China is developing plans for a 13,000-satellite megaconstellation

HELSINKI — China is to oversee the construction and operation of a national satellite internet megaconstellation through coordinating the country’s major space actors. 

Recent comments by senior officials indicate that plans are moving ahead to alter earlier constellation plans by space sector state-owned enterprises and possibly make these part of a larger “Guowang” or “national network” satellite internet project. 

Spectrum allocation filings submitted to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) by China in September last year revealed plans to construct two similarly named “GW” low Earth orbit constellations totaling 12,992 satellites. 

The filings indicate plans for GW to consist of sub-constellations ranging from 500-1,145 kilometers in altitude with inclinations between 30-85 degrees. The satellites would operate across a range of frequency bands.

Bao Weimin, a senior official with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), China’s main space contractor, made a first public acknowledgement of the megaconstellation plan in an interview with Shanghai Securities News March 7, stating “we are planning and developing space-based internet satellites and have launched test satellites.”

“A “national network” (Guo Wang) company will also be established to be responsible for the overall planning and operation of the satellite internet construction,” Bao added.

On Monday Ge Yujun, president of China Spacesat Co., Ltd., a CASC subsidiary, told ThePaper that the Hongyan and Hongyun broadband constellations previously planned CASC and sister state-owned giant China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) respectively would be altered by authorities.

Ge said that “relevant national departments” are conducting overall planning for constellation construction and that he understands that the original plans for Hongyan and CASIC’s Hongyun will “undergo major changes”.

The Hongyan-1 satellite ahead of launch in 2018.
The Hongyan-1 satellite ahead of launch in 2018. Credit: CAST

Both constellations, announced around 2018, were to consist of hundreds of communications satellites in low Earth orbit. A handful of technology verification satellites have since been launched. CASC was planning to have an initial 60 Hongyan satellites in orbit by 2022. 

The comments suggest that the older constellations may form part of the new, larger “national network” project.

It is unclear how the project will proceed but the development of satellite internet has become a national priority.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) added “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures” in April 2020. 

The recently approved 14th Five-year Plan for the period 2021-2026 and “long-range objectives through 2035” call for an integrated network of communications, Earth observation, and navigation satellites. 

China has already constructed its Beidou navigation and positioning system and is deploying Gaofen satellites for its  China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS).

Additionally private enterprise Galaxy Space in 202 launched its Yinhe-1 to test Q/V and Ka-band communications. Beijing Commsat Technology Development Co., Ltd., earlier this year received government funding from the China Internet Investment Fund (CIIF) for research and industrialization of satellites. It is unclear what role, if any, such firms will play in the national network project.

Ian Christensen, director of private sector programs at Secure World Foundation, sees the “GW” or national network project as potentially serving a number of goals for China. These include supporting domestic technology and economic development goals and contributing to China’s soft power diplomacy and regional leadership efforts. 

“Development of the constellation will also provide domestic employment, anchor space-related industry clusters, and contribute to economic development through serving and enabling domestic connectivity needs,” Christensen says. He adds that the project could also be used as a tool for soft power, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative or diplomacy efforts in nearby regions.

With constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb already underway and Amazon this week ordering Atlas 5 missions for its Kuiper broadband satellites, the planned GW constellation brings even more urgency to the need to address issues related to the deployment of megaconstellatons including space debris and space traffic management.

“I personally would take the likelihood of the successful deployment of the GW constellation seriously. It should place further emphasis and urgency on the need to improve global coordination practices for the deployment and operation of large constellations,” Christensen says. 

“Space safety is an area where there are shared interests between U.S and Chinese actors, including both government and private sector actors, but overall geopolitical trends make meaningful dialogue challenging.”

Proposed and developing megaconstellations are raising concerns of the heightened risk of orbital debris. The growing number of satellites in LEO is also a threat to visible astronomy.


Lockheed Martin removes Momentus from NASA technology demonstration mission

WASHINGTON — Six months after including it on the team that was a NASA technology contract, Lockheed Martin has quietly dropped in-space transportation company Momentus from that project.

Lockheed was one of 14 companies that received Tipping Point awards from NASA in October 2020 to demonstrate key technologies needed for sustainable lunar exploration. Lockheed’s award was the largest single contract, valued at $89.7 million, to test liquid hydrogen storage technologies on a small satellite.

In its own statement about the contract, Lockheed Martin said it was working with several companies to develop and fly the mission. Those partners included Momentus, who would integrate the payload on its Vigoride transfer vehicle that would then be launched in October 2023 on Relativity Space’s Terran 1 small launch vehicle.

