Astranis targets U.S. military clients for its small GEO satellites

Astranis Space Technologies plans to launch a small communications satellite into geostationary orbit this summer, which will deliver internet services solely in Alaska.

Small geostationary satellites are made by the San Francisco-based firm as a low-cost alternative to typical GEO spacecraft employed by large satellite providers and the US military. As the military wants to broaden its communications architecture, Astranis sees a chance to break into the defense sector amid a drumbeat of worry about the susceptibility of satellite systems to cyber-attacks.

In an interview, Astranis Chief Executive Officer John Gedmark noted, “What we’ve seen on the US government side is a significant push towards resiliency.”

Scott Jacobs, who served as Blue Origin national security sales director, was appointed last summer to manage Astranis’ federal sales, which include defense and civilian space.

Small GEO satellites have the advantage of being more nimble and less expensive to replace if they are destroyed during a conflict, according to Gedmark.

“The US military is completely reliant on a shockingly small number of huge geostationary satellites. And in the event of a big confrontation, every one of those has been identified as a highly appealing target,” he said.

“They’re trying to make the existing architecture more resilient,” Gedmark explained. “This means having more capability available in all forms, as well as the ability to refill capabilities if those functionalities are lost due to an attack.”

Astranis’ small GEO satellites, which weigh between 350 and 400 kilos, can be easily repurposed “from one side of the earth to another if some sort of battle breaks out or there’s a natural disaster,” he said.

According to Gedmark, the company intends to offer the military the option of leasing small satellites that might be directed to improve capacity in places where it is needed.

Astranis stated on April 5 that it had secured a deal with SpaceX for the launch of four small geostationary satellites in 2023. Two are for Anuvu, an in-flight connection provider, and one is for Andesat, a Peruvian telecommunications company. The fourth client has yet to be revealed. It’s unclear whether the consumer is a commercial or government entity.

According to Gedmark, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call that space is a contested domain. “One of the first things the Russians did was launch a severe cyber attack on a commercial satellite communications provider.  If a conflict breaks down, it is hardly a “theoretical threat” that they will try to destroy our existing massive GEO capabilities. They’ve already demonstrated what they aim to accomplish.”

Astranis received a Small Business Innovation Research Phase 2 grant of about $1 million from the Space Force in 2020 for its software-defined radio technology, which can change frequencies and reroute signals to avoid interference and jamming. The company is hoping to land a second contract.

The United States Air Force chose Astranis as one of 23 businesses to bid for job orders under an IDIQ (indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity) deal to serve the Advanced Battle Management System in March. The Advanced Battlefield Management System (ABMS) is a long-term attempt to connect weapon systems across land, sea, air, and space domains.

Because GEO is a considerably higher orbit than low Earth orbit, small GEO satellite services have higher latency than low Earth orbit constellations. Although the US military has become a major purchaser of LEO broadband, Gedmark feels there is space in the market for a variety of services. “I believe we’ll require everything,” he remarked. “We require capability in all potential orbits.”

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