The founder of a Texas-based company that aims to launch more than 200 very large satellites into low Earth orbit has allayed NASA’s concerns that these spacecraft pose a threat to orbital debris.
“We’re not a bunch of cowboys launching satellites,” Abel Avellan, founder of AST & Science, said in an interview. “This is a serious, well-funded project.”
The company, which has 160 employees and has relocated to XCOR’s old facility at the Midland Airport, has asked the Federal Communications Commission for access to the US market to sell mobile phone internet connectivity from space. NASA took the rare step to object to the AST mega-constellation proposal to place as many as 243 satellites in orbit 720 km, noting last Friday that it could lead to a “catastrophic collision” with its A- train satellites in a nearby orbit.
Avellan said the “SpaceMobile” satellites do indeed have a very large cross-section that is perpendicular to the ground because it is the only way to provide direct satellite-to-broadband signals. †There’s no magic,” he said. “If you want to plug something straight into a handset, it won’t be CubeSat.”
Each of the satellites will contain a large antenna, covering an area of up to 900 square meters. However, Avellan said the satellites will fly edge-on, “like a Frisbee, but without spinning.” He said the diameter of the satellites in the direction of movement is only about 3 square meters. The company has calculated that the probability of a random collision — assuming no dodge maneuver — is only about 1 in 5,000 over its lifetime, or 1 in 20 across the entire constellation.
Others share their concerns
However, since NASA’s comment, other organizations have also raised concerns about the role of the SpaceMobile constellation. T-Mobile and Verizon said the company’s operations could disrupt their terrestrial networks. Others have echoed NASA’s concerns over debris, noting that as a “start-up” company, AST has no experience building satellites, let alone the very large ones suggested in the FCC petition. One of those comments came from Tech Freedom, a technology think tank, which suggested there were no guarantees that the AST satellites could avoid collisions.
“History tells us that for completely new satellite systems with no significant heritage of satellite design or satellite builder, the failure rate can be well above 10 percent and approach the 30 percent failure rate experienced by the Iridium system,” the organization said. commentary. “At even half the failure rate of the first generation of Iridium, that will still create a combined 36,000 square foot cross-section of junk over the next ten years that other operators will have to maneuver around, not to mention the existing debris that cannot move to avoid new debris caused by the AST constellation.”
Avellan said AST has the experience and capability to build large, robust satellites. He said the company has 750 patent claims on technology for the design of the SpaceMobile satellites and has raised $128 million after a recent Series B capital increase. The company’s strategic and financial partners include Vodafone Group, Rakuten and Samsung.
“I didn’t make a lot of noise about this project because I didn’t want China to start copying it too early,” Avellan said.
Very large satellites
Yet these are indeed very large and complex satellites. The company has said it is developing a “mechanical deployment system” that will allow expanding arrays in orbit to produce “ultra-high-power generation” of 100 kW or more. In September, at the EngageSpace showcase for the United States Air Force, the company said its satellites would create enough power in orbit “to power cell phones on the ground or other applications such as SARS, jamming and interception, tactical early warning for missile defense and any other high power requirement.”
AST is building a prototype satellite in Midland, Avellan told Ars. This next test satellite, “BlueWalker 3”, will be about half the size of the SpaceMobile satellite and will be launched in the second half of next year. Complete with a deployable 10-meter array and reflector, this test is seen as a “step” to the company’s final satellite design.
As of Tuesday evening, the company had not yet spoken to NASA about its concerns. However, the space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, backed his agency’s comments.
“Protecting our assets and preserving the orbital environment for public and private activities is critical to NASA,” he told Ars. “NASA’s analysis showed that the potential for conjunctions of what is being proposed is extraordinary. For these reasons, NASA has provided technical comments to the FCC to protect not only the agency’s assets, but also the company’s future satellites.”
Bridenstine said the agency would work with the FCC and the company to try to find a mutually acceptable way forward. He also urged Congress to fund civilian space traffic management responsibilities under a new office at the Department of Commerce. “The Department of Commerce must be given the proper authority and funding to manage space traffic before an inevitable collision occurs that threatens the future of both government and commercial spaceflight,” he said.