Astranis to fund launch of student-built satellite

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BREMEN, Germany — A startup developing small communications satellites will fund the launch of a student-built satellite selected through a competition.

Astranis Space Technologies announced Oct. 1 that it will work with NanoRacks to fund a future launch of a university-built 1U cubesat. The satellite will be selected through a competition run by a student space organization, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), among its U.S.-based chapters. The announcement of the competition was linked to the start of the 69th International Astronautical Congress here.

That competition for SEDS SAT-2 will begin at SpaceVision, the annual SEDS conference, held in November in San Diego. Current plans call for a winning design to be selected by the end of the academic year in May 2019, with the launch of the satellite at a later date to be determined.

John Gedmark, chief executive of Astranis and a former president of the Purdue University chapter of SEDS, said in an interview that part of the rationale for funding the competition was to give back to the organization. His co-founder, Ryan McLinko, was a former president of the SEDS chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the two met through the organization.

“SEDS has a big place in our hearts and we want to pay it forward for all the great things that SEDS did for us,” Gedmark said.

While student-built cubesats are increasingly common, launch opportunities can still be difficult to find outside of programs like NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites. Having students not only build a satellite but also launch it offers far better experience than simply building a satellite, Gedmark said.

“What I have found in the course of my career is that it’s one of these 80/20 things,” he said. “You get 20 percent of the experience from building the first prototype or even the final version that you have sitting on a bench top, and you really get 80 percent, at least, of the experience of actually flying it: getting all of the regulatory approvals, handling all of the launch integration, setting up your ground system.”

“There are plenty of simulations and imagined scenarios of this mission or another that young professionals can work on. But this? For our students, this will be a tangible project they will have control over from conceptualization to launch and beyond. It doesn’t get much more real than that,” said Miekkal Clarkson, executive director of SEDS-USA, in a statement.

Gedmark acknowledged there is some benefit to Astranis from this competition. The startup, which plans to develop small geostationary orbit communications satellites, raised $18 million earlier this year and is using the funding to build up the company.

“Certainly, for a company that is growing fast, one of our biggest rate-limiting factors is how quickly we can hire,” he said. “So, we are also certainly excited about the opportunity to get the word out to more students and have the opportunity to meet more talented young people who might want to work at Astranis.”

As the name suggests, SEDS SAT-2 will not be the first satellite developed by the organization, founded in the early 1980s. SEDSat-1 was built in the 1990s, primarily by students at the University of Alabama Huntsville, and launched as a secondary payload on a Delta 2 in 1998. The spacecraft was still partially operational as recently as 2013.