However, in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing April 7, Momentus disclosed that Lockheed Martin had dropped Momentus from that contract. “Lockheed Martin decided not to proceed with Momentus as their partner for the NASA Tipping Point contract,” the company said.

Momentus did not explain in the filing why Lockheed ended their partnership, and a company spokesperson declined to provide additional details. Lockheed Martin told SpaceNews that it is “committed to executing the NASA Cryogenic Demonstration Mission for NASA as we make final decisions on suppliers.”

Momentus said in the SEC filing that while it lost its role on the Tipping Point contract, “Lockheed has indicated that this action will not impact its ability to do business with Momentus in the future and Momentus currently has another contract with Lockheed.” The company didn’t identify that contract, but Lockheed Martin is cooperating with the University of Southern California on a cubesat program whose first mission will be launched on a Vigoride vehicle.

The loss of the Tipping Point partnership is a further complication for a company that is facing several government reviews while also working to complete a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Stable Road Acquisition Corporation, announced in October.

The company delayed the launch of its first Vigoride vehicle, which was to fly on a SpaceX rideshare mission in January, because it could not complete a payload review by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation in time. Momentus said that the FAA could not approve the payload “due to national security and foreign ownership concerns regarding Momentus raised by the DoD during an interagency review.”

Momentus now hopes to launch that first Vigoride mission on another Falcon 9 rideshare mission in June. The company said the FAA is still working on that interagency review that is being held open by the Defense Department. The review needs to be completed by the end of May for the company to keep its slot on that June launch.

Momentus sought to address those concerns in March, when it announced both former chief executive Mikhail Kokorich and Brainyspace LLC, a firm owned by co-founder Lev Khasis and his wife, had placed their shares of the company into a voting trust and would divest them within three years. That came after Kokorich stepped down as chief executive in January.

The company is still in a voluntary review of its ownership structure by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), prompted by those Defense Department concerns that the delayed the FAA approval. The company noted in the filing that it is willing to enter into a “mitigation agreement” with the government as part of the CFIUS review to resolve any national security concerns.

In the same filing, Momentus said that the SEC is performing its own investigation of “certain disclosures” involving the planned merger of Momentus with Stable Road Acquisition Corporation. That review will delay the completion of the merger, assuming shareholders approve it. Stable Road has until May 13 to complete a deal, but is asking its shareholders to approve a three-month extension. Shareholders will vote May 6 to approve that extension.

The investigations and delays have had some effect on the company’s backlog of customers. Momentus said that two customers for that first Vigoride mission opted not to fly with the company after the January delay and a lack of assurances that the mission will launch in June. Another customer encountered what Momentus called a “a technical issue with its satellite manufacturer that caused it to rebook on a mission with another provider.” The cumulative effect of those actions, including Lockheed’s decision not to partner with Momentus, is less than $5 million, the company stated.

Momentus added that its efforts to address its foreign ownership issues is starting to pay off. “Mr. Kokorich’s departure, and the resolution of the U.S. government’s national security concerns relating to his control and ownership, could present new opportunities for Momentus,” it stated. “For example, Momentus has seen increased interest from potential customers with security clearances who previously had expressed reluctance to engage with Momentus, however, such interest is preliminary and may not result in any definitive contracts or definitive commitments or any revenue for Momentus.”


Noosphere Ventures aims to build an integrated space powerhouse: Q&A with managing partner Max Polyakov

Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov, with his Silicon Valley-based investment vehicle Noosphere Ventures Partners, is on a mission to build out a vertically integrated space business.

A year after Noosphere founded satellite imagery venture Earth Observation Data Analytics (EOSDA) in 2016, Polyakov got into the launch business by snapping up Firefly Aerospace out of bankruptcy.

The Noosphere space portfolio that is public today includes electric propulsion systems maker SETS and orbital transfer vehicle provider D-Orbit.

However, small-satellite-focused Firefly Aerospace, which is nearing its first orbital attempt, is its flagship space investment. In January, Firefly Aerospace said it is looking for $350 million to accelerate development, as SPACs — special-purpose acquisition companies that offer businesses a fast route to public markets — attract a significant amount of investor attention in the space industry.

Max Polyakov, managing partner at Noosphere Ventures.
Max Polyakov, managing partner at Noosphere Ventures. Credit: Noosphere Ventures.

Meanwhile, EOSDA aims to launch its first synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites next year.

Linking different space businesses together helps Noosphere gain flight heritage for components under development. Products that are ready for the marketplace can be bundled together to lower costs for customers interested in integrated solutions.

SpaceNews caught up with Polyakov, Noosphere’s managing partner, about how this integrated approach is fairing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how SPACs are changing the business environment.


