Kepler Communications opens launch bids for Gen-1 LEO constellation

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WASHINGTON — Canadian startup Kepler Communications announced Aug. 28 it is accepting bids from launch providers to orbit its first-generation constellation of up to 15 cubesats, but with the stipulation that the launches must happen within two years.

Kepler wants to support new launch startups fielding vehicles that could make space more accessible for small satellites, provided they can launch its satellites by the third quarter of 2020, Mina Mitry, Kepler’s co-founder and CEO, told SpaceNews.

“We are hoping that the net new launchers that are coming out into the market will really support the business cases that we have planned,” Mitry said in an interview. He declined to give what price range Kepler is seeking, but said the launch industry is “trending towards lower launch costs that can really help the type of business that we are running.”

Though launch delays are largely regarded as a condition of being in the space industry, small satellites are acutely vulnerable, since they often ride as secondary payloads beholden to the schedule of a bigger, primary satellite.

Kepler plans to operate 140 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide Internet of Things connectivity to devices on the ground and to act as a relay network for other satellites by using intersatellite links. Mitry said Kepler intends to scale up fast, with the Gen-1 constellation in service by late 2020 or early 2021, a second generation of up to 50 satellites by the end of 2021, and the full 140-satellite constellation operational by the end of 2022.

“We’ll be ramping up pretty rapidly immediately after this first batch,” Mitry said.

In a press release, Kepler said it will complete the request for information process by this September, and will follow up with prospective launch providers in November.

Mitry said Kepler’s inflexible Gen-1 constellation deadline is driven by customers. The company’s preference is to launch five to seven satellites at a time on two operational rockets, he said. But that doesn’t preclude launching one or more on rockets under development today.

“We are definitely open to awards that support the industry and allow new launch vehicles to demonstrate their capability, and bring to bear something that could be very useful to Kepler long term,” Mitry said.

How many satellites Kepler would launch on a new rocket depends on “what capability has been demonstrated” to assure a reliable launch, he said.

Kepler has yet to sign a manufacturing agreement for the full 140 satellite constellation. AAC Clyde built the company’s first two prototypes — KIPP, which launched aboard a Chinese Long March 11 in January, and CASE, which launches later this year on an unspecified rocket — but Mitry said the full constellation “isn’t a de facto to Clyde decision.”

AAC Clyde is also under contract for a third a final demo satellite, TARS, slated to launch in mid-2019.

Mitry said Kepler has no reservations about signing the launch contract first since it has “good indications of what Gen-1 will look like.”

Each satellite will have a mass of 12 to 15 kilograms, Kepler said in a press release.

Mitry said the Gen-1 satellites will be slightly heavier than the prototypes because those lack intersatellite links.

Kepler has also yet to determine if its fleet will have on-board propulsion, he said. From an altitude between 520 and 600 kilometers, Kepler’s satellites will have a design life of three to five years, he said.

With each constellation generation, Kepler’s revisit time — and by extension latency — will shrink from six to 12 hours, to under an hour, to near-real time, Mitry said.

In keeping with the theme for its prototypes, Kepler is designating its first 10 Gen-1 satellites as the “Alderaan” series, named after a fictional world in the Star Wars universe. Each prototype spacecraft is named after a robot in the 2014 sci-fi movie Interstellar.