General Atomics LINCS; Wyler’s New Space Constellation

“Unfortunately, there was an issue with the launch vehicle.” 

General Atomics’s Vice President for Space Systems, Gregg Burgess, imparted the above tidbit neatly couched as an obvious fact during last week’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies podcast interview (around the 29:20 mark). His company had developed and manufactured two 12U cubesats named the Laser Interconnect and Networking Communication System (LINCS) on its own dime. SpaceX launched the LINCS cubesats and 86 other satellites as part of its Transporter-2 rideshare mission in late June 2021. By most accounts, including General Atomics, the Falcon 9 launching those satellites to orbit did just what it was supposed to do. 

What Happened?

About two months later, Aviationweek reported that the LINCS satellites were no longer responding to commands and tumbling on orbit. General Atomics still hasn’t regained control of those two cubesats and attributes the root cause of their problems to “the launch vehicle”–SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It is a very strange and unhelpful statement. General Atomics didn’t point fingers at the satellite/launch vehicle integrator it hired–Peraton. It is not looking at the mirror and pointing at itself. Somehow, according to Burgess, the Falcon 9 caused the satellite problems–unless Burgess misspoke.

It’s strange because there aren’t any reported similar issues with the other 86 satellites deployed on the Transporter-2 mission. It’s also strange because General Atomics doesn’t appear to gain or lose anything, except maybe face, by publicly mentioning it. Unless SpaceX hasn’t been responsive in fixing whatever problem that caused the LINCS issues and so the company feels the need to go public. SpaceX, in a way, is also a competitor to LINCS, as the company is deploying satellites with optical terminals, too, but not as one-off pathfinders. Would throwing shade on SpaceX’s rockets have an impact on anyone considering using SpaceX’s broadband service? That doesn’t seem logical.

The statement is unhelpful because he doesn’t come out and say how his company determined that the launch vehicle caused the LINCS problems. And, of course, the interviewer doesn’t follow up on that seemingly off-handed conclusion. Perhaps the Falcon 9 vibrated more than General Atomics anticipated? I mention that possibility only because Burgess mentions about two minutes later that “…these sensitive components have to go up on a launch vehicle, and they experience quite a significant amount of vibration.” He says that sometimes the vibration is so high that the satellite needs to be calibrated once deployed.

Either way, it’s not clear. But it’s surprising that General Atomics decided to point a finger at SpaceX’s Falcon 9, even if it were true because SpaceX’s other customers don’t have this issue.

Why Now?

The rest of the interview is interesting as it goes into supply chain challenges, mass production of optical laser system goals (one per day), and automated testing systems to test the laser communications systems. But, again, a follow-up question would have been helpful, such as: what’s happening now that’s causing General Atomics to invest in these automated manufacturing systems? Why was this not a good idea to pursue earlier? 

I think a big part of the honest answer, though, is: the Space Development Agency’s contracts (even if they are much smaller than what U.S. military space acquisitions offices traditionally offered in the past). And the other part Burgess answered (to a different question) in the interview: miniaturization. 

The original question began with the typical second space race assumptions but asked Burgess what he thought was the most significant factor during the last decade. Burgess responded that miniaturization was the revolution in the space industry. He then goes further and notes that miniaturization is driving down the size of operational military satellites from the typical truck-sized satellites to minifridge-sized smallsats (the 12U cubesats that GA works with are slightly smaller than that). 

I generally agree with his assessment but will note that the greatest share of smallsat deployments during the past five years or so have been for commercial operations–not including the OneWeb and Starlink deployments. General Atomics is not a household name among those commercial operators. That state of affairs may be because the company is more of a defense-focused company and not quite so diversified. That it’s pursuing the familiar military contract means that the military will pay more, even if it results in fewer satellites deployed than in the commercial sector.

But I still don’t understand how a Falcon 9 could cause LINCS to become space debris. I hope that gets clarified.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You. Fool Me Thrice…

…or is it four times? 

For those unfamiliar with Greg Wyler, he founded O3b networks in 2007, which developed and deployed a constellation of communications satellites into medium Earth orbit. Before that company started deploying its initial constellation, Wyler was already working on WorldVu (which was rebranded to OneWeb), another communications satellite constellation. Unfortunately, that company went bankrupt and then was bought out, ending Wyler’s stake in that company. Now, to be fair to Wyler, he has a pretty good streak at founding companies…

Not long after OneWeb’s bankruptcy filing, Wyler had this to say about low Earth orbiting (LEO) broadband satellite constellations in a Via Satellite interview:

“I think LEO satellites have a long way to go. They are still in their infancy in terms of design and technology. They are still fat, heavy, and have very limited throughput. Even though they look like they are supercharged compared to ten years ago, they are still pretty darned inefficient vehicles for communications. There is a lot of opportunity for improvement in the future, so I wouldn’t write off satellites. But, certainly for the next 10 years because for one, there are serious capacity density issues where satellites cannot provide the capacity density to compete with the likes of Comcast.”

Those thoughts are why it’s odd to see Wyler in the news again, promoting yet another LEO communications constellation consisting of 100,000 (maybe 327,000–there’s some conjecture from sources going on there) satellites. Yes, that’s right. Greg Wyler is out there again, promoting another large LEO satellite constellation, again, and asking for money, again. He’s calling the company that will run this constellation E-Space, which seems more like a placeholder name than one belonging to a company. According to Wyler, these small satellites will also take care of space debris, manufactured to absorb space debris, designed to crumple and not blow up into tiny pieces in case of severe impact. How this doesn’t contribute to satellite mass significantly remains to be seen.

Right now, this is all a press release–a figment–even if the company deploys the pathfinder satellites in March and later this year (as it said it will). And, like the European LEO plan, it’s not realistic–not with current launch service providers, and certainly not with current satellite manufacturers. 

Math Guesstimates (You’ve Been Warned)

If E-Space’s satellites were the size of a 3U cubesat, 100,000 satellites would require A HUGE increase in launches of all current rockets in company inventories worldwide. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 holds the world record for the number of satellites deployed in a single launch: 143. That launch included Swarm Technologies’ hard disk-sized SpaceBee satellites. But let’s say the Falcon 9 launches 143 3U cubesats. It would take nearly 700 Falcon 9 launches to do that. SpaceX isn’t even close to that (but it’s closer than everyone else).

Last year was a record-breaking launch year for SpaceX, with the company accomplishing 31 successful launches. If SpaceX dedicated its whole reason for being to E-Space launches (unrealistic), it would take 22-23 years to get those satellites in orbit. Even when upping that to 52 launches per year, which Elon Musk says SpaceX will conduct in 2022, requires 14 years to launch all 100,000 satellites. Just the costs to launch this constellation are unrealistic. Continuing with SpaceX and estimating a low price of $50 million per launch adds up to $35 BILLION for launch services alone. 

SpaceX’s Starship would help cut those launches and costs significantly, but whether with Starship or the Falcon 9, another unrealistic scenario needs to happen: Wyler using Musk’s company for launch services. The likelihood of that happening makes the whole announcement moot–unless Blue Origin finally starts launching. But then, that company won’t achieve the required high launch cadence and low costs that SpaceX is currently achieving for years after the initial launch of New Glenn, so costs would be higher, and the satellite deployments would take longer. 

Wyler seems to have had a change of heart about LEO communications satellites–at least it’s changed enough for him to do what every current entrepreneur does, which is to throw an idea at the social media to see if it sticks. I have to wonder if the mind-bogglingly large numbers and space debris cleanup component are meant to keep people off guard while impressing prospective investors who don’t know any better. Wyler’s current plan and overall entrepreneur philosophy remind me of a quote: “God willing, we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.”

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