AST SpaceMobile secures communications with prototype

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PARIS — Satellite-to-smartphone startup AST SpaceMobile is preparing to unfurl the largest commercial antenna ever deployed in low Earth orbit after establishing contact with its BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite.

AST SpaceMobile said Sept. 13 that BlueWalker 3 is stable and responding to commands from ground crews following its launch three days earlier on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Scott Wisniewski, AST SpaceMobile’s chief strategy officer, told SpaceNews the startup expects solar and other conditions to be optimal in a “couple of weeks” to unfold the satellite’s 64-square-meter phased array antenna.

It will only take about a minute to extend the antenna, Wisniewski added, using spring-loaded hinges in a process Wisniewski said is designed to be “as simple and dumb as possible.”

He said the startup aims to begin testing BlueWalker 3’s ability to bring 4G and 5G connectivity to standard mobile phones a couple of weeks later.

AST SpaceMobile plans to test applications including voice and video with the prototype, using an experimental license from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

“We’ve got three different frequencies we’re working with that we’re authorized to use with AT&T” in the United States, Wisniewski said.

He said the startup is also setting up sites to test BlueWalker 3 with more than 10 mobile operators globally “on all six inhabited continents,” which will help these telcos configure their terrestrial infrastructure.

BlueWalker 3 aims to be able to connect with unmodified phones for tests in certain areas for several minutes a day.

The startup plans to deploy the first batch of operational BlueBird satellites in late 2023 to start ramping up toward global services.