Astra Space Applies to Launch More than 13,000 Satellites; Proposed Broadband Constellations Exceed 79,000 Spacecraft

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Astra Space has applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the launch more than 13,000 communications satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), joining SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and other companies seeking to provide broadband services across the globe. The application brings the number of proposed satellites in these constellations to more than 79,000.

“The Astra Constellation as proposed would ultimately consist of as many as 13,620 operational LEO satellites, supported by a global network of gateway earth stations utilizing the identified V-band frequency bands for feeder links for space-to-earth transmit and receive,” the company’s application said.

“Commercial and government customers and partners will also utilize V-band for certain applications, particularly for select user links located in geographic areas that are less susceptible to rain and atmospheric fade. To support end-users located in other geographic areas, Astra may also explore the use of additional frequencies not referenced in this processing round and not a part of this application. Importantly, the Astra Constellation is being designed to gain maximum efficiencies from its use of the frequency bands permitted, while ensuring the ability to co-exist with other operators without harmful radiofrequency interference,” the company added.

The Astra Constellation would be deployed in three phases beginning with the launch of 40 satellites into equatorial orbit followed by 2,296 satellites in sun-synchronous orbit. An additional 11,284 spacecraft would be launched into sun-synchronous orbit in the final phase.

Credit: Astra Space

“The Astra Constellation will provide global secure, high-bandwidth connectivity to enable communications services, environmental and natural resource applications, and national security missions. Given the financing secured through its recent public offering, vertically integrated launch capability, and space systems design and operations experience, Astra is well-positioned to develop this project and to introduce new space-based services, including communications solutions, while maintaining a safe space environment, utilizing spectrum efficiently and without causing harmful radiofrequency interference,” Astra said.

The Bay Area company began trading on Nasdaq on June 30 after merging with Holicity, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) created with the expressed purpose of identifying a company to take public. Holicity is backed by telecom pioneer Craig McCaw and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. McCaw was forced to abandon an earlier attempt to create a large communications satellite constellation known as Iridium in 2000 when the company ran out of money.

Astra Space had been previously known for its small-satellite Rocket 3 launcher, which has failed in three launch attempts from the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska (PCSA) on Kodiak Island. The company will attempt another Rocket 3 launch during a six-day window that opens on Nov. 8.

Astra Space’s application brings the number of communications satellites in approved or proposed constellations to more than 79,000. The table below includes a selection of major broadband constellations, but is not inclusive of all proposed systems.

SELECTED BROADBAND SATELLITE CONSTELLATIONS

ConstellationCompanyStatusFrequency BandsNo. of Satellites
StarlinkSpaceX1,737 satellites launched, 1,447 activeKa, Ku, V11,943
Project KuiperAmazonFirst 2 satellites scheduled for launch in late 2022 by ABL Space;
9 launches
awarded to ULA
Ka3,236
OneWebOneWeb358 satellites launchedKa, Ku, V648
LightspeedTelesatApprovedKa298
BoeingBoeingApprovedV147
Subtotal16,272
StarlinkSpaceXProposedKa, Ku, V30,000
Astra ConstellationAstra SpaceProposedV13,620
GuowangChina Satellite Network GroupProposedMultiple bands12,992
OneWebOneWebProposedKa, Ku, V6,372
Subtotal, Planned62,984
Subtotal, Approved16,272
Total79,256

The number of satellites in approved constellations totals at least 16,272. SpaceX has the bulk of those satellites, with the FCC having approved the launch of 11,943 Starlink spacecraft. The company has launched 1,737 satellites, with 1,447 active spacecraft in orbit. SpaceX is providing service to a number of areas with plans to rapidly expand.

OneWeb has launched 358 of the 648 satellites in its constellation. Amazon’s Project Kuiper just announced ABL Space will launch the KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 prototypes at the end of 2022. Amazon previously awarded a contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for nine launches using the Atlas V booster.

Telesat of Canada has received approval to launch 298 satellites as part of its Lightspeed constellation. Boeing received FCC approval earlier this week to launch 147 satellites that will operate in the V band.

SpaceX has applied for a license to expand its Starlink constellation by 30,000 satellites to bring the total to nearly 42,000 spacecraft. OneWeb wants to launch an additional 6,372 satellites to expand the company’s global coverage.

Both companies are facing a challenge from the China Satellite Network Group, whose proposed Guowang constellation would include 12,992 satellites that would operate across multiple bands.

The massive number of planned satellites has created serious safety concerns about the possibility of collisions at a time when debris from existing satellites is increasingly clogging up Earth orbit. Astra Space sought to reassure the FCC on this subject.

“When designing its Constellation, Astra prioritized space safety and worked diligently to mitigate potential on-orbit collision risk with planned and/or operational space stations, including the International Space Station (ISS), the planes of its own system and other satellite constellations operating at comparable altitudes….To protect the ISS, Astra has ensured a minimum orbital separation of at least 20 km between Astra’s satellites and the ISS. In order to avoid collision risks within its own system, Astra has also separated the orbital shells of its Constellation by at least 10 km,” the application said.

“With regards to other satellite systems operating in LEO, Astra has selected operational altitudes that are separated from other LEO systems to minimize collision risk. Table 2 provides a summary of the minimum separation distance between Astra’s proposed orbital altitudes and the orbital altitudes of other notable LEO systems. The smallest altitude separation between Astra’s Constellation and other systems is 6.8 km, which exceeds the minimum plane separation within the SpaceX Gen 2 Constellation (6.1 km). All other systems are separated from Astra’s Constellation by at least 40 km in altitude,” the document added.

In addition to Astra’s efforts to separate its Constellation from existing and planned constellations in neighboring orbits, Astra has also selected operating altitude ranges that will minimize collision risks with existing passive debris. More than 80% of Astra’s proposed satellites will operate at a low orbital altitude range of 380 – 400 km, which contains a relatively low spatial density of existing debris,” the company said.