Astranis’ Innovative Satellite Approach Brings Broadband Access to Rural Alaskans
San Francisco-based satellite internet startup, Astranis, achieved a significant milestone on Wednesday as its first spacecraft successfully completed a crucial test. The company is now gearing up to provide broadband access to rural areas in Alaska by mid-June, marking a major breakthrough in their mission. Founded in 2015 by John Gedmark and Ryan McLinko, Astranis has taken a groundbreaking approach to satellite development, focusing on first principles to create smaller and more affordable spacecraft capable of operating in geosynchronous orbit – the farthest and most challenging orbit from Earth.
The ambitious bet placed by Gedmark and McLinko is paying off handsomely. Arcturus, Astranis’ inaugural satellite, was launched aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket in late April. Just minutes after separating from the rocket’s upper stage, the spacecraft began transmitting telemetry and tracking data to Astranis engineers. It swiftly connected to an internet gateway in Utah and established communication with multiple user terminals in Alaska, successfully demonstrating its capability.
“We integrated a new kind of satellite for higher orbits like geostationary orbit, and we’re happy to say that it works,” commented Gedmark, Astranis’ CEO, during a recent interview.
While there are several companies developing hardware and software to provide broadband internet access from space, Astranis distinguishes itself with its unique approach. One notable difference is the orbit in which Astranis operates – geosynchronous orbit (GEO), situated approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Satellites in GEO remain fixed relative to their position over the Earth, enabling them to deliver uninterrupted service to a specific geographic area.
This sets Astranis apart from SpaceX’s Starlink, which operates a vast constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, approximately 340 miles above the planet’s surface.
However, Astranis’ “microGEO” satellites stand out even among other spacecraft in GEO. Their size is a major differentiating factor, with Arcturus measuring about the size of a dishwasher, while traditional GEO satellites are as large as double-decker buses. As a result, conventional GEO satellites, due to their size and the need for designs that can withstand extreme radiation and thermal conditions, have historically cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. In contrast, Astranis claims that its satellites are significantly more affordable and can be built in a fraction of the time compared to legacy systems.
Astranis has successfully secured over $550 million in funding, valuing the company at $1.6 billion. Its impressive list of investors includes prominent names such as Andreessen Horowitz, BlackRock, and Baillie Gifford. In addition to a contract with Pacific Dataport, a middle-mile telecom provider responsible for selling broadband internet to Alaskans, Astranis has signed agreements with companies in Peru and Mexico, as well as the U.S. Space Force. Moreover, the company has received orders worth over $1 billion to be fulfilled within the next two years.
Despite remarkable achievements, Gedmark acknowledged the challenges Astranis faced over the past eight years, including a global pandemic, conflicts in Europe, and a banking crisis. However, he emphasized that the most difficult period was the last year leading up to the launch, which experienced several delays. Nevertheless, the company remained committed to its mission and persevered through the obstacles.
Astranis shows no signs of slowing down. Having successfully completed the end-to-end communications test, the company aims to commence broadband service in Alaska by mid-June. Additionally, four more satellites built by Astranis are scheduled to be launched later this year using a dedicated Falcon 9 rocket. Among the planned deployments, one satellite is intended for Latin American Grupo Andesat, bringing broadband access to millions in rural Peru. Two satellites will be leased to Anuvu, a company that provides internet services on airplanes and cruises, while the fourth satellite’s customer has yet to be disclosed.
“We do expect things to really turbocharge,” Gedmark confidently stated. “Our commercial sales team is going to have their hands full.”
Astranis’ groundbreaking achievements in satellite technology and their commitment to providing broadband internet to remote areas hold immense promise for connecting millions, or even billions, of people worldwide. As the company continues to innovate and expand its reach, it’s clear that the future of satellite internet is looking brighter than ever.