Erwin Hudson Telesat
Erwin Hudson, Vice President of Telesat LEO, said the operator's business plans center on a constellation with 292 satellites. Credit: Brian Berger/SpaceNews

MT LAUREL, New Jersey — Telesat says enabling technologies for its low-Earth-orbit constellation of 298 internet satellites are now mature enough for the operator to select a prime contractor in the next few months. 

Choosing a satellite manufacturer to build the Telesat LEO constellation has taken longer than Telesat expected. The Canadian geostationary satellite fleet operator projected in 2017 that the constellation’s deployment would be fully underway this year. Instead, Telesat has only a single prototype satellite launched 28 months ago to demonstrate the low-latency broadband experience promised by LEO constellations. 

Telesat’s timeline now calls for beginning Telesat LEO deployment in 2022 with the launch of 78 satellites into polar orbits. The constellation’s remaining 220 satellites would be launched into inclined orbits by the end of 2023. The polar satellites would enable service in high northern latitudes in 2022, with global service commencing in 2023 after inclined-orbit satellites launch.

Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s chief executive, said during an April 30 earnings call that the company expects to choose a satellite manufacturer “mid this year.” 

In an interview, Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat’s LEO program, attributed the project’s two-year delay to Telesat’s insistence that component suppliers provide critical long-lead items — onboard processors, inter-satellite links and space-grade phased array antennas — at the price points and delivery schedule Telesat wants. 

“We have not been willing to compromise on cost effectiveness, or capacity, or quality of service,” Hudson said. Telesat now views those technologies as “well along in maturity” for volume production, he said. 

Telesat has signed what Hudson called “schedule-protection project contracts” with key component suppliers to ensure Telesat LEO stays on track regardless of which prime contractor or contractors the company chooses. 

Telesat LEO will feature a “substantial” amount of Canadian content, with other components coming mainly from Europe and the United States, Hudson said. Telesat has spent the past three years developing its supply chain, he said, some of which overlaps with the supply chain OneWeb established before declaring bankruptcy in March. Telesat’s supply chain is unlikely to change because of OneWeb’s bankruptcy, he said. 

Hudson declined to discuss who is still in the running to build Telesat LEO, citing nondisclosure agreements. 

At one point, Telesat was expecting a joint bid from Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space, who had teamed to take on  Airbus Defence and Space for a contract widely expected to be worth $3 billion.

Maxar and Thales Alenia Space separated late last year, turning the competition into a three-way contest.

Hudson said Telesat is now back to choosing between two bids, but he declined to say manufacturers had joined forces, dropped out or been otherwise disqualified. 

Airbus and Thales Alenia Space officials declined to comment on the Telesat LEO competition, citing their ongoing involvement. Maxar declined to comment altogether, including whether it is still competing to build the constellation.

Regardless of who Telesat chooses to build its constellation, the Telesat LEO satellites will weigh roughly 800 kilograms, be designed to last 10 years, and carry two redundant Krypton-fueled electric propulsion systems, Hudson said. Telesat also intends to order an undetermined number of ground spares, he said. 

The complete Telesat LEO constellation will have 16 to 24 terabits per second of total capacity, of which about 8 terabits will be sellable, Hudson said. The remaining capacity will be over oceans and unoccupied land masses largely devoid of customers, he said. Steerable beams on each satellite will enable Telesat to downlink gigabits of data in high-demand locations, such as airports. 

Telesat plans to address mobility markets, beaming Wi-Fi to ships and aircraft, as well as businesses and government users. Telesat is not focused on the consumer broadband market, which would require cheap flat panel antennas companies have yet to figure out how to produce. 

No fear of losing ITU rights

Telesat completed the first major step in protecting its spectrum rights in 2018 when it successfully launched its LEO Vantage 1 prototype satellite ordered from small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Limited as a co-passenger on an Indian PSLV rocket. That allowed Telesat to file regulatory paperwork with the International Telecommunication Union after 90 days of operating the satellite, completing a process called “bring into use,” or BIU. That step means Telesat’s constellation delays have not put the company’s spectrum at risk. 

Preserving spectrum rights with the ITU became trickier last year when spectrum regulators set milestones for satellite operators to deploy their constellations. 

Regulations adopted at the World Radiocommunication Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, require operators to deploy 10% of their constellations within two years of bring-into-use. Operators then have five years from BIU to deploy 50% of their constellation, and seven years from BIU to orbit their full system. Failure to hit those milestones reduces an operator’s spectrum rights to cover only the number of satellites launched by the deadline. 

Telesat has more lenient ITU milestone rules because the operator completed BIU before the milestone rules were adopted, Hudson said. For operators that already completed BIU, the milestones start on Jan. 1, 2021 instead of their BIU date, he said. That gives Telesat until Jan. 1, 2023 to have at least 30 satellites in orbit. 

Hudson said Telesat is “highly confident” that it will meet that milestone. Should it fail to do so, he said Telesat LEO would qualify for a waiver from the ITU. 

Launch plans

Telesat signed a launch contract with Blue Origin in January 2019 for multiple New Glenn missions, any one of which will be able to launch 30 to 35 Telesat LEO satellites, he said. 

Telesat also has a launch contract with startup Relativity Space, whose Terran 1 vehicle will be able to orbit a single Telesat LEO satellite, Hudson said. 

Blue Origin’s heavy-lift New Glenn and Relativity Space’s light-lift Terran 1 are both scheduled for maiden flights in 2021. Hudson said Telesat expects to announce more launch contracts in the coming months. 

Ground segment buildout plans

Hudson said Telesat wants to have 50 gateway stations around the globe to link its constellation to the internet. 

The number of gateways required for Telesat LEO is driven primarily by the need to deliver a high-speed service, not to fly the 298-satellite constellation, he said. Intersatellite links will enable Telesat to use the satellites as relays to control the constellation.

Telesat is targeting a signal lag, or latency, of 30 to 50 milliseconds. Achieving such low latency means having gateways visible to its satellites in many geographic locations. “We don’t want to run someone’s service all over the world to connect it to the ground,” Hudson said. 

Telesat anticipates activating 12 to 15 gateways in 2022 for its polar satellites, and another 12 to 15 in gateways 2023 for its inclined-orbit satellites, he said. The company would then add another 20 gateways as demand for the Telesat LEO service grows, he said. 

Hudson said Telesat has sought information from “every teleport operator in the world that we know about,” and received dozens of responses from locations willing to host its gateway stations. 

Telesat installed its first LEO gateway at its own teleport in Allan Park, Ontario, near Toronto. Hudson said Telesat plans to expand that site as an early location to support its polar LEO satellites. 

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...