Kepler validates intersatellite data-relay terminal

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TAMPA, Fla. — Kepler Communications has successfully tested inter-satellite links with a terminal designed to tap into the Aether data-relay constellation it plans to start deploying early next year, an executive for the Canadian company said.

Two of the four satellites SpaceX launched Jan. 13 to support Kepler’s current business, which provides low-data-rate services with a total 19 satellites to devices out of range of terrestrial networks, are equipped with the S-band terminal for the upcoming system.

Kepler “successfully transferred the first [data] packet from one satellite to the other” four days after launch, CEO Mina Mitry said in an interview.

“Every week we test with our satellites at varying distances, performing communications and validating the link as distance changes,” Mitry said.

Although the “hardware is validated and is building flight heritage,” he said Kepler plans to continue making refinements ahead of deploying dedicated data-relay spacecraft next year.

“Building a relay network is incredibly power consuming,” he said, so these satellites will be “an order of magnitude bigger” than the 19 cubesats in its current network, which Kepler expects to continue operaitng alongside the relay satellites.

“The problem for customers is it’s really power expensive if they wanted to do their own in space communications network,” he said, while “it’s very power efficient if they talk to our satellites because our antennas are bigger so their antennas can be smaller.”

These larger Aether satellites aim to provide real-time connectivity for low Earth orbit (LEO) spacecraft that currently only relay information when passing over approved ground stations.

A LEO satellite can communicate with ground systems “30% of the time at best, leaving 70% unaccounted for,” he said.

“This discrepancy slows down the commissioning process and bottlenecks the ability to downlink time-sensitive data.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine has helped underline the importance of real-time connectivity in the Earth observation market for government and defense applications, according to Mitry, and is “driving a lot of interest in uptake.”

Kepler is also one of the companies hoping to provide a commercial alternative to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) that NASA is retiring.

Next steps

Kepler has secured spectrum rights through the German government that would allow nearly 115,000 satellites to use its terminals for accessing the Aether data-relay network.

However, “out of an abundance of care,” Mitry said Kepler is voluntarily reaching out to satellite operators to ensure it does not interfere with the S-band frequencies they use for telemetry, tracking and control.

There is no formalized body that facilitates these kinds of conversations, Mitry noted.

“It is a really old process where you go in and you knock on someone’s door” to check for interference, he said, adding that so far the feedback has been positive. 

Mitry also said the $60 million Kepler raised in June covers funding for all the satellites it aims to deploy throughout 2023. 

He said Kepler has plans for 140 satellites in total but declined to discuss how many are expected to be deployed next year, or if launch agreements have been secured.

The Canadian company has “built a sizable inventory” of satellite parts to guard against supply chain issues that could disrupt its expansion plans, he added. 

“We’ve secured all of our supply for this year and early next year,” he said, and is keeping “a close eye” on the potential for raw material and staffing shortages. 

The company is also planning to test its terminal on a third party nanosatellite operated by Spire Global that is slated to launch in late 2022.