Former ABS execs form small GEO builder Saturn Satellite Networks

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Executives who previously worked for fleet operator ABS of Bermuda have formed a new company focused on building small geostationary satellites.

Saturn Satellite Networks will build satellites ranging from 600 kilograms to 1,700 kilograms, and already has a customer order, Tom Choi, Saturn’s executive chairman, told SpaceNews.

Choi, who co-founded ABS in 2005, stepped down as CEO of that company in 2017 and began working on small GEO satellite platforms, according to a news release. Jim Simpson, ABS’s CEO in late 2017 and for most of 2018, is the CEO of Saturn. ABS’s former chief technology officer Ken Betaharon is the CTO of Saturn.

Choi said by email that Saturn is less than 10 people today, and plans to keep its headcount low to prevent overhead costs from rising. The company has a network of subcontractors and consultants for building all the elements of the spacecraft, he said.

Saturn has a facility for payload integration in Colorado, and another for spacecraft chassis in California, Choi said. The company said 95 percent of its satellite components are sourced in the U.S.

Saturn is targeting as customers nations who want their own satellite but for which a traditional multi-ton spacecraft is too much.

Small GEO spacecraft have started to gain popularity among buyers who want satellites at a lower cost and who want or don’t mind the smaller coverage footprint on the ground. Astranis in San Francisco, GapSat in Hong Kong and Ovzon in Sweden are all planning to launch small GEO satellites 2020 or 2021. Astranis plans to build and operate its own satellites; GapSat purchased its satellite from Terran Orbital, and Ovzon’s from Maxar Technologies. In May, Argentine satellite manufacturer INVAP and Turkish Aerospace formed the joint company GSATCOM Space Technologies that is also focused on small GEO satellites.

Saturn says its “nationsat” satellites will be 70 to 80 percent cheaper than traditional wide-beam satellites, and will achieve a cost per gigabit of under $1 million for high-throughput spot-beam models. Research firm Euroconsult considers a cost per gigabit at or below that level to be the threshold for a cost-effective high-throughput satellite.

Choi said a high-throughput nationsat can carry 20 to 80 gigabits per second of capacity.

Saturn envisions building around two nationsats a year, with the ability to increase to six a year, he said.

The first nationsat recently passed its preliminary design review, and is on track for delivery in 2020, according to the company. Choi said Saturn’s first contract is valued at more than $60 million, of which $10 million has been paid already. 

Saturn is a subsidiary of another Choi company, Airspace Internet Exchange, which focuses on wireless technologies. Airspace Internet Exchange’s other subsidiary, Curvalux, focuses on terrestrial wireless phased array-enabled broadband. Choi said the two subsidiaries don’t overlap presently, but may in the future.