WASHINGTON — Three European space companies raised 10 million euros ($11.3 million) to start a constellation for Internet of Things connectivity that they would operate on behalf of a still-to-be-determined service provider.
Lithuanian cubesat builder NanoAvionics, Norwegian ground station operator KSAT and Belgian satellite hardware specialist Antwerp Space announced the funding June 6. Roughly half the funds came from the European Commission, a quarter from the European Space Agency and another quarter from private investors, Vytenis Buzas, NanoAvionics CEO, said in an interview.
The consortium plans to build a constellation for connecting sensors and other Internet of Things devices, but will leave the service provision to someone else, Buzas said. A customer with their own IoT payload or payloads would then provide service to customers while the consortium handles the space operations, he said.
Buzas said the funding will support a precursor constellation of two to three cubesats the consortium hopes to launch to low Earth orbit at the end of 2020. Discussions are ongoing with trial customers, he said.
Based on results of the precursor mission, the consortium will size the operational constellation between 20 to 70 satellites, he said, with the goal of reaching realtime coverage by the end of 2023.
One important technology still needs development before the operational constellation can go forward. Antwerp Space is building new Ka-band inter-satellite links that will enable the satellites to communicate from LEO up to geostationary orbit satellites.
ESA’s funding contribution, provided through its Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems division, will go toward developing the inter-satellite links, according to the agency.
Buzas said the consortium is in discussions with five geostationary operators on leasing bandwidth or forming partnerships to relay constellation IoT traffic collected over areas without KSAT ground stations, such as oceans. Customers with latency-sensitive information can also have their data beamed up to GEO satellites for faster retrieval, he said.
Buzas said the consortium’s approach differs from that of Loft Orbital, a U.S. startup preparing a constellation of 100-kilogram satellites to host payloads for customers who don’t want to operate satellites. The consortium’s satellites will be smaller, weighing 15 to 30 kilograms depending on whether they use 6U or 12U buses, he said, and won’t support as many customers as Loft Orbital.
Loft Orbital’s first announced mission will carry five customers, some of which are in remote sensing.
“We are not seeking multiple payloads and multiple instruments onboard the satellites,” Buzas said. “We prefer a single customer which will own the entire constellation.”
The consortium constellation will operate at roughly 500 kilometers, with satellites designed to last 10 years, he said.
Buzas said the constellation will use a green monopropellant propulsion system that company has flown on two earlier satellites — LituanicaSAT-2 and a rideshare mission called M6P. If the constellation uses NanoAvionics’ 12U bus, each satellite will have around 10U of payload space, according to the consortium.