Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The countdown has begun for launch of the world’s first commercial Internet and phone service in space, courtesy of Solstar Space Co. in New Mexico.
The Santa Fe-based firm’s new Schmitt Space Communicator is now awaiting flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft, set to launch in Van Horn, Texas, in the coming weeks. Jeff Bezos’ highly secretive rocket company won’t publicly announce the flight date, but Solstar’s communicator will be on board to test real-time internet and wi-fi communications.
That would be a first for today’s emerging commercial space industry, one that may soon enable tourists and researchers flying on rockets or housed on future space stations to directly communicate by internet and phone with family, friends and colleagues on the ground.
“Space tourism is getting close, with suborbital and eventually orbital flights,” said space author Leonard David, who has followed Solstar’s work. “The idea that people will be able take a picture in flight and send it to friends and family is exciting. Everyone wants that Kodak moment looking down at Earth from 65 miles up.”
Apart from selfies, tweets and phoning home, Solstar’s technology could provide a critical boost to nearly every endeavor in the new age of commercial space, from research and manufacturing to rocket-based travel across the globe.
Made in Space, for example, could eventually rely on commercial services from Solstar or other companies for real-time communications to operate space-based 3-D printers from the ground. The Silicon Valley firm currently uses NASA’s network to communicate with a 3-D printer it runs on the International Space Station.
But the ISS is slated for either shutdown or privatization by 2024, and the company will need commercial alternatives to communicate with its printers, said Matt Napoli, vice president of in-space operations.
“Solstar is building a commercial solution,” Napoli said. “We’re excited about that.”
Solstar’s new Schmitt Space Communicator, named after Apollo 17 astronaut and moonwalker Harrison Schmitt, is the brainchild of Solstar President and CEO Brian Barnett. It represents 30 years working in the space industry and in satellite-based telecommunications.
Barnett managed payload integration for NASA’s space shuttle from 1987-1993, giving him critical field experience and extensive contacts in the space industry. He later moved into satellite communications, launching two companies in Albuquerque – SatWest LLC to sell satellite phones and airtime; and Solstar Energy Devices, to develop and market solar-powered battery chargers for satellite phones.
Barnett still sells phones, airtime and chargers through Solstar Energy Devices. But he disbanded SatWest in 2014 to focus on building technology for space-based communications through Solstar Space Co.
The goal is to offer cost-effective, secure communications 24/7 for operators to connect with colleagues and payloads from any connected device on the planet or in space, Barnett said.
“We’ll provide communications by satellite for everything from suborbital rockets to space hotels and private space stations, all of which are being developed today,” he said. “It’s all about connecting people and things in space to Earth .”
But it takes a lot of rocket science to make that happen.
Communications signals must be carefully synchronized as they bounce among satellites, rockets and space stations moving at hyper velocities, in different directions and at wildly varying altitudes. And equipment must be robust enough to withstand rocket flight and the harsh conditions of space.
Solstar’s patent-pending device contains all the basic modem, antennae and electronics for communications. But it’s integrated with a proprietary design to navigate the challenges of space. It’s encased in a robust metal box for protection and stability.
Barnett already proved the basic system will operate on a rocket. He flew an initial design on a suborbital UP Aerospace launch from Spaceport America in 2013. Students from the Bosque School in Albuquerque successfully sent 16 computer text messages like “Hasta la vista baby” to the rocket, and Barnett received signals in return.
“That proved the technology would work on a spacecraft moving at rocket velocities in space,” Barnett said.
Now, Solstar will test the full internet and wi-fi system on the next two Blue Origin flights, paid for by NASA through a program that helps private companies experiment with new space technologies.
Solstar ground tested the system on the New Shepard spacecraft last summer.
“During the upcoming Blue Origin flights, we’ll send and receive data on the launch pad, on the rocket’s way up, when it’s in space, and on the way back down,” Barnett said.
Once Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic begin passenger and payload flights, Barnett expects his device to keep space tourists and scientists connected online throughout their journey. Solstar will bill users for service.
As the commercial space industry matures, demand for Solstar’s technology could grow exponentially, said Christopher Stott, chairman and CEO of the satellite communications firm Mansat.
“Brian is meeting a real market need,” Stott said. “Demand is pulling his technology forward.”
Made-in-New Mexico technology shoots Internet, WiFi into space