Astrocast raises $9.2 million, grows target IoT constellation size to 80 satellites

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WASHINGTON — Astrocast has raised an additional 9 million Swiss francs ($9.2 million) to help build and deploy a larger constellation of Internet of Things satellites than the Swiss startup previously envisioned.  

The Series A financing round announced Sept. 4 brings to 16.6 million Swiss francs what Astrocast has raised since forming in 2014. The company declined to name its investors, saying only that this round included a mix of old and new funders. Early stage venture capital firm Investiere and Airbus Ventures contributed to Astrocast’s seed funding

Astrocast has two demonstration satellites in orbit. The first launched in December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that Spaceflight booked for its SSO-A SmallSat Express rideshare mission. Astrocast’s second satellite launched in April on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The company is preparing to launch a constellation of 80 satellites by 2023 or 2024, CEO Fabien Jordan said. 

Astrocast originally planned 64 operational satellites, but increased that to 80 after realizing it would need more spacecraft to adequately cover customers around the equator, Jordan said in an interview. An undetermined number of spares will back up the operational spacecraft, he said. 

Jordan said Astrocast’s first five operational satellites are scheduled to launch in spring 2020, followed by a second batch of five a few months later, both on PSLVs. Another 10 satellites are scheduled to launch at the end of the year on an Arianespace Vega rocket, he said. Italian space hardware and rideshare company D-Orbit arranged the Vega launch and will provide dispensers

Jordan said Astrocast’s operational satellites will be largely the same as its prototypes, except for slightly larger solar panels to provide more power. Astrocast’s first 20 satellites will all be three-unit cubesats, he said. Later models could be six-unit cubesats depending on technologies available, he said.

Three companies — electronic control systems specialist Actia, Swiss Fresh Water, and Marine Instruments — are testing Astrocast’s service using the two prototypes satellites, according to a news release. Jordan said maritime will be a big market segment for Astrocast. Other markets of interest include vehicle tracking, and connecting devices at remote infrastructure like power plants and water distribution facilities, he said. 

Astrocast counts Airbus Defence and Space, Emirati satellite operator Thuraya and the European Space Agency as partners. Jordan said Airbus has been supporting Astrocast in developing data protocols while Thuraya has been helping it navigate regulatory approvals and ESA has been helping with technical validation. 

A low-cost communications module and application specific integrated circuit, or ASIC, chipset developed with Airbus will be ready for sale in the second half of 2020, Jordan said. Those components are for user terminals to uplink and downlink with Astrocast satellites.

Astrocast estimates it will need $50 million to deploy its L-band constellation. Jordan said the company is already starting a Series B round, working toward the goal of reaching $50 million in less than six months. 

Astrocast is also using debt to finance its constellation, having secured a 500,000 Swiss franc loan in July from the Fondation pour l’innovation Technologique.

Building satellites in-house enables the company to keep its costs down, Jordan said. Astrocast is manufacturing its satellites at the EPFL Innovation Park in Switzerland, outsourcing specialized components like cold-gas thrusters, which it is buying from GomSpace Sweden

Astrocast satellites will operate in low Earth orbits between 500 and 600 kilometers altitude, Jordan said. Each satellite will be equipped with a cold gas thruster and an electric propulsion thruster for station keeping, deorbiting and collision avoidance maneuvers, he said. 

Jordan said that while much of the emphasis on space traffic management rests on megaconstellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites, Astrocast views it as no less significant for smaller nanosatellite constellations. Its prototypes and eventually its future operational satellites carry a subsystem equipped with four global navigation satellite system receivers that can determine orbital positions “with an accuracy of a few centimeters,” he said. 

Researchers from the ETH Zurich Institute of Geodesy and Photogrammetry collaborated with Astrocast to design the subsystem based around u-blox GNSS receivers, Jordan said.