Astra Space joins the high-speed satellite Internet race

Astra Space team members prepare a rocket for an attempted launch in Alaska. (Photo from Astra Space)

Make room for another competitor in the market to provide high-speed internet access from low earth orbit: Astra Space, the company that went public with the help of the Seattle-area telecommunications pioneer Craig McCaw is asking the Federal Communications Commission for authorization to launch up to 13,620 bit beam satellites.

In today’s filing, a subsidiary known as Astra Space Platform Services states that its V-band constellation “would bring new opportunities for reliable, high-speed communication services to certain users and partners of corporate, government and institutional around the world “.

Astra, based in California, is best known as a start-up company. Last December, it sent a test rocket into space from a launch pad on Kodiak Island in Alaska and narrowly missed reaching orbit. Another orbital launch attempt is planned for from this month.

Astra said its satellites will be built in-house and will be launched on Astra’s own rockets. The satellites would be sent to orbital altitudes ranging from 236 to 435 miles (380 to 700 kilometers) and would be fitted with propulsion systems to help avoid collisions and post-operational desorbing.

Potential applications of Astra’s broadband connectivity would include communications services, environmental and natural resource applications, and national security missions.

“Given the funding obtained through its recent public offering, its vertically integrated launch capability and its experience in the design and operation of space systems, Astra is well positioned to develop this project and introduce new space services, including including communication solutions, while maintaining a secure environment. the space environment, using the spectrum efficiently and without causing harmful radio interference, ”the company said.

Astra made around $ 500 million in cash by merging with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, led by McCaw and based in Kirkland, Wash. McCaw’s blank check company, Holicity, was in turn backed by a sponsorship fund. called Pendrell Corp. which counts Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates among its investors.

The combined company, valued at more than $ 2 billion, went public in July. Astra’s share price was $ 12.30 when it debuted on the Nasdaq Exchange and closed today’s trading session at $ 9.85.

We’ve reached out to Astra and will update this report with whatever we hear.

McCaw, who now sits on the Astra board of directors, pioneered cellular telecommunications services in the 1980s and early 1990s at McCaw Cellular. The Seattle-area company was acquired by AT&T in 1994 in a deal that made McCaw a billionaire. In the late 1990s, McCaw was one of the investors (along with Gates) in Teledesic, an unsuccessful effort to provide satellite telecommunications service.

When the Astra SPAC deal was announced in February, McCaw told investors he had long believed there was “an incredible opportunity to provide communications satellites, essentially an Internet in the sky, with the ability to provide Internet anywhere and everywhere “. He pointed to SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellations as evidence that such a vision was within reach.

SpaceX is currently leading the race for satellite broadband, with limited service provided through a constellation of more than 1,600 satellites in low Earth orbit. This week, Amazon requested permission to launch its first prototype Project Kuiper satellites next year. The Anglo-Indian company OneWeb has 358 satellites in orbit and plans to start offering services in arctic regions this winter.

Also this week, Boeing obtained FCC clearance for a constellation of 147 satellites that are expected to be fully deployed by 2030.

Like Astra, Boeing plans to operate on V-band frequencies, as opposed to the Ku and Ka bands targeted by SpaceX and Amazon. Unlike Astra, Boeing was able to get its proposal approved in the first FCC licensing round for non-geostationary satellite orbital services. This means Astra’s claim will need to be considered in the second FCC review cycle, along with other LEO satellite applications filed today by Telesat, Hughes, Inmarsat and others.

If the FCC approves all pending requests, it would pave the way for tens of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit. According to a database maintained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are currently around 4,550 operational satellites in orbit. Assuming those numbers are correct, about a third of all these spacecraft are SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash.

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