How has the pandemic created opportunities for different kinds of partnerships or acquisitions with space companies that have perhaps come under distress?

The pandemic may have caused some companies to move more slowly and reassess their plans. However, I am more interested in the long-term health of my companies and our contribution to the space sector, and I am happy to report that we are moving ahead as expeditiously as possible. 

Regardless of any short-term external challenges, we believe that we retain a significant advantage because of our thorough understanding of the market and deep expertise within our companies.

Has it helped or hindered your multi-sector, integrated investment strategy?

Obviously, the pandemic has had an impact on all industrial sectors, and space is no exception. However, COVID-19 has not affected our strategy. We are continuing to invest and innovate in each of our space companies and our long-term prospects remain very bright. 

The principles of vertical integration hold firm, allowing a new generation of space companies to retain control over launch vehicles, communications, space earth observation, ground stations and data analysis. This will continue to give us significant advantages long after COVID-19 has been controlled.

Voyager and Redwire are other investors that seem to be following a similar integrated strategy to Noosphere. Are you seeing more competition for deals?

Noosphere was an early entrant in the sector. Right now, we are focused on ensuring that our existing investments continue to be successful, while always keeping an eye out for deals that may provide synergies for our businesses and advantages to our customers.

Firefly Aerospace was largely protected from COVID-19 supply issues because it is so vertically integrated. But it looks like the first launch is still delayed — what is the latest there?

Firefly plans to launch soon this year. First launches are typically delayed as teams continue to refine the details. Even though the world has been launching modern rockets for decades, spacecraft are highly complex vehicles. So we anticipated some delays. Our partners are doing their best to minimize any delays. We remain in a very good place.

The launch company recently said it is looking to raise $350 million to help it expand faster. How much of this need for growth equity is in response to all the SPAC activity we’re seeing, which is accelerating many early space companies?

Firefly is seeking to raise more capital to continue its growth. Its need for capital is unrelated to the SPAC activity. The democratization and commercialization of space attracts a lot of speculative money, which tends to have a short-term approach. Our strategy, on the contrary, is to build a company with a long-term future.  

Given all the activity and changes in the capital markets right now, do you anticipate this investment coming from strategic companies — like large satellite prime contractors — venture capital, or somewhere else?

We are hearing from a variety of investors who are excited about what we are doing. However, we want to partner with those who will be passionate about the venture they join, who have a long-term approach, and who are willing to invest not just their money but also their knowledge and expertise. 

How is the rise of SPACs changing the game for early-stage space companies? Is it a healthy trend for the industry?

We are not surprised that capital is flowing into the space industry and SPACs are just another investment vehicle. Every decade, a new trend brings new bubbles. Even Isaac Newton, one of the smartest people on Earth, got trapped with his investment in England’s hottest stock at that time — the South Sea Company. But, I am worried that this trend could have some negative effects on the space industry specifically.  

It’s possible that some space companies will partner with SPACs that have high-quality C-level investors who can bring not just money, but expertise and passion to grow these companies post-merger. However, this is a best-case scenario, which in my opinion is very remote. The overall trend is not healthy for the industry as companies with no intrinsic value can easily try to compete with complex technologies and overpromise what they actually can deliver. That means we could see an overcrowded market of projects with no real products. 

I strongly believe that, with the space industry, companies’ core business must be viable, and there must be delivered products before any company can realistically go public. For these companies, SPACs may present a good chance to accelerate their growth, so let’s hope they’re the ones who will win this competition.  

Could Noosphere be interested in setting up its own SPAC?

I don’t think so. 

Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is becoming increasingly important for all companies, and the financial markets that support them. How could this growing importance boost companies like EOS Data Analytics?

Organizations need to be aware of the impact their operations have, for example, on the Earth’s surface, the natural environment and on local communities. They must have detailed plans to mitigate those impacts. And, crucially, they must be able to communicate progress to a wide variety of stakeholders. 

This creates tremendous opportunities for companies like EOS Data Analytics, which offers a superior solution here. Our satellites will have an impressive 2-3 day target revisit time for all locations on Earth. Combined with our modern data processing and compression algorithms, this will bring enormous benefits to a wide range of customers that need to monitor the physical impact of their operations. Furthermore, with the advanced cameras that we are developing and will employ, we are able to reduce the number of satellites required and this will enable us to make our pricing even more attractive.

We expect that EOSDA and companies like it will increasingly become an important part of the global economy as they provide significant benefits for both modern businesses and humankind overall. 

Is ESG another one of those trends that are helping to branch space out to companies that have not traditionally been a part of the sector?

