TAMPA, Fla. — Kepler Communications plans to use a Spire Global nanosatellite launching late next year to test a terminal it hopes to someday deploy by the thousands to create a mesh network of data-relay satellites.
Kepler, a six-year-old Toronto startup, currently operates 15 cubesats that provide low-data-rate connectivity to devices on Earth that are beyond the reach of terrestrial networks.
With Aether data-relay satellites Kepler is also developing, the startup aims to “bring the Internet to space” for the thousands of satellites expected to launch to low Earth orbit over the next decade.
According to Kepler, its Aether network will provide real-time connectivity for spacecraft that can currently only relay information when passing over approved ground stations.
Satellites with an Aether terminal would not need a direct connection to a ground station to send data back to Earth, say Kepler executives, who anticipate demand for the network coming from markets including Earth sensing and space tourism.
Kepler recently filed for regulatory permission for nearly 115,000 satellites that will be able to connect to the Aether network.
Mina Mitry, the startup’s CEO, said in a Nov. 18 blog post that these satellites are predominantly non-Kepler satellites with Aether terminals onboard.
Filing for regulatory permission on behalf of potential customers to operate terminals simplifies the licensing process for users because the hardware, service and licensing will all come from Kepler, Mitry wrote, reducing the administration burden for them and regulators.
The startup confirmed to SpaceNews that it continues to only have plans to operate 140 satellites in total.
New capabilities such as Aether will be added to additional Kepler satellites that will replace older generations over time.
Steve Bennett, Kepler’s chief operating officer, said the company plans to launch four satellites in January, as part of SpaceX’s Transporter 3 Falcon 9 ride-share mission.
“We are constantly iterating on the satellites that we put into orbit – one of the strengths of having manufacturing in house,” Bennett told SpaceNews via email.
“With the upcoming launch, two of our satellites will be carrying [Aether] user equipment to prove out the design and build the flight heritage.”
Kepler raised $60 million in June for its constellation plans amid a goal to nearly double its team to 150 people by the end of 2021.
Bennett said the company is set to start 2022 “with over 100 employees and will continue hiring aggressively in 2022.”
Before Aether spacecraft capable of relaying data are deployed in orbit, initial terminal tests on a satellite Spire plans to launch in the fourth quarter of 2022 will be limited to verifying hardware performance and data rates.
“To have the full [Aether] solution we’ll need to have our network deployed, which is planned to commence in Q1 2023,” a Kepler spokesperson said.
However, Kepler said the terminal tests would enable Spire Global to evaluate how the Aether data-relay network could support Spire’s LEO constellation of more than 110 Lemur smallsats.
Spire, which went public this year to expand its weather and tracking data business, operates a space-as-a-service business for third parties.
The space-as-a-service offering enables commercial and government organizations to deploy their own applications and sensors relatively quickly, leveraging Spire’s space technology, ground station network and automated operations system.
Israeli satellite IoT startup hiSky also plans to demonstrate technology on a Spire Global satellite launching late next year.
Spire, which went public in August by merging with a special purpose acquisition company, recently booked a launch for its space debris monitoring ADLER-1 nanosatellite with Virgin Orbit, scheduled for no earlier than Dec. 22.