Cubesat voice-comms test paves way for Sky and Space Global’s 200-satellite constellation

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WASHINGTON — Sky and Space Global, an Australian satellite startup with offices in London, Israel and Poland, successfully sent voice, text and imagery over a trio of prototype cubesats meant to pave the way for a constellation of 200 by the end of the decade.

The test makes Sky and Space Global the first “to successfully use narrowband connectivity provided by nano-satellites to deliver a voice call,” the company said Sept. 5.

Sky and Space Global estimates its entire constellation, including launch, will cost $160 million to complete. The low-Earth orbit satellite system would circle the equator, providing the recently tested telecom services as well as machine-to-machine and Internet of Things connectivity.

Sky and Space Global’s demonstration cubesats, called the “3 Diamonds,” launched June 23 on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, along with 28 other satellites. Meir Moalem, Sky and Space Global’s CEO and managing director, told SpaceNews the company first tested subsystems, S-band inter-satellite links, and space-to-ground telemetry before progressing to payload systems.  

In a Sept. 5 statement, the company described the voice, text and image transfer test as the “most critical technical and operational milestone for the company.” Additional testing will follow in preparation for commercial services, the company said.

Moalem said voice services, though successfully tested, cannot be commercially offered yet with just three satellites because they lack continuous coverage. He said Sky and Space Global’s first customers are primarily using the 3 Diamonds to transfer data for machine-to-machine and Internet of Things applications.

Sat-Space Africa, a Mauritius-based internet service provider that uses capacity from Telesat, Gazprom Space Systems, Avanti and Measat, is one of Sky and Space Global’s early customers, along with BeepTool, a digital finance services company in Nigeria and the U.S., and mobile satellite services provider GlobalSat Group in Latin America.

“I would say we foresee a high growth of the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine segments of the market,” he said. “Whether it will be larger than the traditional voice or texting part of the market I think it is still too early to say.”

Sky and Space Global has a contract with Danish smallsat manufacturer GomSpace to build its constellation, and with Virgin Orbit to launch “dozens” of satellites each on four LauncherOne missions. Moalem said he anticipates the first launch in the last quarter of 2018, with the majority of the constellation deployed in 2019. Completion of the full constellation is expected by 2020.

Small world

Sky and Space Global is not alone in designing cubesats for telecommunications services. Toronto-based Kepler Communications is preparing a constellation of up to 140 Ku-band cubesats for the Internet of Things, and Swiss startup Else is building 64 L-band cubesats for roughly the same purpose. Kepler’s first two satellites are launching later this year; Else’s first mission is in 2018.

Moalem said Sky and Space Global intends to build a network operations center in London, and is investing in network management software for the fleet. Those investments should make constellation operations manageable with one primary and one backup ground station, he said.

“Our entire network management is done autonomously in space within the constellation, and the entire communications traffic is done in space without any need for the ground station to be involved,” he said.

Rather than build a new ground station network, Moalem said Sky and Space Global will likely join forces with a ground station services provider — a move made possible by several companies tailoring services for smallsats. The 3 Diamonds are using Seattle-based RBC Signals’ ground network for ground station capacity.

Moalem said Sky and Space Global has raised around $16 million for its constellation, providing enough capital to kickstart the manufacturing and launch agreements. He said the company has not yet decided on what financial instruments it will use to finance an expected capital expenditure of around $150 million.

“We are now exploring the best possible way to do that,” he said. “Fortunately for us, there are a lot of options on the table and at the end of the day we will decide what is most suitable for the business.”

Sky and Space Global’s constellation will orbit between 700 and 760 kilometers, he said, with satellites designed to last five to seven years. Moalem said the company plans to retire satellites earlier than that — after three to four years — replacing around 25 percent of the constellation every year. Each satellite will have a propulsion system to shrink orbits down to between 360 and 400 kilometers, he said, before letting gravity take over. “From then on it’s just the natural decay in the atmosphere, which is very quick, even in just a few months.”