ESG is much more than a trend; I believe it is a permanent feature required of companies by concerned stakeholders. The Noosphere Ventures principles are rooted in the noosphere philosophy — first introduced by Volodymyr Vernandsky — in which knowledge is the driving force behind every further positive development on Earth.   

I agree that it is bringing the space industry closer to new industrial sectors. In our case, because we can offer analytics of superior quality at much reduced prices — I am confident that our services are accessible to so many more end users that previously would not have engaged with the space industry.

You have spoken of a multi-decade plan for EOSDA that brings together launch vehicles, satellites, sensors, ground segments and data analytics. Does the SPAC trend accelerate that vision/plan?

EOSDA is the foundation of the entire vertically integrated ecosystem we are developing. It is the point of integration for all the firms that we have and for other market players. The strategy is to build a project that will accumulate all data and knowledge we receive from space and Earth and to make sure it is used to preserve the nature and environment on Earth. The EOSDA’s mission is not to raise fast money but to prolong our safe existence on the planet. 

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am a strong believer that investing in world-class entrepreneurial teams, breakthrough technologies, transformative business models, and strong intellectual property can change the world — and I am convinced that we’re doing just that. 

As a result, space is becoming more and more accessible to a vast range of industries due to its expanding applications and accessible pricing. Firefly’s contracts with NASA, for example, are extremely exciting, and I am honored by the responsibility that we have been given to deliver a suite of 10 science investigations and technology demonstrations to the Moon in 2023. I am equally excited by the possibilities that our vertically integrated system can bring to a vast range of customers in agricultural analytics, climate change monitoring, disaster management, oil and gas, forestry, green energy and real estate.

Exploring space is truly a great adventure — and now is perhaps the most exciting time for that. But, it is also important to understand why we do that and the answer is clear — for the benefit of humankind.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity


Congested orbits a top concern for U.S. Space Command

Dickinson: ‘Commercial opportunities open new possibilities, but can also complicate access to the domain with the proliferation of mega constellations’

WASHINGTON — The rapidly growing number of satellites orbiting the Earth is causing apprehension, the commander of U.S. Space Command said April 20. 

Gen. James Dickinson told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that congestion in space mostly fueled by commercial activity could create safety problems if it’s not managed. 

“We need a new level of awareness,” Dickinson said.  

Dickinson testified on Tuesday at a posture hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee alongside Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

U.S. Space Command’s traffic watchers at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, currently track about 32,000 objects on orbit, including more than 3,400 active satellites. They estimate the probability of collisions and send warnings to satellite operators.

Dickinson noted that the three largest constellations of satellites today are operated by commercial companies: SpaceX, Planet and Spire.

“Commercial opportunities open new possibilities, but can also complicate access to the domain with the proliferation of mega constellations,” he said. 

“The safety and sustainability of an increasingly crowded space domain grows more complex as commercial entities plan to launch thousands of satellites in the next few years,” Dickinson said. “The explosive growth of nano, micro, and small satellites will further stress our existing space surveillance networks.”

Senators on the committee, including Thom Tillis (R-NC), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), asked Dickinson for specific recommendations on how to address this issue. 

Dickinson said Space Command is focused on improving “space domain awareness,” or knowledge of objects and activities in space. He said more resources are needed to track commercial traffic and also potential threats such as weapons that China and Russia could deploy to target U.S. satellites.

“We need to characterize what we’re seeing in the space domain,” said Dickinson. 

He said Space Command is expanding its space surveillance network by integrating data from ground and sea-based radar used by the Army and the Navy for missile defense. 

Civil and commercial spaceflight safety responsibilities now carried out by Space Command should be transitioned to the Department of Commerce in 2024, Dickinson said. 

The Trump administration ordered the transfer of responsibilities in a 2018 policy directive but the transition has been slow mostly because Commerce does not have the resources to take on space traffic management. 

Shaheen, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers would like to know how much money Commerce needs to do this task. He asked Dickinson how much the Air Force and Space Force spend today on space traffic management. Dickinson said he would get back to her. 

In written testimony, Dickinson said he urged Congress to “afford the Department of Commerce the resources they need to accomplish the civil and commercial spaceflight safety mission.”


NASA completes launch readiness review for Crew-2 mission

WASHINGTON — The next commercial crew mission to the International Space Station passed its final review before its scheduled April 22 launch, with weather the only major issue.

At an April 20 briefing, NASA said the Crew-2 mission passed its launch readiness review, the final major review before launch. That allows NASA and SpaceX to proceed with a Falcon 9 launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour at 6:11 a.m. Eastern April 22 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch has an instantaneous window.

Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said officials resolved the one technical issue remaining from the Crew-2 flight readiness review April 15. At that earlier review, SpaceX noted that on a number of recent Falcon 9 launches it loaded slightly more liquid oxygen (LOX) propellant than expected into the rocket’s first stage.

Stich said a technical review concluded that any additional liquid oxygen was “well within family” of analyses of the rocket, including additional loads on the rocket that the excess propellant might create. “We had an exception at the flight readiness review, and we closed that,” he said. He latest estimated that the additional liquid oxygen only accounted for “a very small percentage” of the total weight of the vehicle.

The Falcon 9 also performed a successful static-fire test April 17, followed a day later by a “dry dress rehearsal” where the four astronauts suited up, went to the pad and boarded the Crew Dragon for a practice countdown, although the vehicle itself was not fueled. “The crew is doing great. They’re really excited,” said Norm Knight, deputy manager of the flight operations directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The only outstanding issue discussed at the briefing is the weather. Brian Cizek, launch weather officer with the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, projected an 80% chance of acceptable weather for launch April 22, and 90% if the launch is delayed a day. Winds are the primary concern for the first launch attempt.

However, those probabilities do not include weather at abort locations along the Eastern Seaboard. “Downrange weather is a little bit trickier,” Stich said, citing high winds and high waves in some of the abort locations. “Of the two days right now, I would say Friday looks a little bit better than Thursday.” He said NASA and SpaceX will evaluate the weather again 24 hours before the launch.

If the Crew-2 mission does launch on schedule April 22, the spacecraft will dock with the station at about 5:30 a.m. Eastern April 23. The four people on the spacecraft — NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut  Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet — will join the seven people currently on the station.

The station’s crew will be at 11 people through the departure of the Crew-1 spacecraft April 28, returning NASA’s Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi to Earth. That will require some adjustments to the station’s life support systems and temporary sleeping accommodations, said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager.

“The cool thing again is that the added crew member allows another set of hands on board to help us with research and utilization,” he said, referring to commercial crew’s ability to allow the station to host seven people at a time. “It’s an awesome time to be in human spaceflight.”


AE Industrial Partners’ American Pacific Corp. invests in Frontier Aerospace

SAN FRANCISCO – AE Industrial Partners subsidiary American Pacific Corp. announced a multimillion-dollar investment in Frontier Aerospace, a space propulsion startup based in Simi Valley, California. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Private equity firm AE Industrial Partners has become well known in the space industry since last year when it founded Redwire, a space structures firm growing rapidly through acquisitions that plans to become a publicly traded company through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition corporation.

In 2020 AE Industrial Partners acquired American Pacific, a specialty materials manufacturer based in Cedar City, Utah. Frontier is American Pacific’s first investment since its acquisition.

“With our investment in Frontier, we now have a strategic partner in next-generation, in-space liquid propulsion technology,” American Pacific CEO Hal Murdock said in a statement. “Jim and the Frontier team bring a strong space heritage and have a solid reputation for innovation, and we are proud to work together to better serve our launch industry customers.”

Frontier is unusual for a space industry startup because it has not sought outside investment, fueling its growth through contracts, until now. Frontier was formed in 2014 by Jim McKinnon, a former propulsion research engineer at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Prior to establishing Frontier Aerospace, McKinnon ran Frontier Engineering, a consulting firm he founded in 1997.

Frontier has raised its profile in the last year as it won contracts to provide propulsion systems for lunar landers being built by Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems.

“With American Pacific’s investment, we gain additional resources to take advantage of the tremendous interest in today’s space industry, combined with the added benefit of their deep defense industry expertise,” McKinnon said in a statement. “We also look forward to leveraging AEI’s relationships and intimate understanding of aerospace and defense’s unique challenges.”

With funds provided by American Pacific, which is claiming a minority stake in the business,mFrontier plans to expand its staff and testing operations.

“Guidance navigation and control and in-space propulsion are critical to the national defense and space industries, and we are pleased to have American Pacific partner with a company on the cutting edge of next-generation liquid propulsion technologies,” said Kirk Konert, a Partner at AEI. “We’re excited about the possibilities that a partnership between two well-respected leaders can offer.”

Bryce Davvs, Frontier finance and operations vice president, told SpaceNews, “This is the start of a prolonged relationship with AE Industrial Partners and American Pacific.”


Ingenuity success opens door for future Mars helicopter missions

WASHINGTON — The successful flight of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars paves the way for its use on future missions, agency officials said, but exactly when and how remain to be determined.

