Canada’s biggest satellite operator, Telesat, has signed agreements with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Alphabet’s Loon aerial telecommunications venture to support its future global broadband satellite constellation.
Blue Origin has agreed to provide multiple launches on its yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket to get Telesat’s spacecraft into low Earth orbit, or LEO. Loon, meanwhile, will furnish a cloud-based data delivery platform that’s based on the system it currently uses to deliver mobile services via a fleet of high-altitude balloons.
Today’s announcements raise Telesat’s profile in a market battle that also involves California-based SpaceX and the international OneWeb consortium.
The goal of all three satellite broadband projects is to provide high-speed internet access to an estimated 4 billion people around the world who are currently underserved. Telesat already operates a 17-satellite telecommunications constellation in geostationary Earth orbit, or GEO, but it’s planning to put hundreds more satellites in LEO for improved response time and widespread service.
Telesat’s first LEO satellite was launched a year ago for orbital testing. The company is expected to offer first-generation data services in the early 2020s.
That time frame meshes with Blue Origin’s development plan for the orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which is currently scheduled to have its first launch from the company’s Florida complex in 2021. (Blue Origin is also currently testing a suborbital spaceship known as New Shepard, which could start carrying people by the end of this year.)
“Blue Origin’s powerful New Glenn rocket is a disruptive force in the launch services market which, in turn, will help Telesat disrupt the economics and performance of global broadband connectivity,” Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s president and CEO, said in a news release.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said he and his teammates were “excited to be partnering with this industry leader on their disruptive satellite network architecture.”
“New Glenn’s 7-meter fairing, with its huge mass and volume capabilities, is a perfect match for Telesat’s constellation plans while reducing launch costs per satellite,” Smith said.
Nearly two years ago, Blue Origin struck a deal with OneWeb for five launches on the New Glenn, starting in 2021. OneWeb executive chairman Greg Wyler has been quoted as saying that each of those launches could put as many as 80 satellites in low Earth orbit.
OneWeb has launch agreements with several other providers as well, including Virgin Orbit and the European Arianespace consortium. Its first satellite launch had been scheduled to lift off from Arianespace’s complex in French Guiana next month, but a problem with the Russian-made Soyuz rocket has forced a delay.
Both OneWeb and SpaceX are aiming to start offering LEO satellite broadband services in 2020 or so.
SpaceX is in the midst of a $500 million funding round to raise money for its Starlink satellite constellation as well as its Starship super-rocket. The company’s facility in Redmond, Wash., is playing the lead role in developing the satellites for Starlink.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk referred to the challenge surrounding the Starlink and Starship projects on Wednesday during a teleconference that focused on the financial state of his other major venture, Tesla. “SpaceX has two absolutely insane projects that would normally bankrupt a company, Starship and Starlink, and so SpaceX has to be incredibly spartan with expenditures until those programs reach fruition,” Musk told financial analysts.
Finances would be less of a problem for Blue Origin’s Bezos, who ranks as the world’s richest individual with a net worth currently estimated at $142 billion (compared to Musk’s $21 billion). Financial terms of Telesat’s deal with Blue Origin were not made public.
Today’s other Telesat deal calls for Loon to customize its software-defined data transmission platform for the Canadian company’s LEO constellation. Loon started out as Google’s Project Loon, and was spun off last year as a separate venture alongside Google in the Alphabet holding company’s portfolio.
Loon is due to start offering commercial internet services via its network of high-altitude balloons this year.
“By leveraging our expertise to assist in the development of Telesat’s advanced and innovative LEO constellation, we see another opportunity for Loon to pursue our mission of connecting people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technology,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a news release. “With billions of people still lacking Internet access, there’s an urgent need for multiple approaches to solving this problem.”
One thing’s for sure: There are definitely multiple approaches to satellite internet services. We’re not just talking about SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat: Luxembourg-based LeoSat is aiming to roll out its satellite broadband constellation in the early 2020s as well. Facebook is reportedly working on a laser-based satellite telecommunications system through a shadowy subsidiary called PointView Tech. And even Boeing has plans for a LEO constellation on its back burner.