Kepler books SpaceX rideshare for LEO satellites

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WASHINGTON — Kepler Communications on Dec. 11 said it booked 400 kilograms of rideshare capacity with SpaceX  in order to launch an unspecified number of its Internet of Things cubesat next year.

Toronto-based Kepler reserved room on two Falcon 9 missions, though the contract allows for flying Kepler’s satellites on more or fewer missions than that, Jared Bottoms, head of launch and satellite programs at Kepler, told SpaceNews

Bottoms declined to say how many satellites Kepler would launch on the SpaceX rideshare missions. However, he said that the SpaceX rideshare and Kepler’s other launch agreements provide enough rides to low Earth orbit for the company’s “Gen-1” constellation of 15 cubesats.

After launching two prototypes in 2018, Kepler’s first service-grade satellites are slated to launch mid next year on a Soyuz rocket booked through Glavkosmos. 

The SpaceX rideshares will follow the Soyuz mission later in 2020, Bottoms said. 

Kepler plans to scale its so-called Internet of Things (IoT) constellation to reach 140 satellites in 2023, using cubesats to transfer data traffic to and from ships, oil rigs, farm machinery and equipment in various other industries. 

Bottoms said the Kepler’s Falcon 9 rideshare contract “roughly aligns” with the $1 million price SpaceX lists for 200 kilograms of rideshare capacity. The contract covers accomodations on two secondary payload adapters currently slated to launch on different missions, Bottoms said.

“SpaceX is honored Kepler chose our Falcon 9 rideshare program to launch a portion of its innovative nanosatellite constellation, which will help close global gaps in internet connectivity,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in a news release.

Kepler is now considering rideshares for a larger portion of its constellation deployment, he said, but hasn’t eliminated plans to eventually use dedicated small launch vehicles. 

“They serve different functions,” Bottoms said of rideshares and dedicated small launchers, “and dedicated is still in our future.”

Kepler, in choosing SpaceX, opted to put aside its frustration about Starlink, the broadband LEO constellation SpaceX began deploying this year by launching the first 120 of a planned 12,000 satellites.

Kepler tightened its orbital plans in response to Starlink, choosing to keep its satellites at 575 kilometers so they avoid collision risks with Starlink satellites located at 550 kilometers. Kepler CEO Mina Mitry said SpaceX’s decision to lower the orbit of some 1,600 planned Starlink satellites was causing “undue hardship” for Kepler, prompting the Canadian company to consider changing its constellation size before settling on the higher orbit. 

Bottoms said Kepler treats its launch needs and its orbital disagreement as separate affairs. 

“If I look at that part of the business of SpaceX, it would put us at a disservice to get in our own way,” Bottoms said. 

Bottoms declined to say if SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation will compete with Kepler’s own business. 

While many IoT constellations focus solely on low-data-rate communications, Kepler’s future satellites will have narrowband and Ku-band capacity, with the Ku-band supporting larger data files, like videos — a service that could overlap with larger broadband constellation ventures.