At a press conference April 19, project officials said Ingenuity’s first flight, also the first powered flight by an aircraft on another world, opened the door to using similar vehicles in future exploration of the planet.

“What the Ingenuity team has done is given us the third dimension,” said Michael Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Ingenuity was developed. “They’ve freed us from the surface now, forever, in planetary exploration.”

Ingenuity performed well in the 39-second flight, rising to an altitude of three meters, making a roughly one-quarter turn, then descending to a safe landing. “This flight was all about proving that it is possible to fly on Mars,” said Håvard Grip, chief pilot for Ingenuity at JPL. “From everything we’ve seen so far, it was a flawless flight.”

The project team is already preparing for a second flight, tentatively scheduled for April 22. On that flight Ingenuity will fly to an altitude of five meters, then translate, or move sideways, two meters, then go back two meters and land where it took off from. A third flight will be similar, but with the helicopter translating 50 meters out and back.

If Ingenuity performs those flights successfully, the project will carry out two more flights, but the flight plan for those isn’t decided yet. “We still have a little bit of team discussion,” said Grip, based on what happens on the next two flights. “In general terms, what we’re talking about is going higher, going further, going faster; stretching the capabilities of the helicopter in those ways.”

“We will be pushing the envelope,” added MiMi Aung, project director for Ingenuity. “As we succeed in certain lateral flights, we’re going to go further and faster, especially towards the end of the experimental window.”

She said that those later flights may push Ingenuity to the point where it crashes. “The flight today perfectly matched what we were predicting, but we want to push,” she said. “Ultimately, we expect the helicopter will meet its limit, but that information is extremely important. This is a pathfinder.”

The Mars 2020 mission allocated one month to tests of Ingenuity, a time frame that started when the helicopter was released from the rover. Aung said that she was optimistic that the project could get the four remaining flights in over the next two weeks.

In the briefing, project officials compared Ingenuity to Sojourner, the small rover flown on the Mars Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997 and demonstrated the importance of mobility in planetary exploration. “Now those rovers have become Curiosity and our latest, Perseverance, driving tens of miles on the surface and going to the best places for scientific discovery,” Watkins said.

Bob Balaram, the chief engineer for Ingenuity, believed the 1.8-kilogram helicopter could be scaled up. “The fundamental dynamics of these vehicles do scale up to fairly reasonable sizes,” he said. He envisioned helicopters weighing 25 to 30 kilograms that could carry 4 kilograms of science payloads. “That would be a good sweet spot for the next-generation design.”

However, when a larger version of Ingenuity might fly on Mars isn’t clear. NASA’s Mars exploration program is focused primarily on Mars sample return for the next decade with the Perseverance rover caching samples that two later missions, developed in cooperation with ESA, will collect and return to Earth. The only other major Mars mission NASA is currently working on is the Mars Ice Mapper orbiter, scheduled for launch no earlier than 2026.

“I don’t know” when the next helicopter will fly on Mars, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “What I’m really interested in, frankly, is the science community’s ideas about how to turn this into a science machine.”

Later in the briefing, he appeared to rule out including a helicopter on the next lander mission, which will collect the samples Perseverance caches and launches them into orbit. “We need to keep it as streamlined as possible. There’s a lot of things we could be adding to this,” he said of that lander. “The campaign we have in front of us is very much focused exactly one key objective, and that is to bring the samples back to Earth.”

Most of the emphasis at the briefing, though, was to discuss the successful first flight of Ingenuity, which attracted worldwide attention. In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki mentioned the flight at her daily briefing. “Today, we congratulate the men and women of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for yet again making history in outer space,” she said. “This brief flight now paves the way for more extensive exploration down the road.”

Later, the White House released a photo of President Joe Biden, seated in a studio with a model of Ingenuity, talking by video with the Ingenuity project team. “Today, President Biden joined NASA as the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took off from the surface of Mars,” the White House tweeted, but did not disclose additional details of the conversation.

There was also, for the project team itself, a chance to finally enjoy success after years of work. “This is the first day in our six, seven years of effort that we feel a license to celebrate,” Aung said. “We have never allowed ourselves to celebrate fully. Yes, we will be celebrating, 100%.”


U.S. Army approves plans for a future ‘tactical space layer’

One of the desired capabilities for the tactical space layer is positioning, navigation and timing.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Army leaders have signed off on plans to explore the use of satellites in low Earth orbit to give soldiers dedicated surveillance, navigation and imaging capabilities.

The Army’s effort is called “tactical space layer” and is led by the U.S. Army’s Futures Command, based in Austin, Texas.

