SpaceLink awarded OHB System AG a contract valued at more than $300 million to manufacture four satellites for its commercial space data relay constellation. Credit: SpaceLink

SAN FRANCISCO – SpaceLink announced plans Feb. 24 to establish an initial constellation of smaller satellites than previously planned, a move designed to slash the cost and speed up the rollout of initial data-relay services.

“We’re inserting a set of smaller satellites into our constellation roadmap,” SpaceLink CEO Dave Bettinger told SpaceNews. “That will allow us to maintain the full capability of what we were launching before but with less capacity.”

SpaceLink plans to spend $240 million to establish its initial constellation, compared with $750 million under its previous plan. The new plan also means the startup will begin offering service in early 2024 as opposed to mid-2024 as originally planned, according to a Feb. 24 news release from SpaceLink parent company Australia’s Electro Optic Systems Holdings.

Under the terms of its FCC license, SpaceLink, must begin providing satellite communications service with satellites in medium Earth orbit by June 2024. With the large satellites the McLean, Virginia-based startup ordered from OHB Systems AG, there was some risk of missing the deadline.

Under the new plan, “we’re more comfortable that we’ll make our FCC date,” said Tony Colucci, SpaceLink chief strategy and commercial officer.

SpaceLink has not announced the manufacturer for its smaller satellites but has narrowed the choice to two vendors. Contracts for the satellites, which will be roughly half the size of the firm’s ultimate constellation of 1,000-kilogram spacecraft, are scheduled to be awarded in April, according to the news release.

In spite of the change in its initial constellation, SpaceLink remains focused on its goal of establishing a constellation in medium Earth orbit to relay data to and from spacecraft in low Earth orbit. Every two to three years, SpaceLink plans to expand capacity with new generations of satellites, Colucci said.

SpaceLink continues to work with OHB in an extended engineering phase to incorporate changes in the larger SpaceLink satellites, which like the initial constellation will feature both optical and RF communications links.

SpaceLink executives anticipate strong demand for communications services from an array of potential customers including commercial Earth observation satellite constellations.

“We are coming in at a good time because these business models have been proven and now the companies are searching for other ways to get their data to the ground,” Bettinger said. “We’ll be showing up exactly at the right time.”

In addition, commercial human spaceflight missions are becoming more frequent. Those flights will need ongoing connectivity to operate safely, Bettinger added.

When SpaceLink parent company, EOS, acquired Silicon Valley startup Audacy in 2020, the Australian firm gained approximately 21 GHz of valuable radio frequency spectrum. “Given increasing congestion and demand for advanced satellite services, it is imperative to satisfy the FCC milestone date and preserve the access to the wide bandwidth conferred by the spectrum rights,” the news release said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...