Saturday, 22 July 2023

Astranis moves to Plan B after first commercial internet satellite malfunctions on orbit

by Rose White

Space-based internet startup Astranis said Friday that its first commercial internet satellite will be unable to provide continuous coverage to Alaska due to a malfunction with both spacecraft’s solar panels.

The San Francisco-based company launched the dedicated internet satellite for Alaska, called Arcturus, on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy at the beginning of May. Shortly after, the company reported that it was performing nominally. But Astranis CEO John Gedmark said the satellite “abruptly experienced” a pointing issue with the solar array drive assembly, the component that rotates the solar arrays relative to the sun. As a result of this issue, the solar arrays are no longer capable of providing adequate power to the spacecraft.

“This is a frustrating situation — the Arcturus spacecraft is in a safe state and fully under our control, the payload and our other Astranis in-house designed components are all working perfectly, and the tanks are fueled for years of on-orbit operation,” Gedmark said. “But unless something major changes, the mission of providing internet connectivity in Alaska will be delayed.”

Instead, Astranis is moving to Plan B. The company is going to launch a previously undisclosed “UtilitySat” as an on-orbit backup for the hobbled Arcturus. That satellite will head to orbit as part of a batch of four satellites the company is aiming to launch later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission. While UtilitySat is the same size as Arcturus, around 400 kilograms, it will have lower capacity and won’t entirely make up for the lost coverage.

Gedmark said he anticipates fully replacing the Alaska sat in early 2025.

Astranis’ internet satellites operate in geostationary orbit, at an altitude that is around 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Generally, satellites that operate in this orbit (as opposed to the much closer low Earth orbit) cost upwards of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. These exorbitant costs are due in part to the fuel requirements and size of the satellites. But Astranis’ alternative approach may come in handy for precisely moments like these: Its satellites are cheaper, easier to manufacture and quicker to launch, so an on-orbit malfunction — though still spelling the death of that particular satellite — does not mean the same financial loss as other satellites in GEO.

The difference is especially illuminating given the recent news that Viasat’s 6,400-kilogram ViaSat-3 satellite — which was the primary payload on the same Falcon Heavy launch that Arcturus hitched a ride on — is also having hardware issues. That issue could result in a staggering $420 million insurance claim.

“Our satellites are smaller and more flexible, and we build them faster and in higher quantities, than those of traditional satellite manufacturers,” Gedmark said. “That means a setback worst-case becomes a delay in the start of service, not an end to the mission.”