E.T. Phone Home: Kepler Communications plans to deploy small satellites to help other satellites stay in contact with their operators on Earth.Photo: Kepler Communications
At the heart of the current wave of private space companies rests a single enabling technology: satellites. As these versatile vessels drop in price, there’s no shortage of ideas for new satellite-based products and services. But there’s a major stumbling block—as satellites orbit, they frequently lose contact with their owners. Any given satellite may fly over a ground station only once every few hours.
That’s why Kepler Communications wants to build a grid of CubeSats (satellites roughly the size of a loaf of bread) to coordinate and relay messages sent by other satellites, acting as a service provider to fellow space startups. Kepler’s founders aim to place their first two satellites into orbit by the end of 2017.
To assemble its complete network, Kepler’s plans call for 50 satellites. They will be in a configuration that cofounder Mina Mitry says will guarantee that at least one Kepler satellite will always be within sight of satellites operating within the five most popular orbital planes.
At least one company-owned satellite will be passing above a ground station at any time. When clients send information to the nearest Kepler satellite, it can beam data around the network to find an available ground station.
As the private space industry heats up, there’s growing enthusiasm for in-space infrastructure to serve companies and customers in this new, far-out economy. Richard M. Rocket, CEO at NewSpace Global, says his firm tracks more than 1,000 private space companies and expects that number to reach 10,000 over the next decade.
Kepler’s debut also aligns nicely with the private space industry’s shift toward standardization. Similar to the way satellites are now sold as modules that can easily be adapted to many missions, Kepler wants to provide a network that companies can simply plug into without the hassle of coordinating it on their own.
But to make this dream a reality, Kepler’s founders must find a way to ensure the company’s satellites can seamlessly communicate with other satellites while hurtling through space at roughly 28,000 kilometers per hour.
That’s no easy task. The routing protocols written for the Earth-bound Internet rely on stable links to determine routes from computer to computer. These protocols don’t work well in space, where links are constantly changing as satellites move toward and away from one another. Consequently, Mitry’s team is designing a new data-transfer protocol for satellites.
A second challenge that Kepler will face is simply getting enough satellites into space in the first place. Though satellite and launch costs have dropped, few companies have managed to secure enough funding to send up a constellation of the size that Kepler intends to build. Kepler has earned investment of undisclosed amounts from four sources including Globalive Capital.
Despite the industry’s poor track record, Joe Landon, chairman of Space Angels Network, says Kepler shouldn’t be discouraged. He expects launch prices to fall further as companies including Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic ramp up service.
“The entire industry is struggling to get enough capacity of satellites in space, but there’s a lot of smart people working on that,” he says. “I think that problem is going to get solved without Kepler having to do much.”
Once its network is in place, Kepler will charge customers a monthly subscription fee based on the amount of data they transfer. Mitry hopes to achieve data rates of 1 to 40 megabits per second (8 Mb/s is roughly what is required to stream an HD video).
As Kepler prepares for its 2017 test run, NASA is leading its own effort to define space-based communications. In 2018, the agency plans to debut new standards and technologies to coordinate how commercial and public satellites interact with one another. Those developments may overlap or interfere with Kepler’s system.
Mitry says Kepler wants to work with NASA and the rest of the private space industry to figure out what space-based communications and networks should look like in the future. Still, Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation, cautions companies against rushing ahead.
“Being there first does not guarantee that you will be successful,” he says. “What you need to do is build it right.”
This article appears in the July 2016 print issue as “Profile: Kepler Communications.”