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Telesat to announce manufacturing plans for LEO constellation in coming months

Telesat LEO Constellation Smallsat
Telesat's LEO constellation is to consist of 120 small satellites. A manufacturer selection is planned for next year. Credit: Telesat.

TORONTO — Telesat, with one demonstration satellite for its planned broadband satellite constellation in orbit, expects to announce plans for manufacturing the full system in the coming months as it seeks partners to help fund its development.

Speaking at the Canadian SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 15, Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO, said the company was currently reviewing proposals for the 117-satellite constellation submitted by a number of major satellite manufacturers.

“We’ve spent the last several months digging through” about 5,000 pages of proposal documents, he said. Those reviews have focused on both technical and financial aspects of the proposals, as well as oral presentations from the bidders.

“We’re getting close now to making some decisions as to how we’re going to proceed,” he said. “We’re hoping to make some announcements here in the next couple of months.”

Telesat has been reviewing those proposals in parallel with the deployment of two “Phase One” demonstration satellites. One satellite, built by the Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, was one of 19 satellites lost on a Soyuz launch in November when the Fregat upper stage fired in the wrong direction, causing it to deorbit over the North Atlantic Ocean.

The other Phase One satellite, built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in the United Kingdom, launched successfully Jan. 12 on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The satellite was released into a polar orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers, and is now using its onboard propulsion to gradually raise its orbit to 1,000 kilometers. As of mid-February the satellite was at an altitude of 680 kilometers, Hudson said, and should reach its final orbit in six to eight weeks.

Once in that final orbit, Telesat will use that satellite for a variety of tests, both of Telesat’s own systems and those of potential users. “We’ve got a lot of interest from the customer community about doing testing,” he said, including those developing ground terminals and phased-array antennas. “For much of the second half of the year we’ll be doing testing for customers and partners to show what it’s capable of doing.”

Hudson said that the company is on schedule to get a “first batch” of satellites in orbit and providing initial service by the end of 2021. The full constellation will feature 117 satellites, one third of them in polar orbits at 1,000 kilometers and the rest in orbits at an inclination of 40 degrees. That provides coverage between 50 degrees north and south latitude, he said, where about 80 percent of the company’s market is located.

Telesat developed that particular constellation design after extensive modeling of satellite modeling. “We’ve broken the Earth up into little tiny squares,” he said, “and in every little square we’ve gone in and analyzed the market.” That analysis included the numbers and types of potential users. The company then simulated constellation designs against that model to come up with the optimal approach.

This work has, to date, been funded internally by Telesat, but Hudson suggested discussions are underway with partners that could help fund deployment of the constellation. “We’re probably going to be making some announcements mid-year or so,” he said. “We’ve self-funded the project to date, and we can continue self-funding it well into the future. But we do expect to have partners along the way, and it will probably be the second half of this year before we would start to talk about that kind of thing.”

Telesat is one of several companies proposing large “megaconstellations” of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit, but is the first to have placed a demonstration satellite into orbit. SpaceX’s launch of the first two demo satellites for its constellation is scheduled for no earlier than Feb. 21 as secondary payloads on a Falcon 9 launching a Spanish radar imaging satellite from California. OneWeb plans to being deploying its initial constellation with a May launch of a Soyuz from French Guiana.

Telesat also has regulatory advantages over many competing systems. The company received a license from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in November for the system, the first of the new generation of LEO megaconstellations after OneWeb to do so, and also has Canadian government approvals. Hudson noted the company is “first in line” to access four gigahertz of Ka-band spectrum from the International Telecommunication Union.

“We’ve been working really hard on this for almost three years now, and we have not found any reason why we can’t do it,” he said of the overall plans for the system. “We’re plowing ahead full speed and we feel really good about where we are and what we’ve achieved.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...