Astranis internet satellite malfunctions before beginning Alaska service, backup planned for spring

The Arcturus satellite is seen en route to geosynchronous orbit.

Satellite internet service provider Astranis said Friday its first commercial satellite in orbit, which was intended to provide coverage to Alaska, has malfunctioned. A backup satellite is planned for the spring.

It’s an early setback for a unique approach to providing internet service to underserved communities in remote locations. Astranis announced in May that Arcturus was working “perfectly” and could begin servicing Alaskans as soon as mid-June.

The company’s Arcturus satellite suffered an issue with both its solar arrays, the company said. The problem “first showed up a couple weeks ago,” Astranis CEO John Gedmark told CNBC. On Monday the company identified the root cause, which was solar array drive assembly made by a vendor and not by Astranis.

“Solar array drives are motors that rotate the solar arrays to make sure they’re always pointed at the sun, and they go transmit that power back into the spacecraft. So if they stop responding and stop rotating … you don’t end up getting the full power that you need,” Gedmark said.

The lack of power from the solar arrays means that its broadband communications “cannot operate at full capacity,” Gedmark said, but Astranis has identified the issue and knows how to fix it on future satellites.

Additionally, Astranis has “full control” of Arcturus, the company said.

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The company declined to name the vendor that supplied the solar array drives. Gedmark confirmed on Friday that – until the solar array issue – the Astranis-built parts were working. The company had successfully completed early demonstrations of connecting to remote locations in Alaska.

A pre-planned backup

The San Francisco-based company, which is taking an alternative approach to providing internet access with its satellites, already has plans in motion to bridge the gap in coverage for Alaska.

Astranis will launch the previously unannounced “UtilitySat” as part of its batch of four satellites that are set to fly later this year. Gedmark described it as “the Swiss Army Knife of satellites.”

Unlike Astranis’ commercial satellites, UtilitySat has more multiple-frequency bands but lower capacity – meaning it provides about three gigabits per second of coverage, rather than the close to nine gigabits per second of the commercial satellites.

“We’ve built into our model that we’re going to put up a number of these on-orbit spares and backup satellites that can be used to bridge capacity [or] for more secondary missions,” Gedmark said.

Astranis expects UtilitySat to begin providing service to Alaska by spring of next year. Gedmark said the company expects to have a “full replacement” in early 2025.

In the meantime, Astranis will continue looking at ways to potentially recover Arcturus or use it as a demo platform.

Gedmark suggested the company could use it to test connectivity “anti-jamming capabilities that we might demonstrate as part of the work that we’re doing with our partners at Space Force.”

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