What just happened? Astranis is a relatively small space company headquartered in San Francisco, California, whose mission is to provide proper internet connectivity in underserved areas. The first Astranis satellite is already in space, and the technology is working as expected, so the company is planning the next launches.
Astranis satellites are based on their own technology, they are relatively small and inexpensive compared to satellites of other space companies, such as SpaceX. The “next generation” design developed by the company weighs only 400 kg and uses a patented software-defined payload for radio communications.
The 1 meter by 1 meter satellite is designed to operate in a geostationary orbit, which means that the spacecraft follows the direction of the Earth’s rotation and appears stationary to ground observers. Astranis launched its first Arcturus satellite earlier this month aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket. A few hours later, the payload was successfully launched into orbit, spreading the “wings” (that is, solar panels) and reflectors.
Astranis then managed to gain control of the satellite, send commands and updates to the flight control software (because even space can’t save you from a mandatory software update) and adjust the satellite’s orbit to place it in a geostationary position over Alaska.
Arcturus was able to connect to an internet gateway in Utah before establishing a connection with user terminals in Alaska, where Astranis will provide high-speed bandwidth to local ISP Pacific Dataport. According to Astranis, everything went more smoothly than expected, and now Arcturus serves as a live demonstration that the company’s small satellite technology can work and survive in the harsh conditions of outer space.
Compared to global Internet satellite networks such as SpaceX’s Starlink or the European Union-funded IRIS2 initiative, Astranis does business on a per-customer basis, serving one region of the planet at a time. The company has already built four other low-cost satellites to meet the connectivity needs of a customer in Peru, an airline Wi-Fi (with two spacecraft) and another “unspecified” customer.
Four satellites are due to be launched as part of a special Falcon 9 mission at the end of this summer or early autumn, but Astranis is already mulling ambitious plans for the future. The company, which has attracted $550 million in funding and hired a team of 300 people, wants to expand production to assemble two satellites a month, and then launch dozens and “hundreds” of satellites into space.