WASHINGTON — By cost, Swiss startup Else is the smallest low-Earth orbit venture to have partnered with an established geostationary operator as the prevailing industry mindset shifts from skepticism to opportunity. The company estimates it can build, launch and operate a 64-cubesat constellation for less than $50 million to provide low-data-rate communications.
Dubai-based mobile satellite services provider Thuraya, in the midst of designing its own next-generation geostationary constellation called Futura, partnered with Else in April to collaborate on technical and regulatory fronts, along with combined sales and marketing of products.
Else’s team of 15 people, split between Switzerland and Portland, Oregon, is building a constellation called Astrocast to enable L-band machine-to-machine connectivity. Fabien Jordan, who helped build SwissCube, Switzerland’s first satellite, co-founded Else with other SwissCube team-members in 2014. The company intends to launch two 4-kilogram demonstration cubesats next year, one through smallsat launch aggregator Spaceflight, for which a contract is already signed, and another with a different aggregator the company has yet to pick. Both are likely to launch on either SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, or Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles.
Jassem Nasser, Thuraya’s chief strategy officer, told SpaceNews by email that the partnership “will factor into our ‘new wave’ IoT and content service offering, one of three primary focus areas for Futura.”
“I think the right way to describe it is that we have been open to partnerships and alliances and we do not believe in doing everything on our own. As a company, Thuraya has always been keen on partnering with organizations that share a common vision and goal for technology, commercial and service opportunities,” he said.
Kjell Karlsen, who led Sea Launch for 14 years before parting ways with the company in 2014, is Else’s chief financial officer.
SpaceNews spoke to Jordan and Karlsen about Else’s plans for the future.
Your first satellites are scheduled to launch in 2018. What do you hope to learn?
Jordan: These two satellites will serve as demonstrators not only for the space segment, but to characterize the radio frequency link between the objects we have on the ground for the demonstration and the satellites. We are involving a couple of pilot customers who want to put the terminal on their equipment and test with us.
With a non-geosynchronous satellite system, there will be a lot of motion between both moving terminals and satellites that all need to be tracked.
Jordan: We are not going to track the satellites with the terminals. We don’t need a permanent link with the satellite. We will have eight operational satellites per orbital plane, and eight different orbital planes in sun-synchronous polar orbits. We will communicate when the satellite is available. The more satellites we have, the more often you can communicate with the terminal, but we do not guarantee real-time. There will be a latency that depends on the number of satellites, ground stations, etc.
At the terminal level we have something extremely simple to reduce the cost and power level. We have a very small terminal basically the size of a stamp, and the antenna is also about the same size, so it can be used with a battery or a local power source and integrated into any type of outdoor equipment.
Do you have a ballpark estimation for the latency?
Jordan: Our objective for the full constellation is to reach less than 10 to 15 minutes latency for the time you need for the message to reach the customer from the terminal.
What are some markets that would desire low bitrate satellite communications?
Jordan: What we discovered is there are a lot of industries interested in very diverse applications because we are solving a simple problem that is common to a lot of them. To give a couple of examples, we have been approached by the automotive market, the companies that are systems integrators for cars, trucks and heavy machinery.
We have also been approached by companies that manufacture buoys and companies that make smart water meters in the Middle East. There are a wide range of applications and every week we discover new ones. It is exciting.
Karlsen: Through the letters of interest we have interest for more than 1 million terminals once we become operational.
How much capital has Else raised, and what is your target?
Karlsen: We are in the midst of closing our seed round right now. So far we have raised capital through Swiss grants, we have some early angel investors and we’ve also received some commitments from venture capitalists in Europe. We anticipate we are going to close with $3 million-plus in seed round, in addition to the funding we received through Swiss grants. In addition to that, we also have a European Space Agency contract that is in place through the ARTES program. All of that combined gives us enough room with our current burn rate to get us through the two demonstration missions.
After that, our plan is to go into a Series A funding round that, if everything works as anticipated, will close around the time of the launch of the first satellites.
We’ve found in the early stages it’s been easier for us to raise capital in Europe than it has been in the U.S. … When our seed round closes and people see who the European investors are, I think it will be easier also to get U.S. investment onboard for the Series A.
What is your goal for the Series A?
Karlsen: We are looking to raise between $8 and 10 million. To date, 20 percent of that is committed from seed round investors.
With Thuraya you have a memorandum of understanding. What is it that both sides bring to the table?
Jordan: That is a collaboration on several aspects, including the distribution network. Thuraya has a great distribution network that we can benefit from and we are extremely excited to work with them.
We cannot go into the details of the different aspects of collaboration, but we are really happy to have this collaboration in place.
Karlsen: I have a lot of experience with Thuraya having launched all three of their satellites while I was at Sea Launch.
Does the Thuraya partnership include any investment from Thuraya into Else?
Karlsen: That’s too early to discuss. We haven’t really broached that subject other than agreeing that it is a discussion we will have in the future. Of course, we would be very delighted if Thuraya decided, as part of the collaboration, to become an investor in Else.
Do you have a planned deorbit system for your satellites?
Jordan: We are going to launch them at an altitude which will be lower than 650 kilometers, which means that naturally they will deorbit before the 25-year guideline from ESA. We do have propulsion on board to separate the satellites and to spread them on the orbital plane, but we will also be able to use that propulsion for collision maneuvers. If we have enough propellant, we might also use it for deorbiting at the end of life.
Karlsen: We hope we can get three to five years out of them.
What’s the minimum number of satellites needed to offer commercial service?
Jordan: Technically we can do business with one satellite. We know that, but we are going to start the operation with eight satellites on one orbital plane in 2019.
Then we will launch more satellites on more orbital planes, and this will allow us to reach other applications where the latency is more critical. But there are lots of applications where the latency is not critical and you can offer a good service with only a few satellites.
Karlsen: We will launch a couple of spares each time we launch, so if we need eight satellites in an orbital plane, at least for the first few launches we will launch 10.
There are other constellations targeting the M2M and IoT markets, and not only startups. What will make Astrocast unique?
Jordan: The unique aspect is the fact that first we have an extremely cost effective solution, and second that we have a direct link with the object. It is not a backhauling solution where you have a network and then you have a gateway that goes to a LEO or GEO satellite; we really have a direct link between the object and the satellite.
Karlsen: It’s hard to compete with a nanosatellite solution where the satellite price and the launch prices are on a completely different magnitude than what you see from some of the larger players with their larger satellites. Also on the terminal side we can keep costs down to where it becomes really cost effective to generate new customers that may not even have a satellite solution because they can’t afford it. We think we can bring a lot of those customers to the market as well.