The founder of a Texas-based company who wants to put more than 200 very large satellites into low-range Earth orbit has repelled fears from NASA that the spacecraft pose a threat from orbital debris. .
Abel Avellan, founder of AST & Science, said in an interview: “We are not a bunch of cowboys launching satellites. “This is a serious, well-funded project.”
The company, which has 160 employees and has moved to the former XCOR facility at Midland airport, has asked the Federal Communications Commission for access to the US market to sell its Internet connection with mobile phones from the air. time. NASA took the rare step of opposing the major constellation AST’s proposal to place 243 satellites in orbit at 720km, commenting on Friday that it could lead to a “crash. catastrophic “with its A-Train satellites in orbit nearby.
“SpaceMobile” satellites actually have a very large cross-sectional area perpendicular to the ground, because this is the only way to transmit signals directly from satellites to broadband, Avellan said. “There is no magic at all, “he said. If you wanted something to connect directly to the handset, it wouldn’t be CubeSat. ”
Each satellite will consist of a large antenna, covering an area of up to 900 square meters. However, Avellan said the satellites would fly directly, “like a flying saucer, but not spinning.” He said the cross-section of the satellite along the direction of motion is only about 3 square meters. The company calculated that the probability of a random collision – assuming there is no avoidance – was about 1 in 5,000 during its lifetime, or 1 in 20 across the constellation.
Others share concerns
However, since NASA commented, other organizations have raised concerns about the constellation SpaceMobile. T-Mobile and Verizon say the company’s operations could interfere with their terrestrial network. Others echoed NASA’s concerns about debris, noting that as a “start-up” company, the AST has no experience in building satellites, let alone very large satellites. proposed in the FCC petition. Such a comment from Tech Freedom, a technology consultancy, suggests there is no guarantee that AST satellites will be able to avoid collisions.
“History tells us that, for brand new satellite systems with no significant legacy in terms of satellite design or manufacturing, failure rates can be over 10% and possibly reach. to the 30% failure rate that the Iridium system encountered, “commented organization. “With even half the failure rate of first generation Iridium, that would still produce a combined cross section of 36,000 square meters of trash over the next decade that other operators will have to maneuver, not to mention. Existing debris cannot move to avoid new debris caused by the constellation AST.
Avellan said the AST has the experience and capabilities needed to build large and powerful satellites. He said the company has 750 patent claims on spaceMobile satellite design technology and raised $ 128 million after its recent Series B fundraising. The company’s strategic and financial partners include Vodafone Group, Rakuten and Samsung.
“I’m not making any noise about this project, because I don’t want China to start copying it too soon,” Avellan said.
The satellite is very large
However, these are actually very large and complex satellites. The company says it is developing a “mechanical deployment system” that allows arrays to be expanded in orbit to produce “ultra-high power generation” of 100kW or more. In September, at an EngageSpace showcase for the US Air Force, the company said its satellites would generate enough energy in orbit “to completely illuminate terrestrial mobile phones or other applications. like SARS, jamming and interception, tactical early warning missile defense and any other high power requirements. “
The AST is in the process of building a prototype satellite in Midland, Avellan told Ars. This next test satellite, “BlueWalker 3”, will be about half the size of its SpaceMobile and will launch in the second half of next year. Complete with a deployable 10-meter array and reflector, this test serves as a “stepping stone” for the company’s final satellite design.
As of Tuesday night, the company has yet to speak to NASA about their concerns. However, the administrator of the space agency, Jim Bridenstine, was behind the agency’s comments.
“Protecting our assets and preserving the orbital environment for public and private activities is very important to NASA,” he told Ars. For these reasons, NASA has made technical comments to the FCC to protect not only the property of the agency but also the company’s future satellites. “
Bridenstine said the agency will work with the FCC and the company to try to find a path that is acceptable to both sides. He also called on Congress to fund the responsibility for managing civil space traffic under a new office at the Ministry of Commerce. “The Commerce Department must be given the right authority and funding to manage space traffic before an inevitable collision threatens the future of both government and commercial space operations,” he said. .