Next commercial Falcon Heavy mission to launch debut Astranis satellite
TAMPA, Fla. — Astranis said Sept. 23 that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will launch its first commercial satellite in a direct-inject mission to geostationary orbit (GEO) in spring 2022.
The San Francisco-based startup, which is building and operating the Arcturus satellite for U.S.-based telco Pacific Dataport Inc (PDI), previously picked SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for a launch as a secondary payload early next year to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
Launching as a secondary payload on the next commercial Falcon Heavy mission means the satellite will arrive at its orbital slot within days of liftoff, according to Astranis CEO John Gedmark, removing the need for months of orbit-raising from highly elliptical GTO.
SpaceX has at least two Falcon Heavy missions slated for early 2022: a U.S. Space Force launch postponed from October and no-earlier-than March launch of Viasat’s first next-generation Viasat-3 broadband satellite.
Asked if the cost of launch was also a factor in its decision to switch rockets, Gedmark said: “There was no particular thing that drove us to this change. A great opportunity came along and we jumped on it.
“This is the benefit of the size of our satellites. Because we use such a compact form factor, we can fly as a secondary payload and have a huge amount of launch flexibility.”
The satellites Astranis builds are some of the smallest in the commercial GEO communications market at around 400 kilograms.
Gedmark did, however, confirm that the launch is insured. Rates to insure a Falcon Heavy that has only flown three times will likely be very different compared with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse.
All three Falcon Heavy rockets launched so far have been successful, although the Space Test Program 2 mission in June 2019 was its last mission.
Falcon Heavy is slated to next fly no earlier than Oct. 9 for a U.S. Space Force mission designated USSF-44.
Gedmark said Astranis is planning to provide details about its insurance at a later date.
PDI plans to lease capacity from Arcturus to provide internet services across Alaska, roughly tripling the available satellite capacity in the state, according to Astranis, bringing costs down to one-third of current prices for residential and wholesale customers.
Astranis pointed to research showing how more Alaskans are underserved regarding internet access than any other state in the United States.
Alaska is also a key growth target for the connectivity services startup OneWeb plans to provide from low Earth orbit later this year.
Speaking to SpaceNews in early September after a recent trip to Alaska, OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson said the venture now expects takeup of its services will be faster than expected once it begins to come online.
Gedmark said its decision to switch to a rocket that aims to bring its services online faster was made independently of any decisions of other companies.
“It was just the best way to get bandwidth to Alaskans as soon as possible,” he said.
“As we’ve noted before, we don’t believe the global demand for bandwidth will be met anytime soon, and that’s certainly also true of Alaska. We’ve all got a huge challenge ahead of us in providing affordable broadband whenever and wherever people need it, the world over.”
In July, Astranis secured an order for the first two of eight satellites that Anuvu is planning for connectivity services on aircraft, boats and remote locations.
Astranis is currently building two other satellites, including one that has secured an undisclosed customer.
Gedmark added that switching to Falcon Heavy has not changed plans for future launches.
“Astranis spacecraft are capable of doing their own orbit raise from GTO up to GEO when needed, and we’ll continue to have that capability in future satellites,” he said.