MEO startup Methera plans “high density” HTS constellation

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SINGAPORE and WASHINGTON — In medium Earth orbit, the only system providing satellite broadband today is SES Networks’ constellation of 16 O3b satellites. A British startup with its own 16-satellite constellation idea wants to change that.

Methera Global Communications estimates it needs $500 million to build and launch a constellation of satellites each equipped with 40 gigabits of capacity to beam down Ka-band connectivity to highly concentrated areas.

If successful, Methera will launch its first spacecraft in 2022, with service starting that same year.

Chris McIntosh Methera
Chris McIntosh, CEO of Methera, a startup planning a constellation of at least 16 satellites in medium Earth orbit for broadband connectivity. Credit: Methera.

Chris McIntosh, Methera’s CEO, left his position as CEO of Viasat UK last June to lead Methera, joining co-founders David Gilmore from GapSat and David Robson, who, according to LinkedIn, was the head of advanced payloads for 25 years at EADS Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space). Gilmore and Robson started Methera in 2015. The startup currently consists of 10 people and is based in Harwell with several other British startups.

McIntosh describes “capacity density” as the key differentiator between his company’s proposed constellation and other emerging satellite systems.

“Instead of trying to put a thin veneer of coverage around the globe, what we’re doing is looking at a small number of targets where we will put lots of capacity,” he said.

Methera’s 700-kilogram satellites — the same mass as the first-generation O3b satellites — will hone capacity on extremely specific locations, targeting a small number of high-value customers, McIntosh said. Government and service provider customers will be able to “take a village or a town from no coverage to being able to provide for everyone as opposed to being able to provide for a few,” he said.

If Methera can hit the cost and performance targets it anticipates, its system should be “relatively competitive with the current most advanced geostationary satellites” like those of Viasat and Hughes, according to Armand Musey, president of the consulting firm Summit Ridge Group.

But positioning the satellites in medium Earth orbit means customers of Methera’s system will need advanced antennas that can track the satellites as they move relative to the Earth’s surface.

“I’m not sure that there is a significant space segment cost that would offset the higher customer premise equipment,” Musey said.

O3b faced the same challenge and, finding flat panel, electronically steerable antennas commercially unavailable, started service in 2014 with terminals using two dishes ensuring a constant link for uninterrupted service.

McIntosh said Methera has been working for the past year on a low-cost terminal design thanks to 700,000 pounds ($912,000) of funding from Innovate UK, the British innovation agency, and 70,000 pounds from the U.K.’s National Space Technology Program.

Methera is focusing initially on parabolic antennas as well, but is studying “whether there is anything clever you can do to minimize the time that it takes to do a handover,” such as using only one dish instead of two, he said.

“What we believe is that things have moved on since when O3b went through that same challenge,” McIntosh said.

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, a British company specialized in building small satellites, is one of Methera’s partners, along with British telecom Arqiva, satellite equipment provider Global Invacom and consulting firm In Space Missions Ltd., according to Methera’s website. Ben Stocker, SSTL’s director of telecommunications, told SpaceNews by email that the company completed a feasibility study for the Methera constellation.

“SSTL participated, as part of a wider consortium, in a [U.K. Space Agency] funded study to define a feasible mission baseline and concept of operations for the Methera Space Segment,” Stocker said. “The study successfully concluded in July 2018, with a key part of the study being to identify the main elements of the system that drive cost and schedule. SSTL continue to work closely with Methera to further optimise the Space Segment solution.”

McIntosh said confirmatory work is ongoing following the study.

Methera has a pending application with the U.K.’s telecom regulator Ofcom to license its low-latency satellite system, McIntosh said. The company has not applied for market access in the U.S. with the Federal Communications Commission because the U.S. is not an area of initial focus, he said.

McIntosh highlighted emerging markets as Methera’s target areas. Methera doesn’t have any firm customer commitments yet, but does have signals of healthy interest through letters of intent, he said.

“The biggest problem is deciding where to roll out so we can focus our energy on the ones we can take all the way to an order,” he said.

By placing 16 satellites in 18,000-kilometer polar orbits — about 2,000 kilometers below the U.S. Air Force’s GPS satellites — Methera will be able to reach anywhere on Earth’s surface, he said.

Methera is currently operating using funds from a seed round, and is seeking to raise a series A this year. McIntosh declined to state the company’s target for the Series A.

McIntosh said Methera sees an opportunity to work with other satellite constellations by providing additional capacity in areas of interest, especially for constellations where increasing throughput in a singular location would require scaling up the entire system through multiple additional satellites.