Billions of people still lack high-speed internet. This SF company is building satellites to change that

As it turns out, beaming high-speed internet to remote corners of Alaska from thousands of miles away in space starts with a brick of titanium in a warehouse in San Francisco.

At a vast complex where the United States produced World War II Liberty ships, Astranis is building satellites it plans to send into orbit more than 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, and the first is slated to take to the skies aboard a SpaceX. Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral next year.

Each of these sentry robots costs tens of millions of dollars to manufacture, but according to Astranis CEO and aerospace engineer John Gedmark, the price is worth it to solve one of humanity’s enduring challenges: high-speed Internet connectivity.
“We’re talking about three to four billion people who don’t have broadband internet,” worldwide, a problem that has worsened as the planet’s population has grown, he said. “It’s one of the biggest problems humanity has to solve today.”
So in their more than 150,000-square-foot warehouse at Pier 70, where the old overhead cranes and railroad tracks that helped win mankind’s greatest war are still on display, engineers in lab coats walk around a huge white room pressurized for cleaning. Each of the six rows of workstations corresponds to one side of a cube-shaped satellite now in production, as engineers assemble and test the circuits and chips that will withstand years of punishing radiation, away from Earth’s protective magnetic field .
In another nearby building, the company’s machine shop is alive with devices the size of large telephone booths that chop those chunks of titanium and other materials into the bits that will allow future satellites to sit silently above fixed points in the sky and beyond. connect the world

A mission control center at the Astranis satellite company in San Francisco.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

The company’s first satellite, known as Arcturus, also called Aurora 4A, has been ready for launch for months. He’s been waiting for a shared rocket ride with another satellite made by broadband internet provider Viasat, Viasat-3, which has as reported delays were seen that repeatedly pushed back the release date.

But Arcturus, named for the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, is a little different from other satellites that aim to solve some of the same problems.
On the one hand, it is smaller than satellites like the Viasat-3, which will be half a football field long when fully deployed.
Huge sizes are common for geostationary satellites, which sit much higher in orbit and remain over a fixed point on Earth’s equator, as Arcturus will do. This is in contrast to low-Earth orbit satellites, such as those made by Starlink, which buzz over various points on Earth at a much lower altitude and mesh with hundreds or thousands of small satellites to create an internet network.
Traditionally, geostationary satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars and up to five years to build, and are “the size of a London double-decker bus,” Gedmark said.

But futuristic technology like ion thrusters for propulsion and advances in lithium-ion battery storage mean his company has been able to pack much of the same functionality into a 1,000-pound box about the size of a washing machine with solar panels for wings
He said it currently takes the company about 18 months to build a satellite from planning to orbit. But that includes pandemic delays and supply chain issues, and he said he was confident the company can get that down to 12 months or less.

Gedmark’s team of about 300 also built the satellite around what it calls “software-defined radio,” which will make it easier to mass-produce more.
Traditionally, “analog radio waves go up to a satellite and the satellite repeats it back down,” to Earth, which requires a single frequency to be dialed into the satellite on the ground, Gedmark said. But the onboard software the company demonstrated with the launch of a small test satellite in 2018 will allow engineers to dial in different radio frequencies from the ground, a technology it said has been used more often for military purposes in the past.
That means each satellite can be built the same and, “You can figure out later in the game where you’re going to send it,” he said, comparing the difference in functionality to going from playing music on a vinyl record. to a digital mp3.

The Arcturus (Aurora 4A) in a mount while undergoing testing at Astranis headquarters at Pier 70 in San Francisco.
The Arcturus (Aurora 4A) in a mount while undergoing testing at Astranis headquarters at Pier 70 in San Francisco.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

But sending hardware and software far above Earth means exposing it to huge amounts of cosmic radiation that is bounced into space by the planet’s magnetic field, but still surrounds it like a “big donut that goes around the Earth with a very thick band.” of radiation,” Gedmark said.
“You put a satellite in a certain orbit as a geostationary right in that belt and it’s just going to be bathed in that radiation,” Gedmark said. That means components have to be radiation-hardened, as the punishing rays will “randomly make a zero to one or one to zero” on a line of software code, requiring engineers to fix it from the ground up.

So how does all this translate into better, cheaper internet for people in isolated places like an Alaskan island?
Well, while most people in the United States enjoy cell phone towers directly connected to high-speed internet via fiber optic cables, remote regions often don’t have that luxury. So the signals from the fiber optic cables have to be sent through a terrestrial antenna and bounce off a satellite like Arcturus, which then repeats and boosts the signal back to strategically placed cell towers.
But instead of having fiber optic cables running through the towers, they are equipped with a small satellite dish, like the kind you might see on a house, which then bounces the signal back to the user’s phone or device, Gedmark said.
“By installing one of our satellites, we are giving our customers a lower cost link to their cell towers than they had access to before,” he said. That’s because running fiber optic cables to cell phone towers in the areas the company plans to serve would be prohibitively expensive, and buying capacity on existing satellites also wouldn’t be financially viable for most consumers.
The company has already signed a contract with Alaska satellite communications company Pacific Dataport to operate the ground equipment. Gedmark said his company is only selling the capacity to Pacific Dataport and could not provide an estimate of how much it might cost a customer per month.
Pacific Dataport also did not say exactly how much internet could cost once Arcturus, which the company calls Aurora 4A, is aloft.

“We are a backhaul provider (or wholesaler) to telecommunications, tribes, tribal broadband consortia, schools and health clinics – we do not sell directly to the customer,” Pacific Dataport spokesman Shawn Williams said in an email. “That said, a provider using our backhaul will be able to offer very competitive packages given what’s available today.”

Elon Musk’s Starlink, with its constellation of satellites, currently offers access to its network for $110 a month, plus a one-time hardware fee of about $600. SpaceX, which developed Starlink, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Williams said the Arcturus satellite will create enough internet capacity for about 10,000 customers four to six weeks after the planned March launch date.
But Alaska is just the beginning for Gedmark’s company, which has also bought an entire SpaceX rocket launch late next year to send four more satellites, which are currently being assembled at Astranis headquarters in San Francisco.
One of those satellites will be placed in orbit to provide internet to Peruvians in parts of the country where connectivity is poor or nonexistent, and where the Andes Mountains and other geographic features make fiber optic cables a non-starter. .
The other two will increase in-flight WiFi capability primarily for Southwest Airlines customers working with internet provider Anuvu, Gedmark said, while the third has yet to be publicly committed.

Technicians work in a climate-controlled facility at Astranis' headquarters at Pier 70 in San Francisco.
Technicians work in a climate-controlled facility at Astranis’ headquarters at Pier 70 in San Francisco.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

But like the large American flags that draped the ceilings of Astanis’ manufacturing hangars, one question seems to loom over the bustling operation: Why do it in San Francisco, especially when so many tech companies have moved their headquarters to cheaper locations in the last years?
“To me, there’s no question that San Francisco has the densest collection of engineering talent in the world,” Gedmark said, adding that the city’s proximity to giants like NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View and other companies aerospace allowed his company. to attract the minds it needs.
“That’s why we decided to stay and keep the manufacturing facility in one house with engineering,” Gedmark said.
And while many of his engineers could probably choose roles at a number of aerospace companies, Gedmark’s argument is simple: “I’ve seen how slow our industry can move,” he said, adding that his engineers’ work can have a greater impact. immediate impact in remote corners of the globe.
“We’re launching five satellites next year that are going to scale up and have an immediate impact on the lives of millions of people.”
Chase DiFeliciantonio is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: chase.difeliciantonio@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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