The Top 12 Satellite Events of 2019

From major acquisitions to key technological achievements, 2019 had a bit of everything. It was the year where space became a bigger part of the mainstream consciousness, as there were many momentous events. But, what were they and what was their significance?

It has been quite a year for the satellite industry, as the new era of satellite communications comes ever closer. The days of large amounts of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) orders seems a thing of the past. Here, the editorial team at Via Satellite dissected the past year to give our analysis on our top 12 events of 2019.

Blue Moon Rising From SATELLITE

During SATELLITE 2019, Blue Origin announced another major new technology initiative — its Blue Moon Lander vehicle, which aims to land on the Moon in 2024.

“It is time to go back to the Moon, but this time to stay,” Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Blue Origin said. “This is a multi-generational vision. We need to inspire future generations.”

Bezos believes this will kickstart a new era of building infrastructure in space. “This is an incredible vehicle that is going to the Moon. People are very excited to soft land their cargo on the moon in a way you can’t today,” he said. The first customers were revealed to be Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), Airbus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Parc, John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Arizona State University (ASU), OHB, and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

It was a stunning announcement and further evidence of Blue Origin’s desire to be more than just a launch company. Bezos spoke enthusiastically about building communities in space and painted a vision of a future where space will become mainstream — and Blue Moon aims to be a key piece in the puzzle.

There’s A Starlink Waiting in the Sky

SpaceX continues to be the most talked about company in the sector — but there’s an air of mystery. It is quite clear that its ambitions, similar to that of Blue Origin, go far beyond launching other company’s satellites. This was the year when the company started launching its Starlink constellation of satellites. SpaceX has been reluctant to talk on the record about Starlink, but judging by recent events, the constellation could eventually have tens of thousands of satellites. It seems slightly crazy that SpaceX could launch more than 40,000 satellites, but the industry is changing, and so is SpaceX. However, with the first set of satellites now launched, Starlink has moved beyond just a fanciful vision of the future to something much more tangible.

This was also the year where SpaceX meant to launch humans into space. However, that has been pushed out to early 2020 at the soonest. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s COO, spoke about this in Paris in September, and if all goes to plan, this could be one of the defining moments for the satellite/space industry in 2020.

Newtec, iDirect, ST Engineering Become One

Consolidation is a hot topic in our industry, and it’s always interesting when well-known companies merge. Newtec has long been a standard bearer for the Belgian satellite industry, as well as for the European satellite industry as a whole. News broke this year that ST Engineering was acquiring the company to create a powerhouse, which also involved iDirect. Tang Kum Chuen, president of satellite systems, electronics at ST Engineering, told Via Satellite that the acquisition of Newtec will strengthen ST Engineering’s satcom business through products, solutions, and a customer base that is complementary and synergistic to its U.S.-based iDirect and Singapore-based satcom businesses.

“The combined business will put us in a stronger position to participate in the future growth of satcom and aligns with our strategy to invest in growth areas in the Smart City arena,” Tang said. “Newtec owns strong Intellectual Property (IP) in bandwidth efficiency and Ultra High Throughput technologies that will accelerate our go-to-market cycles, and offer customers superior solutions at a more rapid pace. The combination of advanced technologies from both companies will enable us to diversify and expand into new market segments and offer higher value-add in particularly to address emerging applications in 5G connectivity, broadcast and Internet of Things (IoT) segments.” When asked directly whether they would keep the Newtec brand, Tang declined to answer. “We will continue to invest in Newtec in Belgium to position it to be the Group’s European center for the satcom business,” he said.

Microsoft Opens New Windows

Microsoft is one of biggest companies globally. But up until this year, its presence in the satellite industry had been minimal at best. This changed thanks to a ground-breaking deal with SES, which was one of the big talking points of the September trade show swing.

SES will now be able to provide dedicated, private network connectivity from any vessel, airplane, enterprise, energy, or government site in the world to Microsoft Azure via its multi-orbit satellite systems. As a partner of Azure ExpressRoute, SES will provide global reach and fiber-like high-performance to Azure customers via its complete portfolio of GEO satellites, Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) O3b constellation, global gateway network, and core terrestrial network infrastructure around the world. The deal with Microsoft was wide-ranging and also included a video element.

Steve Collar, SES CEO, spoke first to Via Satellite about this deal. He said the deal with Microsoft had been about a year in the making, and that the initial set of announcements certainly does not mark the end of the two companies working together — but the beginning. “We will continue to look at ways to integrate our network into the cloud where we can extend and bring value to Microsoft’s customers and network and give them access to our customers operating in video, mobility, big data, oil and gas, aero, cruise, etc,” he said.

One Vision, One Web, One Epic Falling Out

It is often said that satellite has more bonhomie than other industries, and many companies are the best of “frenemies.” However, OneWeb and Intelsat, who announced a key partnership a few years ago, have had a spectacular falling out this year. It is likely to go all the way to the courts, and may leave a massive hole in Intelsat’s Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) satellite strategy. Back in 2017, it looked like Intelsat and OneWeb were likely to merge. While this didn’t happen, the two companies formed a partnership which was a key strategic move for both sides.

However, this year, the two companies were no longer on speaking terms. Intelsat accused OneWeb and Softbank of fraud, conspiracy, and breaching contract. The lawsuit was filed in the New York Supreme Court on Sept. 10. “Upon information and belief, SoftBank and OneWeb intentionally and knowingly made or caused to be made materially false statements and/or omissions in their communications with Intelsat and/or its agents with the intent to defraud Intelsat,” read the court document.

It was one of the most talked about stories in the industry, especially as such high-profile falling outs are somewhat rare. Given that it has reached accusations of fraud, the events surrounding the two companies have been somewhat shocking.

Full Court Press at WRC-2019?

At the time this article was written, WRC-2019 was still happening, but whatever comes out of it will undoubtedly have huge implications for the satellite industry in the years to come. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)-WRC events, which are held every four years, always create tension in the satellite industry, as the global cellular industry relentlessly goes after spectrum which has traditionally been the preserve of satellite. As we move into the 5G world, where connectivity will reach lightening speeds, the stakes have never been higher. Satellite wants to become mainstream, but in order to do this, it needs spectrum.

Given what we have seen in the United States this year and the hard work that the C-Band Alliance (CBA) has done to come up with solutions that satisfies all parties, the spectrum issue has never felt so polarized. The pressure is on, and while the satellite industry has somewhat defied the odds in previous WRC events, global mobile players are hungrier than ever for more spectrum. Can the industry continue to get such positive results? We will know soon.

Satellite Servicing: The Future has Arrived

Satellite servicing has been talked about as something that could have a dramatic impact on the entire industry. However, 2019 would mark the year where it made the move from concept to reality. Northrop Grumman, and its wholly-owned SpaceLogistics subsidiary, sent the industry’s first on-orbit servicing satellite life-extension spacecraft, the Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), into Supersynchronous Transfer Orbit (SSTO) on an International Launch Services (ILS) Proton Breeze M rocket in October.

MEV-1 will dock to client vehicles in GEO to provide attitude and orbit control of the combined vehicle stack. MEV-1 has the ability to dock and undock several times during its 15-year design life, allowing it to service multiple customers. SpaceLogistics was contracted by Intelsat to extend the life of the Intelsat 901 satellite for five years using the MEV-1. Following the MEV-1 launch, the companies are targeting late January for a docking between MEV-1 and Intelsat 901.

LatAm/European Powerplay

This year, CeTel and AxeSat joined forces to create a new company, AXESS Networks, which aims to be one of the top satellite service providers globally. AXESS now has the ability to provide services in more than 50 countries, 4 continents, and 10 verticals. It will provide services in two of the regions where it believes the demand for satellite communications is at its highest — South America and EMEA.

Mauricio Segovia, CEO, AXESS, and ex-CEO of AxeSat says the new company has relatively aggressive growth targets for the next three to five years. “We want both regions to grow organically in the traditional satellite sectors. We are particularly bullish with the telecom and mobility verticals. In telecom we have a lot of experience in the Americas and believe we can leverage that experience to do a lot more in in EMEA. We have experienced a lot of growth in the past two years and we believe we can continue to find opportunities of subsegments in that vertical that are not served by the bigger players. We also want to continue to expand looking further east,” he says.

LeoSat’s Sad Demise

At events like SATELLITE and World Satellite Business Week (WSBW) this year, many talked about new Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, and predicated that a number of them would not make the light of day. Sadly, it seems we have our first major casualty of the era, as LeoSat let all of its senior management team go. In a hard-hitting interview, ex-LeoSat Mark Rigolle bemoaned the fall of LeoSat. Although a phoenix rising from the flames is not completely out of the question, it feels like this is likely the end for LeoSat. With Hispasat and Sky Perfect JSAT pulling out, it seems it would take some kind of a miracle for LeoSat to pull through.

“I find it appalling that not a single constellation except LeoSat has ever communicated about their customers. They talk about vertical segments, they talk about applications in vague terms, but there is no company that talks about this bank or this oil and gas company that has expressed interest through a letter of intent or so. It is not even a topic of discussion. It is madness when looking at these constellations. Whether it is ‘OldSpace’ or NewSpace — technology alone is not enough,” said Rigolle.

Trump Goes Big in Space

After U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at SATELLITE 2019, it came as no surprise that there would be a big political announcement involving space this year. The creation of the U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM), a new Pentagon unit focusing on warfare in space, aims for the U.S. to continue their leadership in space. U.S. Air Force General John Raymond, an ex-CyberSat keynote, has been tasked with leading USSPACECOM.

In his remarks in late August, President Trump said USSPACECOM will soon be followed, very importantly, by the establishment of the U.S. Space Force as the sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces. This Space Force will organize, train, and equip warriors to support USSPACECOM’s mission, President Trump said.

It was a huge announcement, and one that could have huge ramifications for our industry. As the United States looks to aggressively invest in space capability, it could lead to a flood of new contracts and openings for the commercial satellite industry. The fact that the U.S. is creating a separate branch dedicated to space for its armed forces is huge, and could lead others to doing something similar. Such a commitment to space does not happen every year, and could be the sign of more nations following suit.

Success is Relative, or Relativity

Every year, the satellite/space industry has a breakout story, as many companies are looking to make an impact in this sector. One such company is Relativity Space, which came of age in 2019. For example, the company signed a deal with Telesat to provide the company with access to faster, more frequent, and more flexible launches using Relativity’s Terran 1, a fully 3D printed rocket designed and built using Relativity’s proprietary 3D printing technology platform.

Also, the company announced a partnership with mu Space to launch a satellite to LEO in 2020 on its Terran 1 rocket. Relativity is fully funded to become the first company in the world to launch an entirely 3D printed rocket to orbit and enter commercial service in early 2021. The company, led by CEO, Tim Ellis, is definitely one to watch, and seeing Ellis speak this year about Relativity’s dramatic rise bought back memories of a young Elon Musk talking about SpaceX. With great contracts, and funding in place, Relativity could very quickly become a poster child for a NewSpace movement in the U.S.

Charlie Ergen Doing What Charlie Ergen Does

Charlie Ergen is a regular participant at the SATELLITE show, and an example of U.S. entrepreneurial spirit at its finest. Usually, when others ying, Ergen goes full on yang. Who else could come up with a three-way deal involving Sprint, T-Mobile, and Dish to place Ergen front and center of the 5G revolution in the United States? The three-way deal that simultaneously cleared the way for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to approve a long-awaited merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, and turned Dish into the fourth-largest wireless carrier in the United States. Together, these moves could accelerate the U.S. wireless industry into the age of 5G.

Dish is now committed to launching a 5G broadband network capable of serving 70 percent of the U.S. population by June 2023. To do so, it will adjust its spectrum licenses, and give Sprint approximately $5 billion to acquire its prepaid businesses and customers, including Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, and 14 Megahertz (MHz) of Sprint’ nationwide 800 MHz spectrum. T-Mobile, looking to merge with Sprint, will give Dish access to its network for seven years, including the ability to serve Dish customers between T-Mobile’s nationwide network and Dish’s new independent 5G broadband network.

If there was a more ambitious move by an executive in the satellite sector this year, I didn’t see it. It was a breathtaking announcement and while some may be skeptical, Ergen’s successful past means few would bet against him when it comes to succeeding in the 5G era in the U.S. VS

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