Another startup joins race to provide high-speed lunar communications

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TAMPA, Fla. — Aquarian Space said March 17 it has raised seed funding to deploy a high-speed communications network for the moon to meet anticipated demand from government and commercial lunar missions.

Silicon Valley venture capital firm Draper Associates, an early SpaceX investor, has injected $650,000 in Aquarian Space to support plans to deploy its first lunar satellite in the first quarter of 2024.

The satellite is part of a constellation Aquarian Space is planning to improve communications above Earth’s orbit that John Rotondo, the startup’s chief technology officer, says is unequipped to handle a growing number of proposed missions to the moon. 

Rotondo said the startup has plans to deploy a second satellite in 2025 to provide “continuous South Pole coverage,” but has yet to secure a launch agreement for either satellite.

European startup Plus Ultra Space Outposts signed a launch agreement late October with Rocket Factory Augsburg, an early-stage launch company based in Germany, to deploy its first communications satellite for the moon in the final quarter of 2023.

Plus Ultra also has a deal to launch additional satellites for its planned constellation as soon as 2024 with ispace, the Japanese lunar transportation venture selling accommodations on its moon-bound landers.

Lunar activity

Aquarian Space’s funding comes as NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program drives investment in startups that see it as the start of an emerging lunar-based economy.

Ahead of an Artemis 3 mission to land astronauts on the moon in 2025, NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program has been awarding contracts to commercial companies to send robotic spacecraft to the lunar surface.

While some of these commercial ventures have booked near-term launches, including lunar lander developer Intuitive Machines, most startups that have been created in recent years to establish lunar-based businesses have yet to confirm launches.

Artemis’ overall strategy has also faced questions about its growing costs and slipping schedules.

Following multiple delays, NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket rolled out to the launchpad March 17 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, for a countdown rehearsal ahead of the Artemis 1 uncrewed lunar flyby mission slated to launch no sooner than June.

This mission marks the rocket’s first test flight and its success will be critical for the rest of the Artemis program. NASA aims to follow the mission with a crewed Artemis 2 lunar flyby in 2024, and then Artemis 3 the following year.

Connecting the moon

Aquarian Space is working with external suppliers to build and integrate its planned satellites, Rotondo said in an email without disclosing details.

He said the Colorado-based startup is currently conducting technical reviews with several CLPS commercial providers, other U.S. lunar commercial explorers and international lunar missions to develop its technology.

Aquarian Space and Plus Ultra and are both planning constellations that aim to provide 100 megabits per second (Mbps) connectivity on the moon, exceeding currently identified needs for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

“NASA’s [Deep Space Network (DSN)] was designed over 30 years ago with very large 70-meter antennas to focus on deep space customers, which have historically only needed bandwidths in the tens to hundreds of kilo-bits per second,” Rotondo said.

“The DSN has already and can continue to upgrade the bandwidth capacity, but they currently do not plan to do that for lunar applications,” he said, adding that Aquarian Space’s system will also be able to downlink to smaller antennas while improving redundancy and geographical diversity.

“Our unique and patentable technology is at the system-level, in how we implement the [radio frequency communication] protocols and the mission flexibility of our design,” Rotondo added.