Satellites

OneWeb’s first six global internet satellites are safely in orbit

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, OneWeb, SATCOM, satellite, Satellites, Softbank, Space | No Comments

Update: Launch and deployment successful!

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 has 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.

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To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

Posted by | funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, nanoracks, Satellites, Space, Startups, TC, ubiquitilink | No Comments

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 has 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 U.S.

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 Ventures 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.

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FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch

Posted by | FCC, Gadgets, Government, hardware, Satellites, Space, swarm technologies | No Comments

Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency, as well as extra oversight of its continuing operations.

Swarm’s SpaceBEEs are the beginning of a planned constellation of small satellites with which the company intends to provide low-cost global connectivity.

Unfortunately, the units are so small — about a quarter the size of a standard cubesat, which is already quite tiny — that the FCC felt they would be too difficult to track, and did not approve the launch.

SpaceBEEs are small, as you can see. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm, perhaps thinking it better to ask forgiveness than file the paperwork for permission, launched anyway in January aboard India’s PSLV-C40, which carried more than a dozen other passengers to space as well. (I asked Swarm and the launch provider, Spaceflight, at the time for comment but never heard back.)

The FCC obviously didn’t like this, and began an investigation shortly afterwards. According to an FCC press release:

The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Not good! As penance, Swarm Technologies will have to pay the aforementioned $900,000, and now has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC within five days of signing an agreement to launch, and at least 45 days before takeoff.

The company hasn’t been sitting on its hands this whole time. The unauthorized launch was a mistake to be sure, but it has continued its pursuit of a global constellation and launched three more SpaceBEEs into orbit just a few weeks ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Swarm has worked to put the concerns about tracking to bed; in fact, the company claims its devices are more trackable than ordinary cubesats, with a larger radar cross section and extra reflectivity thanks to a Van Atta array (ask them). SpaceBEE-1 is about to pass over Italy as I write this — you can check its location live here.

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FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

Posted by | FCC, Gadgets, galileo, Government, gps, Mobile, Satellites, Space | No Comments

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6s, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

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SpaceX’s Starlink aims to put over a thousand of its communications satellites in super-low orbit

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Satellites, Space, SpaceX, starlink | No Comments

SpaceX’s planned communication satellite constellation, known as Starlink, will now be targeting a much lower orbit than originally planned, at least for over a thousand of the satellites, the company revealed in an FCC filing. The move should help mitigate orbital debris and provide better signal for the company’s terrestrial users as well.

Starlink plans to put 1,584 satellites — about a third of the 4,409 the company aims to launch — in an orbit just 550 kilometers about the surface of the Earth. For comparison, many communications satellites are in orbits more than twice as high, and geosynchronous orbits are more than 20 times farther out (around 36,000 miles).

At that distance orbits decay quickly, falling into the atmosphere and burning up after a handful of years. But SpaceX isn’t daunted; in fact, it writes in its application, lower orbits offer “several attractive features both during nominal operation and in the unlikely event something goes wrong.”

In the first place, orbital debris problems are naturally mitigated by the fact that anything in that low orbit will fall to Earth quickly instead of cluttering up the orbit. Second, it should shorten the amount of time it takes to send and receive a signal from the satellites — ping time could be as low as 15 milliseconds, the company estimated. And 500 fewer kilometers means there will be less spreading for beam-based communications, as well.

The satellites will have to do more work to stay at their optimal altitude, as atmospheric drag will be higher, and each one will be able to see and serve less of the planet. But with thousands working together, that should be manageable.

The decision was informed by experimental data from the “Tintin” test satellites the company launched earlier this year. “SpaceX has learned to mitigate the disadvantages of operating at a lower altitude and still reap the well-known and significant benefits discussed above,” it wrote.

This change could lead to competitive advantages when satellite communications are more widely used, but it will also likely lead to a more intensive upkeep operation as Starlink birds keep dropping out of the air. Fortunately a third benefit of the lower orbit is that it’s easier to reach, though probably not so much easier that the company breaks even.

Starlink is aiming for the first real launches of its systems early next year, though that timeline may be a little too ambitious. But SpaceX can do ambitious.

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EarthNow promises real-time views of the whole planet from a new satellite constellation

Posted by | accelerator, earthnow, Gadgets, Intellectual Ventures, OneWeb, Satellites, Space, Startups | No Comments

A new space imaging startup called EarthNow aims to provide not just pictures of the planet on demand, but real-time video anywhere a client desires. Its ambition is matched only by its pedigree: Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures, Airbus, SoftBank and OneWeb founder Greg Wyler are all backing the play.