The Futures Command in an April 19 news release said it was given approval for “rapid experimentation and prototyping efforts for tactical space-based sensors with supporting ground-based equipment.”

One of the desired capabilities for the tactical space layer is positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), a service that is provided by the U.S. Global Positioning System satellites. The Army worries that adversaries in a conflict will jam GPS and want to have backup systems available. The Army also wants satellites for surveillance and reconnaissance.

“The tactical space layer will provide deep area sensing, rapid targeting and unmatched battlefield situational awareness,” said Lt. Col. Travis Tallman, director of the Future Command’s tactical space signature effort. “Leveraging the tactical space layer will further enable long range precision fires and ground maneuvers in GPS-challenged environments.”

“Space is an important component of battlefield dominance,” said Willie Nelson, who leads the Futures Command’s assured PNT team in Huntsville, Alabama.

The tactical space layer will help inform future programs of record and procurements, he said. 

The use of satellites is part of a larger project by Army Futures Command to connect ground forces with those that operate in the air, sea and space domains. 

In 2019, a tactical space layer “interagency memorandum of agreement” was signed by the Secretary of the Army, the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the director for defense intelligence.  

The Army Space and Missile Defense Command — which has been working on space experiments such as the recently launched Gunsmoke-J satellite — is supporting the tactical space layer effort, said Thomas Webber, director of the SMDC Technical Center. “As the Army proponent for space and high altitude it only makes sense that SMDC would play a critical role in delivering a tactical space layer for the Army.”

SMDC’s Col. Timothy Dalton said the tactical space layer is “the first big step to identify and establish validated Army requirements in the space mission area.”  

The tactical space layer will be integrated with an existing ground station called Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN) which the Army uses to process data from land-based and aerial sensors. 

The Army’s tactical space layer is different than the “Transport Layer” that is being planned by the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency and will be deployed in low Earth orbit starting in 2022. 


NRO to sign deals with commercial providers of satellite radar imagery

NRO’s Pete Muend: ‘One of the things that we are moving out on is the potential to purchase commercial radar imagery’

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office plans to sign new deals with commercial providers of satellite radar imagery as the agency looks to better understand the capabilities of the private sector, a senior NRO official told SpaceNews.  

Satellite imagery known as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is now offered by a growing number of commercial companies, a trend that has drawn the attention of U.S. national security agencies. 

 “One of the things that we are moving out on is the potential to purchase commercial radar imagery,” said Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office.

The NRO in December 2019 awarded SAR imagery provider Capella Space a contract to experiment with the use of the company’s data and figure out the utility of the data for national security. Other providers of satellite-based Earth intelligence received similar study contracts over the past two years.  Muend said the next round of contracts will focus on SAR imagery.

“I’m very excited about the commercial radar side,” said Muend. He said the NRO in November 2020 issued a request for information to “really get a better understanding of where U.S. domestic commercial radar providers might be.”

There was a significant response from the industry, said Muend. “We got a lot of really good feedback from that and we’re in the process of awarding a number of study contracts.”

The NRO acquires satellite data for the U.S. intelligence community, the military and homeland security agencies. It buys primarily optical satellite imagery, or photographs taken from space. The dominant supplier of electro-optical commercial imagery is Maxar Technologies. In 2019 the NRO launched an industry competition as it looks to select new suppliers of electro-optical imagery. It awarded study contracts to Maxar, Planet and BlackSky. 

“We are trying to do something on the SAR side very similar to what we did on the electro-optical side,” Muend said.

Under a study contract, the company provides a “fair amount of imagery” so the government can assess the quality and performance, he said. The data will be analyzed by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for defining the requirements for the imagery the NRO procures. 

“We’re working hand in hand with NGA to lay the foundation for a future set of validated requirements so we can ultimately have a competition to purchase that radar imagery at scale for the long term,” Muend said. 

The SAR study contracts are expected to be awarded in mid to late 2021. 

One of the benefits of SAR is that it sees through clouds and other atmospheric obstacles that interfere with optical satellites. SAR imagery, however, requires a different type of skill and training to analyze. The commercial SAR constellations now being built project to have many satellites in orbit that can capture images of areas on Earth multiple times a day. Companies offer their services to civilian industries like agriculture and energy, but they view defense and intelligence as their most important market. 

Electro-optical imagery contracts

As it evaluates SAR imagery bids, the NRO also plans to seek proposals for its next round of electro-optical imagery contracts, Muend said.

The NRO currently spends about $300 million a year on imagery provided by Maxar under a sole-source contract known as EnhancedView. 

EnhancedView was extended until 2023. The study contracts awarded to Maxar ,Planet and BlackSky were intended to help the NRO figure out a plan for the next contract after EnhancedView. 

