Make room in the market for a new competitor to provide broadband internet access from low Earth orbit: Astra Space, which went public with the help of Seattle-area telecom pioneer Craig McCaw, has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to launch up to 13,620 bit-beaming satellites.
In today’s filing, Astra Space Platform Services, a subsidiary, claims that its V-band constellation will “bring new opportunities for reliable, high-speed communications services to select enterprise, government, and institutional users and partners around the world.” Astra, based in California, is best known as a launch venture. It launched a test rocket into space from a launch pad on Alaska’s Kodiak Island last December and narrowly missed orbit. Another orbital launch attempt is scheduled for this month.
Astra stated that its satellites would be built in-house and launched using Astra’s own rockets. The satellites would be launched into orbit at altitudes ranging from 236 to 435 miles (380 to 700 kilometers), with propulsion systems to aid in collision avoidance and post-operational deorbiting. Communications services, environmental and natural resource applications, and national security missions are all possible uses for Astra’s high-bandwidth connectivity.
“Given the financing secured through its recent public offering, vertically integrated launch capability, and space systems design and operations experience, Astra is well-positioned to develop this project and introduce new space-based services, including communications solutions, while maintaining a safe space environment, efficiently utilizing spectrum, and without causing harmful radio frequency interference,” the company said.
Astra received approximately $500 million in cash proceeds from the merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, led by McCaw and based in Kirkland, Washington. Holicity, McCaw’s blank-check company, was backed in turn by Pendrell Corp., a sponsoring fund that includes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates among its investors.
In July, the combined company went public with a market capitalization of more than $2 billion. Astra’s share price was $12.30 when it made its Nasdaq debut, and it closed today’s trading session at $9.85.
McCaw, who now serves on Astra’s board of directors, pioneered cellular telecom service at McCaw Cellular in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Seattle-area company was acquired by AT&T in 1994, making McCaw a billionaire. McCaw was one of the investors (along with Gates) in Teledesic, an unsuccessful attempt to provide satellite telecom service in the late 1990s.
When the Astra SPAC deal was announced in February, McCaw told investors that he had long believed there was a “amazing opportunity to provide communication satellites, essentially an internet in the sky, with the ability to provide the internet anywhere and everywhere.” He cited SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellations as proof that such a vision was feasible.
SpaceX is currently leading the satellite broadband race, providing limited service via a constellation of over 1,600 satellites in low Earth orbit. Amazon requested permission this week to launch its first prototype Project Kuiper satellites next year. The British-Indian OneWeb venture currently has 358 satellites in orbit and plans to launch service in Arctic regions this winter.
Also this week, Boeing received FCC approval for a 147-satellite constellation that must be fully operational by 2030.
Boeing, like Astra, intends to operate in V-band frequencies, as opposed to the Ku- and Ka-bands sought by SpaceX and Amazon. Unlike Astra, Boeing’s proposal for non-geostationary satellite orbital services was approved during the first round of FCC licensing for non-geostationary satellite orbital services. As a result, Astra’s application, along with other LEO satellite applications filed today by Telesat, Hughes, Inmarsat, and others, will have to be considered during the FCC’s second round of review.
If the FCC approves all of the applications currently under consideration, it will pave the way for tens of thousands of satellites to be placed in low Earth orbit. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ database, there are currently approximately 4,550 operational satellites in orbit. Assuming those figures are correct, about a third of all those spacecraft are SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash.