Is there a market for simple store-and-forward data services? Kepler Communications believes its low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation of nanosats will be able to provide a unique service for moving information between the polar regions and the rest of the world, according to a white paper it released last week.
Economic activity in extreme latitudes is much more than Santa Claus and penguin research. With climate change, receding ice is opening up the Arctic to the possibility of new year-round shipping lanes cutting travel time between London and Tokyo by almost half, bypassing the current route though the Suez Canal. Arctic resources such as oil, gas, and rare earth metals are becoming more accessible while tourism in both Arctic and Antarctic regions continues to grow.
Traditional geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellite services parked at the equator are difficult to use between 70 to 80 degrees latitude and become unusable above 80 degrees latitude. There’s no way to “park” a communications satellite above the North or South Poles and no terrestrial infrastructure due to a combination of sparse population, lots of water and extreme climate.
Kepler plans a production constellation of around 140 low flying nanosatellites to pickup and move around data. With a useful lifetime of around 3 years, a satellite will weigh in under 5 kilograms and is roughly 10 cm by 10 cm by 34 cm in size.
High-capacity store-and-forward data service sounds counterintuitive in an always-connected, always-on world, but lower complexity means lower costs for moving data. A user waits for a satellite to pass overhead. Once it appears and a radio connection made, data is moved to and from the satellite as needed until the satellite moves out of range. Any data that needs to move along is stored on the satellite until it passes over a ground station, where it is downloaded; at the same time, information can be uploaded for delivery to users far away from a broadband connection.
A low flying satellite circles the Earth every 90 minutes. In the proper orbit, a single satellite will pass over the poles 15 to 16 times a day, creating the ability to pick up lots of data. Using a combination of Ku-band and software defined radio (SDR), Kepler is capable of moving upwards of 5 GB per satellite pass, translating to 75GB/day using a single satellite. Adding more satellites will increases the ability to move more data, and move data more quickly.
KIPP, Kepler’s first pathfinder satellite, was launched into orbit in January and has undergone successful testing with ground equipment. Pilot tests with customers are now starting. A second satellite, CASE, is expected to be launched by the end of the summer. Production satellites will start launch in mid-2019, with the full 140 satellite constellation deployed by 2022.
Kepler discusses three applications for store-and-forward service in its polar white paper: Pickup of large quantities of scientific data, media vaults, and local drop boxes. Any sort of “delay tolerant” data — email, video, large analytic sets — can be moved at lower cost, reducing congestion and billing on more expensive real-time links.
Service plans are available in two tiers, basic and priority access. An integrated terminal composed of an electronically steerable antenna supplied by Phasor Solutions and a custom-designed modem will be available in alpha hardware in late 2018 with beta prototypes coming in 2019. Expected list price for the Kepler device is under $5000.
Kepler’s main advantages for its service are higher data rates through using Ku-band and electronically steerable antenna and offloading delay-tolerant data from (presumably more expensive) two-way broadband. Two-way broadband services from OneWeb, SpaceX, and Telesat are likely to be more expensive on a per-byte basis. OneWeb isn’t launching its first satellites until the end of the year, with the first generation 648 satellite constellation not in place until 2022. SpaceX has launched two pathfinder satellites for its StarLink network and expects to have initial service up in the 2020-2022 timeframe. Telesat says it will offer global service in 2021.