Internet from a small satellite in geostationary orbit? Sure, why notvar abtest_1941623 = new ABTest(1941623, 'click');

Internet from a small satellite in geostationary orbit? Sure, why notvar abtest_1941623 = new ABTest(1941623, 'click');
May 2023

A startup space company says it has successfully deployed and tested a kitchen-stove-sized satellite in geostationary orbit and begun delivering Internet service to Alaska.

Earlier this month, the 'Arcturus' satellite, built by a company named Astranis, launched as a rideshare payload on a Falcon Heavy rocket, separating a few hours after liftoff and successfully deploying its solar arrays, boom, and a subreflector.

After gaining control of the satellite, Astranis began to send commands and update the flight software before raising Arcturus' orbit and slotting it into a geostationary position directly over Alaska. Once there, the satellite linked up with an Internet gateway in Utah and communicated with multiple user terminals in Alaska, where Astranis will provide high-speed bandwidth to an Internet service provider, Pacific Dataport.

Proving it works

This was a huge milestone for Astranis, which was founded in 2015 by John Gedmark and Ryan McLinko, to see if microsatellites built largely in-house could deliver high-speed Internet from geostationary space at a low price. This marked the first demonstration that Astranis' small satellite technology actually worked in space and could survive the harsh radiation and thermal environment previously dominated by much larger satellites that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It feels pretty amazing to see a big test like that, and everything to go that well," Gedmark said in an interview. "Honestly, it was pretty cool. It was like when Ironman turns on his suit for the very first time and powers it up, and you know some pretty cool things are about to go down."

Astranis differentiates itself in several ways from low-Earth orbit constellations like SpaceX's Starlink, in which hundreds of satellites go whizzing overhead in the night sky. Astranis' satellites fly at an altitude of 37,000 km and remain over a single area of the world, where they can deliver continuous service. There are modest latency issues from this altitude, but Astranis has now demonstrated that small, relatively low-cost satellites can deliver connectivity.

The company aims to provide backhaul capacity and other services to telecommunications providers in remote areas--for example, instead of laying expensive fiber cables to remote cell towers, a small dish on each tower could pick up a signal from an Astranis satellite. The military is also keenly interested in the potential to move these small satellites over forward-operating bases where they could provide continuous connectivity.

"We now have a new way of connecting very remote places," Gedmark said. "This is a new tool in the toolbox for all kinds of connectivity challenges that the US Space Force and other parts of the government have."

Scaling up

To date Astranis has raised $550 million and is well capitalized for growth with a team of 300 people. The company has already built four more satellites--one of which will serve a customer in Peru, two for airline Wi-Fi, and one for an unspecified customer--that will launch on a dedicated Falcon 9 mission later this summer or early fall.

Now that the company has confidence that its custom-built technology works, it plans to scale up production to two satellites a month, Gedmark said. The 1-meter-by-1-meter satellites, which have a mass of around 400 kg, will be built to serve whatever demand there is, wherever in the world it's needed.

"We're just going to keep launching them as long as there is demand," he said. "And we think there will be a lot of demand for that. We absolutely plan to launch dozens and then hundreds."