Telesat’s LEO plan: dedicated satellite factory, bulk launch contracts and a variety of antennas
WASHINGTON — Telesat expects the company that builds its low Earth orbit broadband satellite constellation to set up a dedicated factory capable of producing 20 to 25 satellites a month.
Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO, said the Canadian satellite operator wants that production rate in order to support a monthly launch cadence ahead of a target service-start date at the end of 2022 with around 200 satellites.
Speaking at the Satellite 2019 conference here May 9, Hudson said the factory would likely be in the U.S. or Canada, and that Telesat anticipates the manufacturer would own it.
Prospective manufacturers for Telesat LEO — a constellation envisioned as 300 satellites but could ultimately grow to around 500 — have all said they are willing to build new factories for the program.
Airbus Defence and Space and a team made of Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space completed study contracts this month and are expected to submit bids to Telesat this summer for a manufacturing contract estimated at $3 billion. Hudson said Telesat plans to select a winner later this year.
Hudson said Telesat LEO will rely on much less hardware than previous generations of satellites.
“Our satellite is a software-defined payload; it’s got software-defined radios, the inflight router is software — it’s basically some antennas, a few computers and some laser beams,” he said. “The satellite doesn’t have a whole lot of parts anymore.”
Each satellite will have four inter-satellite links, two thrusters and multiple phased arrays, he said. Telesat is designing its satellites to operate for at least 10 years, having decided that having a constellation of sturdy satellites is better and ultimately less expensive than cheap satellites that require constant replacement.
“The truth is LEO satellites need to be quite reliable. It’s great that if one fails you can spread them out and cover the hole until you can launch a replacement, but the economics are not very pretty,” he said.
Hudson said Telesat will have “quite large LEO satellites,” though the company hasn’t specified their mass. Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg said May 7 that the Ka-band constellation will have 8 terabits per second of total capacity.
Hudson said Telesat wants to have 300 satellites in orbit in 2023 about six to eight months after reaching 200 satellites. How exactly Telesat buys the satellites — an initial block with contract options or the full 300 — is to be determined, he said.
Telesat’s launch procurement strategy is more defined. Hudson said the slowdown in multiton geostationary satellite orders is having a knock-on effect on launch providers, making for plenty of launch supply.
“We want to buy launch vehicles in quantity and we would certainly like to see good discounts relative to if you’d buy one launch,” he said.
Telesat plans a launch cadence of “about one launch a month for a number of months” to complete its constellation, he said. The company has announced multi-launch agreements with Blue Origin for the heavy-lift New Glenn and with Relativity Space for its Terran 1 small launcher, but hasn’t given specifics on how many satellites each will launch.
Hudson said Telesat will launch its first 200 satellites to polar orbits, followed by inclined orbits. The next 100 would fill out global coverage, he said.
An abundance of antennas
While flat, electronically steered antennas that can track multiple satellites at once are largely viewed as essential for the success of broadband LEO constellations, Hudson didn’t describe them as critical for every market.
Hudson said Telesat’s LEO business plan targets three primary markets: aviation, maritime, and “fixed” or stationary communications such as backhauling cellular signals or connecting banks, mines and other enterprise customers. Consumer broadband — a focus of OneWeb, SpaceX, and presumably Amazon — is not a target market for Telesat, he said.
Hudson said Telesat is lining up antennas for each market it is pursuing.
For maritime, where it’s not uncommon for boats to have multiple parabolic antennas to keep line of sight with a satellite, traditional parabolics are a good entry technology, he said.
Fixed communications customers can leverage a mix of parabolic antennas and more capable but more expensive electronically steered antennas, he said.
Only in aviation did Hudson single out flat panel antennas as vital.
“We really think you need a phased array for the aero market,” he said. “You can’t put two antennas on an aircraft effectively and do make-before-break.”
Parabolic antennas can only track one satellite at a time, meaning two or more are required to ensure uninterrupted communications as LEO satellites rise and set over the horizon.
Hudson said Telesat is working with numerous companies including a number of startups developing “super crazy technology” in an effort to make low-cost flat panel antennas.
“We’re confident that we are going to have antennas that serve each of the verticals at the right price points and the right performance points when we go to market,” he said.