“Obviously that is all leading to a competition for us to put in place the next generation of electro optical commercial imagery contracts,” Muend said. “We’re working as rapidly as we can down that path.”

The next step will be the release of a draft request for proposals this summer or fall and a contract award later in the year, he said.

Muend said a key hurdle that has to be cleared before contracts are awarded are licensing agreements. 

“The imagery that we purchase is restricted under an end user license agreement that dictates who we can give it to, and who we can’t,” he said. “And it’s very important to make sure we have a good understanding on both sides of dissemination audiences” as that dictates the pricing of the imagery. 

The NRO developed a family of end user license agreements that would be part of any imagery contracts. “We wanted to get away from individually negotiated end user license agreements,” he said. “That can be quite complicated. So we wanted something that was standard, relatively simple.”

The NRO and the NGA want to create a ‘license architecture” so when agencies order imagery they know they have rights to disseminate it to their audiences, said Muend. “That’s definitely folded into our contract moving forward.”


Telesat raising $500 million in debt for Lightspeed broadband network

TAMPA, Fla. — Canadian satellite operator Telesat plans to raise $500 million with a bond to help fund its $5 billion Lightspeed broadband constellation.

The senior secured notes due 2026 will be issued around April 27 as part of a debt package that will fund 60% of the project’s cost, with the remaining 40% financed through equity. 

Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s CEO, told a session of the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum April 6 that he expects to complete Lightspeed’s financing “in the next couple of months.”

The company is also close to finalizing plans to start launching the constellation of nearly 300 satellites from next year. It has early launch arrangements with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and 3D printing specialist Relativity Space. Neither company has conducted an orbital launch.

Europe’s Thales Alenia Space is building the low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in a $3 billion contract, including network management software and gateway integration.

As part of plans to fund the multibillion-dollar constellation, Telesat said Nov. 24 it will form a new Canadian company to list shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the third quarter of 2021.

Telesat is combining with Loral Space & Communications, a major shareholder that already trades on the Nasdaq.

Loral and Canadian pension fund manager PSP Investments are Telesat’s largest shareholders, after buying the company in 2007 for about $3 billion in a leveraged buyout deal.

Telesat has also said it is considering debt financing from an export-credit agency (ECA), which used to be prevalent in the commercial space industry before bonds and other financing alternatives rose to the fore.

Meanwhile, the company has been receiving strong government support to develop Lightspeed.

Canada’s federal government awarded Telesat 600 million Canadian dollars in funding in November to provide subsidized broadband services to rural communities in the country. 

Separately, Quebec’s provincial government said Feb. 18 it will invest 400 million Canadian dollars in Lightspeed, and Canadian space hardware maker MDA, to build the network’s phased array antennas. The Quebec government is splitting its investment between equity in Telesat and a loan to the company.

Telesat expects Lightspeed will start offering services in 2023, putting it behind other broadband megaconstellations Starlink and OneWeb.

However, the company plans to leverage its existing geosynchronous (GEO) satellite network, and the expertise gained during five decades in business.

Telesat’s fleet comprises 15 GEO satellites, one LEO test spacecraft and a Canadian payload on U.S.-based operator Viasat’s ViaSat-1.

Unlike megaconstellation frontrunner Starlink, which has 1,378 satellites in orbit, Lightspeed will not provide consumer broadband services directly. It will focus on markets including backhaul services for mobile network operators and internet service providers, aeronautical and maritime connectivity, and government customers. 

Telesat’s new bond carries a 5.625% coupon, which is the annual interest payment that its holder receives from the bond’s issue date until it matures.

The debt prompted Moody’s Investors Service, the ratings agency, to downgrade the operator’s corporate family rating (CFR) by one notch to B2 from B1.

Peter Adu, Moody’s vice president and senior analyst, said it downgraded the company because the bond will change its ratio of debt to adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, from 5.1 times 2020 earnings to 6.1 times earnings.

Moody’s rates about $3.5 billion of Telesat’s debt. The satellite operator recorded 653 million Canadian dollars ($511 million) in adjusted EBITDA for 2020, a 14% decrease compared with 2019 as COVID-19 weighed on the business.

The ratings agency said Telesat remains on review for another downgrade as it expects further changes in its debt to EBITDA ratio amid Lightspeed’s construction.

However, it also noted how Telesat’s $2.7 billion Canadian in contract backlog gives it a predictable revenue stream over the next 12-18 months. Plans to monetize the company’s C-band spectrum, for terrestrial wireless use in U.S. and Canada, also boost the company’s future outlook.