Would-be Small Sat Launcher: Don’t Count Out LEO Constellations

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Technology advances since the space-telecom bust of the 1990s make it unfair to compare low-orbit communications constellations proposed by OneWeb and SpaceX to those that either evaporated from the drawing board or got bullied into bankruptcy by terrestrial competitors before the turn of the century, the chief technology officer of an aspiring launch services company said here April 15.

“Please don’t compare this go-round of [low Earth orbit] constellations with what happened with Iridium and all that,” Shey Sabripour, chief technology officer of Austin, Texas-based Firefly Space Systems said during a panel discussion at the 31st Space Symposium here. “The technologies available today are far different than what was available in the 1990s.”

Sabripour spoke here a day after satellite industry giants, in their own Space Symposium panel session, wrung their hands over the technical and business risks of low Earth orbit (LEO) telecommunications constellations. Many of the biggest names in the business — Boeing, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Lockheed Martin, SES and ViaSat — cited the dramatic failures and bankruptcies the industry weathered the last time it tried to populate low Earth orbit with swarms of communications satellites.

But Sabripour dismissed the industry’s déjà vu jitters, citing the maturity of satellite technology such as:

  • agile payloads, which through gyroscopic stabilization allow different kinds of instruments or hardware, such as antennas, to bolt on to a satellite bus and change their orientation without disturbing other parts of the satellite.
  • active phased-array payloads, which increase signal strength while decreasing interference with signals from other satellites.
  • agile-tracking ground stations and gateways, which can be optimized through software to automatically communicate with many different satellites in many different orbits.
  • higher-efficiency amplifiers, which improve signal strength without using prohibitive amounts of power.
Firefly's Alpha rocket
Firefly’s Alpha rocket. Credit: Firefly Space Systems

These “and many other technologies today are making these constellations very attractive,” Shey said. “So give this LEO telcomm [with satellites] at 100 kilograms to 400 kilograms, and 2.5 kilowatts [of power] a look.”

That mass range is precisely the sweet spot Firefly is targeting for its first planned launch vehicle, dubbed Alpha. Firefly recently signed its first customer for Alpha, but Sabripour declined to say exactly when the contract was finalized, or what payloads will fly. Sabripour did say there will be four launches under the contract, and that the launch site has yet to be selected.

Firefly is planning the first orbital Alpha launch in 2017, Sabripour said.