Thales Alenia Space to build two prototype satellites for constellation venture

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WASHINGTON — Omnispace, a company planning a satellite constellation to keep mobile asset trackers, sensors and other smart devices constantly connected using common cellular standards, ordered two prototype spacecraft from Thales Alenia Space, the companies announced April 9. 

Omnispace is in the process of selecting a launch provider for the satellites in the hope of getting them in orbit in early 2021, Ram Viswanathan, Omnispace CEO, told SpaceNews.

Omnispace holds an S-band spectrum license obtained by purchasing the assets of ICO Global, a defunct company that sought to create a medium Earth orbit constellation in the early 2000s. Tysons Corner, Virginia-based Omnispace has mobile network operator partners in Asia and Latin America, and is in talks with others around the world, Viswanathan said.

ICO Global launched one of a planned 12 satellites in 2001 before going bankrupt. Omnispace owns that 19-year-old satellite, the Boeing-built ICO-F2, and plans to use the spectrum filing ICO Global once held with the International Telecommunication Union to create a new constellation of a to-be-determined size, Viswanathan said. 

Formed in 2012, Omnispace’s goal is to create a constellation that enables various mobile smart devices to roam between cellular and satellite networks. The company’s initial focus is internet-of-things devices, such as asset trackers and sensors for environmental monitoring. Customers would use Omnispace’s satellite network when their devices are beyond the reach of cellular connectivity, Viswanathan said. 

Omnispace plans to use its prototype satellites to determine the size and capability of a larger constellation. The company has not determined how many satellites it will need, or if those satellites will be in low Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit, or both, Viswanathan said. 

Omnispace’s prototypes will be bigger than the cubesats depicted in the illustration the company released April 9, Viswanathan said. Omnispace plans to start limited commercial services with those first two satellites, he added.

Thales Alenia Space originally released this rendering of Omnispace’s satellites. It later released an updated rendering showing satellites about four times as large. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

Thales Alenia Space is building the Omnispace payload with French partner Syrlinks based on technology from the recently launched ANGELS cubesat, a Thales Alenia Space representative said by email. Thales Alenia Space plans to install the payload in a bus manufactured by Lithuanian nanosatellite manufacturer NanoAvionics, the representative added. 

Omnispace’s satellite plans were not materially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Viswanathan said. He declined to say if Omnispace included any coronavirus-related clauses in its manufacturing contract with Thales Alenia Space but said the company has “contemplated a wide range of risks and outcomes.”

Omnispace is working with mobile network operators and national regulators to obtain market access in countries around the world, Viswanathan said. Thales Alenia Space said it is designing the satellites with narrowband radio interfaces based on cellular communications standards. 

Despite the focus on a “hybrid” network, Omnispace is not focused on connecting cellphones to satellites, as Lynk Global and AST&Science intend to do. Viswanathan said the company’s satellites will connect to user terminals with low-cost omnidirectional antennas akin to those found in cellphones and other consumer devices. 

Omnispace counts Columbia Capital, Telkom Ventures and Greenspring Associates as its major investors, Viswanathan said. Intelsat, a minor shareholder, flies the ICO-F2 satellite for Omnispace, he added. 

Omnispace is not currently raising money, Viswanathan said, adding that the prototypes Thales Alenia Space is building are fully funded. He declined to comment on the projected cost of Omnispace’s overall constellation. 

Omnispace’s gateway stations in Australia, Chile, Germany and the United States were built for ICO Global, Viswanathan said. The company is still evaluating if it will need additional gateway stations for its future constellation, he said.