 14 months and will conclude with a preliminary design review and a connectivity demonstration in a simulated environment.

DARPA said at the completion of phase 1, some of the providers will be selected to participate in an 18-month phase 2 to develop engineering design units of the optical terminal components. The satellite operators during phase 2 will continue to evolve concepts for cross-constellation communications.