The internet is so pervasive that people tend to think that it is available in all places all over the world. The truth is that there are more than four billion people who have no access to the internet. In the US, a lot of rural areas still do not have internet connection and a startup in San Francisco wants to remedy that.
Astranis Space Technologies wants to send small, low-cost satellites capable of beaming down internet signal to high-flying orbits.
Andreessen Horowitz Betting Big
Astranis recently had a Series A investment round where they were able to raise $13.5 million in funding. Lead investor was Andreessen Horowitz. Other investors include Y Combinator, Refactor Capital, Fifty Years and Indicator Fund. The latest infusion raised their total funding up to $18 million.
This is a relatively small amount compared to other companies like SpaceX and OneWeb which all have the same goal of sending satellites to orbit to provide broadband internet access for four billion people spread out across the world.
It is not surprising that John Gedmark, Astranis CEO and co-founder, is a fan of these other larger companies. In an interview on GeekWire, Gedmark admits that “this is such a massive problem that we need a whole array of approaches.”
The Astranis approach is decidedly different, and can be said to be proportionate to their financial funding. A normal-sized communications satellite would have dimensions of 26 ft x 12 ft x 11 ft and weigh 6500kg. In contrast, the Astranis MicroGEO weighs only 300kg, and is 3ft on all sides. A rocket launch can easily carry three of these satellites in every launch. However, Astranis has no plans of sending multiple satellites on each rocket. The Astranis satellites will be placed at a 22,000 miles high in geosynchronous orbits. This strategy will need less satellites than is planned by other companies like OneWeb and SpaceX that want to send thousands of satellites at lower orbits.
Prototype and Production
Astranis has already proven what they are capable of doing. They were able to successfully do a transmission test on February 15, 2018, when they sent two HD video files up to their prototype satellite. It was processed digitally in real-time via a proprietary software radio technology before being sent down again to the earth station located in Alaska.
With the assistance of Seattle-based Spaceflight, the company used an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket to send the satellite into orbit. They also had help from Redmond, Washington-based RBC Signals for the ground station services. On-satellite real-time video processing is a normal process done on the satellite prior to being forwarded to the earth station receiver.
According to Gedmark, the files transmitted were a video clip of the PSLV launch while the other one was of tennis player Roger Federer winning the recently concluded Australian Open.
Spaceflight will also be assisting Astranis when it starts launching its satellites in 2019. The 300 kg payload can be a secondary payload during the launch of any type of rocket, including Falcon 9 from SpaceX, the Atlas 5 from United Launch Alliance, and European Ariane 5. Astranis has a 13,00 square foot plant in the San Francisco area where they can manufacture its satellites en masse. The company has at least 20 employees and growing.
Astranis is one of the bold ideas that would transform the lives of billions of people in the world. If plans don’t miscarry, they’ll be paving the way for a truly connected planet.