Astranis adds extra year of life to small GEO satellite design

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TAMPA, Fla. — Improvements Astranis has made to the propulsion systems of four small satellites slated to launch in 2023 will add at least another year to their operational lives, according to CEO John Gedmark.

The San Francisco-based startup has added “a very elegant gimbal design to our electric propulsion system,” Gedmark said in an interview, enabling future satellites to use less propellant during in-orbit maneuvers.

“That means we’re now going to get, conservatively, an extra year of lifetime,” Gedmark said, “from seven years out to eight years.”

The gimbal is an in-house Astranis design, a company spokesperson added, and is not procured from an outside vendor.

Astranis announced April 7 that it had signed a contract with SpaceX to book a dedicated Falcon 9 rocket for launching its latest generation of satellites. 

SpaceX is also due to fly Astranis’ first commercial satellite Arcturus this year as a secondary payload on a Falcon Heavy, which will launch Viasat’s first ViaSat-3 satellite in its primary mission. Although this launch has slipped from spring to late summer, Gedmark expects it will still be Falcon Heavy’s first commercial mission this year.

Astranis builds and secures launches for the satellites it develops, which at around 400 kilograms are among the smallest in the GEO industry, and provides the capacity through long-term leases. 

The company has a deal to lease Arcturus to U.S.-based telco Pacific Dataport Inc (PDI) for broadband coverage over Alaska.

Gedmark told SpaceNews in September that, despite being a secondary payload, the Falcon Heavy will place Arcturus in a direct-inject mission that enables the satellite to arrive at its orbital slot within days of liftoff.

In comparison, a GEO satellite can take months of orbit-raising to reach an operational position after launching on a Falcon 9 to a highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), requiring more fuel.

However, Astranis said its four-satellite payload on SpaceX’s 2023 mission — two for inflight connectivity provider Anuvu, one for Peruvian telco Andesat and another that has not announced a customer — is well below the maximum payload capacity for a Falcon 9.

This means the satellites will be able to propel themselves into service sooner than with a shared ride because they will be sent to a more tailored insertion orbit, according to the company, adding a “few months” of additional life on top of what their improved propulsion systems provide.

Gedmark said the company intends to “move toward dedicated launches from here on out” for all future satellites to gain more control of schedules and orbital parameters.

“That could be from the larger classes of rockets for launching many Astranis satellites as a cluster or as a batch,” he said.

“Or it could be dedicated launches with one of the smaller launchers when those get online, in cases where we want to launch a satellite or two together.”

He said he is confident launch companies will be able to accelerate rocket production to keep pace with the demand Astranis and other satellite startups are expecting.