Its promise is a constellation of satellites that will provide video of anywhere on Earth with latency of about a second. You won’t have to wait for a satellite to come into range, or worry about leaving range; at least one will be able to view any area at any given time, so they can pass off the monitoring task to the next satellite over if necessary.

Initially aimed at “high value enterprise and government customers,” EarthNow lists things like storm monitoring, illegal fishing vessels (or even pirates), forest fires, whale tracking, watching conflicts in real time and more. Space imaging is turning into quite a crowded field — if all these constellations actually launch, anyway.

The company is in the earliest stages right now, having just been spun out from years of work by founder and CEO Russell Hannigan at Intellectual Ventures under the Invention Science Fund. Early enough, in fact, that there’s no real timeline for prototyping or testing. But it’s not just pie in the sky.

Wyler’s OneWeb connection means EarthNow will be built on a massively upgraded version of that company’s satellite platform. Details are few and far between, but the press release promises that “Each satellite is equipped with an unprecedented amount of onboard processing power, including more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined.”

Presumably a large portion of that will be video processing and compression hardware, since they’ll want to minimize bandwidth and latency but don’t want to skimp on quality. Efficiency is important, too; satellites have extremely limited power, so running multiple off-the-shelf GPUs with standard compression methods probably isn’t a good idea. Real-time, continuous video from orbit (as opposed to near-real-time stills or clips) is as much a software problem as it is hardware.

Machine learning also figures in, of course: the company plans to do onboard analysis of the imagery, though to what extent isn’t clear. It really makes more sense to me to do this on the ground, but perhaps a first pass by the satellite’s hardware will help move things along.

Airbus will do its part by actually producing the satellites, in Toulouse and Florida. The release doesn’t say how many will be built, but full (and presumably redundant) Earth coverage means dozens at the least. But if they’re mass-manufactured standard goods, that should keep the price down, relatively speaking anyway.

No word on the actual amount raised by the company in January, but with the stature of the investors and the high costs involved in the industry, I can’t imagine it’s less than a few tens of millions.

Hannigan himself calls EarthNow “ambitious and unprecedented,” which could be taken as an admission of great risk, but it’s clear that the company has powerful partners and plenty of expertise; Intellectual Ventures doesn’t tend to spin something off unless it’s got something special going. Expect more specifics as the company grows, but I doubt we’ll see anything more than renders for a year or so.

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Origami-inspired radiator from NASA could change shape to warm or cool tiny satellites

Posted by | Gadgets, NASA, Satellites, science, Space, TC | No Comments

origami_radiator_configuration The devices we’re sending into space are getting smaller and lighter, which means there’s less room for bulky and static components. Flexibility and compactness are coming into vogue, and this prototype satellite radiator is inspired by that most compact and flexible of arts: origami. Read More

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China launches the first quantum communications satellite – and what is that, exactly?

Posted by | China, chinese academy of sciences, Gadgets, quantum communication, quantum cryptography, quantum physics, Satellites, science, Space, TC | No Comments

W020160816334374677649 Congratulations are in order for China: by launching the world’s first quantum communications satellite, the country has achieved an interesting — if somewhat difficult to explain — milestone in space and cryptography. Read More

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Running at 150,000 RPM, this tiny motor could help satellites keep on course

Posted by | Celerotron, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, Gadgets, Satellites, science, Space, spacecraft, TC | No Comments

femtosat-6 The future is small in space: picture Cubesats the size of toasters and Femtosats an inch across crowding the skies. A newly invented motor that’s both tiny and powerful goes hand in hand with that vision, providing compact spacecraft with the ability to adjust their position without using a drop of fuel. First, though, a little engineering lesson. Here comes the science! It’s… Read More

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Google Maps gets multi-stop directions and vacation memories on mobile

Posted by | Android, Google, Google-Maps, iOS, memories, Mobile, multi-stop, photos, satellite imagery, Satellites, Social, TC | No Comments

Camping site with a caravan and a four wheel drive parked under a tree by the Darling River in Australia. Google is bringing long awaited multi-stop directions to mobile with its new summer update. Travelers can now hit as many tourist traps as they want on their cross country treks. Just like in the web version, users can swiftly rearrange the order of stops. Android users will get the feature first, followed by iOS in the near future. The summer update caps off an active week for Maps.… Read More

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