Astranis - Small satellites to GEO for cheaper broadband
(Astranis image admittedly ripped off from someone else's web page)
Crazy buzz this morning on Silicon Valley venture firm Andressen Horowitz announcing a $13.5 million Series A investment into Astranis, a San Francisco startup company making small satellites for geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) communications. This is a contrarian idea to both New Space LEO-style thinking AND to Old Space LEO.
Let me get the VC details out of the way first. A-H is a Big Name in the investment world and this is its' first space deal, with participating investors including Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Refactor Capital, and Indicator Fund. Astranis has raised a total of $18 million, so the seed/founders round was about $4.5 million and follows the typical pattern of small sat business plans (i.e. Raise up to $5 million seed capital, build a satellite, launch, demonstrate & test capabilities, go get more money to build commercial product/service).
Astranis quietly launched a pathfinder satellite (maybe 3U) in January 2018 onboard an India PSLV-C40 rideshare setup by Spaceflight and has transmitted data -- video clips -- between it in LEO and a ground station in Alaska.
The company is going to build "wine cooler sized" (roughly 1 meter square bus) satellites, with proprietary software defined radio (SDR) being the special sauce to enable smaller/cheaper/faster-to-build communications satellites in the "tens of millions" of dollars, instead of the hundreds of millions of dollars and big as a <insert large vehicle> sats currently sent to GEO orbit on big expensive launch vehicles.
Throughput/capacity onboard an Astranis satellite is expected to be in the 10 Gbps range, using either Ku- or Ka-band. And they don't have to fret with orbital slots because they are selling satellites to current operators. Launch weight around 300 kilograms or so.
Astranis is contrarian and unique to the existing New Space LEO wave because: 1) They are simply building satellites, not services, so they are not in direct competition with existing satellite companies 2) One sat to GEO means service provider is in business for a geographic area 3) Don't have to launch hundreds to thousands of satellites for 24x7 coverage.
For Old Space GEO, Astranis lowers the cost to service turn-up for existing satellite service providers, due to lower cost and size. Providers can now incrementally open up new service areas and supplement existing services for lower cost.
About the only TBD in the Astranis business plan is currently little to no talk about putting a small satellite into GEO-transfer orbit (GTO), so there may be a capacity gap between the current crop of small launchers. Yes, the satellite would be small enough to be a secondary (hitchhiker) payload on a larger launch OR a primary customer for a rideshare bringing together a bunch of smaller satellites, BUT going to a GEO slot requires energy.
On the other hand, we don't know what people are talking about behind closed doors and the list price for a dedicated SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is around $62 million -- which can either put one big or two medium-sized communications satellites into GTO. A forward-thinking company could choose to populate four or more slots at once if it had the cash.
Astranis has a "deep bench" of personnel, so I suspect they have ideas on cost-effective ways on getting to the right orbits via existing launch options.