Stellar Exploration propels EchoStar nanosatellite to valuable slot

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Brennan Bryant, Stellar Exploration design engineer, is shown with the Stellar Exploration propulsion module that helped propel an EchoStar nanosatellite to the altitude covered by its S-band license. Credit: Stellar Exploration
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SAN FRANCISCO — Stellar Exploration supplied the propulsion system for the Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems spacecraft that ultimately helped EchoStar claim potentially valuable S-band spectrum rights.

After two nanosatellites launched in 2020 experienced technical anomalies, EchoStar succeeded with its third nanosatellite launched June 30 on the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare flight.

“The nanosatellite was successfully commissioned and placed at the altitude prescribed in our license for the S-band frequency,” EchoStar said in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission 10-Q report published in early August. “We have therefore satisfied the extended conditions granted to Australia by the International Telecommunication Union, an important step in perfecting our rights to this spectrum. The nano-satellite will now be used to develop and test a wide range of potential S-band applications and services.”

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EchoStar’s trouble filling the orbital slot underscores the important role propulsion can play in nanosatellite missions.

EchoStar relies on S-band to provide mobile satellite services across Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. satellite communications provider acquired worldwide S-band rights in low Earth orbit in 2019 when it acquired Canadian startup Helios Wire. (Helios Wire’s ITU filing for worldwide S-band mobile satellite services was made through its Australian subsidiary Sirion Global.)

To lock in the global S-band spectrum rights, though, EchoStar needed to begin providing services from the low Earth orbit slot before Aug. 10. (The original deadline was in April, but the International Telecommunications Union gave EchoStar an extension.)

In addition to the EchoStar spacecraft, Stellar Exploration of San Luis Obispo, California, supplied propulsion for the satellite Tyvak built for NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) cubesat scheduled to launch in October on a Rocket Lab Electron from New Zealand.

If all goes as planned, Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will then raise the CAPSTONE satellite’s orbit to put it on a path toward the moon. Then CAPSTONE will rely on a Stellar Exploration propulsion module with eight hydrazine-fed thrusters to move the satellite into a near-rectilinear halo orbit in the vicinity of the moon.

The EchoStar flight was a pathfinder for the CAPSTONE mission.

“The orbit raising required about 65 meters per second,” Tomas Svitek, Stellar Exploration president, said by email. “We are pretty happy because this is the same propulsion that will be used for the CAPSTONE mission this fall. The propulsion system delivered the spacecraft quickly to its operational orbit, with plenty of propellant remaining for future orbital maneuvers and ultimately, deorbiting.”

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