Telecommunications stalwart AT&T is delving into the New Space world with its first small satellite planned for launch on June 30 onboard the maiden flight of Firefly Aerospace’s rocket. The mission is designed to “deliver capability to the Marine Corps and Navy,” according to a LinkedIn post from an AT&T executive.
The Naval Postgraduate School, Center for Network Innovation and Experimentation (CENETIX) is the owner of the NPS-CENETIX-Orbital 1 satellite being built and operated by AT&T and its partners, according to a Firefly spokesperson. From public documents, the satellite is designed to demonstrate “Bursty Orbital Mesh Networking” and incorporates a dual radio communication board comprised of goTenna Pro X and LoRa radios with combined with an Arduino controller.
Neil Faradineh, AT&T Client Solutions Executive 3 for Indo Pacific Region, Navy & Marine Business Development, and other AT&T staff toured Firefly’s development facilities and test site in Austin, Texas on February 10, according to his LinkedIn post (Apparently Firefly’s on-site fire a couple of weeks ago wasn’t bad if Firefly is giving customer tours more recently).
Faradineh says AT&T has partnered with AeroVironment and Houston Mechatronics to build the NPS-CENETIX-Orbital 1 cubesat. Presumably AT&T is the lead/system integrator. AeroVironment is a defense contractor that manufactures small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and under contract with SoftBank to develop a high-altitude pseudo-satellites” UAV to provide telecommunications services. Houston Mechatronics builds underwater robots for defense and civilian applications.
How the work building the satellite breaks down isn’t as clear. AeroVironment clearly has expertise in building and integrating communications payloads given its work with the SoftBank high-flying UAV. AT&T could potentially build the cubesat in house or work with a third-party such as Terran Orbital. The size of the cubesat is also open to question, but it is likely a 3U (30x10x10 cm) or 6U size (30x30x10 cm).
Firefly Aerospace was initially slated to conduct its first launch of its Alpha rocket in April 2020 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California but a test stand fire on January 23 has moved the date back to the end of June, assuming everything in the AT&T post is accurate. The Firefly Alpha vehicle can carry up to 1000 kilograms into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
LoRaWAN is an IoT protocol with numerous companies working with it to service remote devices with satellites providing the technology to bridge the gap in areas where broadband connectivity is unavailable. Fleet Space Technologies and Hiber provide gateways between LoRa devices and satellite while Fossa Systems, Eutelsat, and Lacuna Space are among the companies that have or will use satellites to directly communicate with LoRa devices on the ground. Both Fossa and Lacuna have successfully demonstrated the ability to communicate with LoRa devices directly from orbit.
AT&T has not publicly discussed if it would build its own dedicated satellite constellation to connect with LoRaWAN and other types of IoT devices. For security reasons U.S. government customers would prefer working with a U.S. company rather than businesses outside of the United States – Eutelsat, Fleet, Fossa Hiber, and Lacuna are all non-U.S. entities. An AT&T owned and operated satellite constellation would provide the company with an asset to extend its IoT coverage beyond its existing cellular network and could be used for both government and corporate customers.
Space IT Bridge has sent inquiries to AT&T and Firefly for more information and will update this story as it unfolds.