Telesat is adapting polar satellite design to address coverage issues

COLORADO SPRINGS — Telesat has upgraded a quarter of its planned low-Earth orbit constellation as supply chain issues force it to consider ordering fewer satellites for the delayed broadband network.

The Canadian company’s plan to double the antennas onboard Telesat Lightspeed’s first 78 satellites brings the constellation back to a single satellite design, which a company executive says will help reduce costs as production delays slow the debut of the Postpone service by one year to 2026.

These first satellites are destined for polar orbits and the changes mean they will have two pairs of antennas like the tilted satellites planned for the rest of the constellation, said Erwin Hudson, Lightspeed’s vice president of systems development.

Telesat had previously decided to make its polar satellites smaller than the 220 intended for inclined orbits and with just one pair of antennas to speed up production.

Thales Alenia Space, which Telesat announced in February 2021 as having been selected to build 298 Lightspeed satellites, had hoped a downsizing of the first batch of spacecraft would clear the way for earlier testing at LEO.

Later in 2021, however, Thales encountered production issues affecting the entire constellation, and there is now “no benefit in building lower-capacity satellites for Polar,” according to Hudson, who said Canada-based MDA is supplying the antennas.

According to the original plan, the first 78 polar satellites would be followed by 110 larger satellites in inclined orbits to achieve global coverage, and then another 110 to allow Lightspeed to deliver 15 terabits per second capacity worldwide.

Telesat is now weighing the merits of ordering just 188 initially to achieve global convergence, or raising more money as inflationary pressures also push up the project’s originally projected $5 billion cost.

During an earnings call with analysts on March 18, Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg said the company would still be able to deliver terabits of capacity globally with 100 fewer satellites.

problems in the supply chain

While Telesat said last year that it had selected Thales to build 298 Lightspeed satellites, the deadline for executing that contract to move it out of its development phase has now passed, leaving the scope of the constellation open to adjustment.

Hudson said Telesat initially selected Thales to work toward building 298 satellites to leverage economies of scale.

“The bigger the deal, the more bargaining power the buyer has,” he said.

But now it’s a seller’s market at the component level, he added, with “not much difference in pricing by moving” part of the constellation to a later date.

“Back when parts were plentiful, you could order all that stuff and get a discount — nobody’s going to give you a discount now because there’s more demand than supply,” he said.

According to Hudson, many supply chain problems in the satellite industry involve relatively simple parts, including resistors and capacitors.

“There’s nothing simpler in electronics,” he said, “but they’re hard to come by these days.”

As a general rule of thumb, Hudson said that it used to take about four to five months to get 100% reliable aerospace parts, and you “didn’t have to lose sleep over it,” but “now the same suppliers are quoting more than double that.”

Although Telesat is doubling the number of antennas for its polar satellites, he said a single satellite design will reduce construction costs, simplify production processes and make it easier to coordinate in-orbit spares.

He said ordering fewer satellites – while committing to others later – would also allow Telesat to complete the final third of the constellation’s funding faster.

Goldberg said in the March 18 conference call that he expects Telesat to have a “really good grasp” in talks with lenders to complete Lightspeed’s financing by the end of June.

In 2019, Telesat announced separate deals with Blue Origin and Relativity Space for an unspecified number of New Glenn and Terran 1 launches for Lightspeed. These companies plan to make their first product launches sometime this year.

Telesat has also made regulatory requests to increase its constellation to 1,671 satellites to add potential growth capacity if needed.

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