Kepler to co-develop third satellite with UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult

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Updated at 9:52 a.m. Eastern. 

WASHINGTON — Kepler Communications, a Canadian startup designing a network of 140 telecom cubesats, has teamed up with the Satellite Applications Catapult in the U.K. to build a third and final prototype before pressing on with the full constellation.

The Harwell, Oxfordshire-based Catapult will partially fund the satellite, and help Kepler establish roots in the U.K., where the company intends to place its first office outside of Canada.

Kepler plans to launch the prototype satellite during the summer of 2019, preceding the launch of the larger constellation later that year.

Jeffrey Osborne, Kepler’s vice president of business development, told SpaceNews that the prototype, named TARS after a robot in the movie Interstellar, will be very different from Kepler’s first two demo satellites.

To date Kepler has provided “store and forward” services with KIPP, a satellite launched to low-Earth orbit in January on a Chinese Long March 11 rocket. That satellite collects data, holds it in space and then dumps it when passing over designated very small aperture terminals. Kepler’s second demo satellite, CASE, will perform the same function after it launches this summer (Osborne declined to name the launch provider).

TARS will be the first satellite to include a narrowband communications payload to carry small amounts of data from numerous Internet of Things devices, Osborne said. In prepping the narrowband service, Kepler realized it needed to do “a substantial amount of technology development,” he said.

“In order to sell to this market, you need to provide effectively a cellular-like solution in terms of power, price, performance, size, etc.,” he said. “It needs to be as close to cellular as possible.”

Osborne said Kepler’s Internet of Things focus is on devices that move around frequently and as a result have difficulty staying connected because of differences in cellular standards around the world. Instead of configuring those devices to work with multiple cellular networks, customers can use Kepler’s satellite system to stay connected regardless of location.

Neither Osborne nor the Catapult would disclose how much funding the Catapult is putting towards the TARS mission.

“The collaboration involves contributions from both sides,” said Christopher Brunskill, the Catapult’s head of small satellites and future constellations.

“[Kepler] will be working with U.K. suppliers for the spacecraft platform, and we are working directly with them on their business development activities to help them establish their U.K. base and then their operations into Europe,” he said.

The Satellite Applications Catapult procures spacecraft and launch slots for participants in its In-Orbit Demonstration (IOD) mission series, with the requirement that beneficiaries of the program show a tangible return for the U.K. space sector. Two government agencies, Innovate U.K. and the U.K. Space Agency, provide funding for the Catapult’s IOD program.

“We are trying to join the dots between the new ‘Planets’ or the new ‘Spires,’” said Florian Deconinck, small satellites program manager at the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Companies like Kepler “are trying to effectively de-risk their service by launching prototype satellites,” he said, and the Catapult seeks to make that feasible while drawing companies to the U.K.

Clyde Space, the same company that has provided the spacecraft platform for Kepler’s first two prototypes, is one of the suppliers for the Catapult’s IOD program, along with, more recently, Open Cosmos of Harwell.

Osborne said Kepler builds its payloads in-house, and will likely continue that arrangement for future satellites. The company has not selected a spacecraft platform supplier for the TARS satellite, he said.  

Osborne said Kepler consists of around 20 people today. The company has not yet determined how big its U.K. office will be, he said.