Solstar Space Co. is riding the WeFunder regulation crowdfunding platform to blast its space communications technology into low earth orbit.
The New Mexico company, which flew its Schmitt Space Communicator into suborbit on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket in April, is now seeking to raise $1 million through WeFunder to continue developing its technology for commercial deployment on deeper missions in space. The funding will boost further testing and development of the Schmitt communicator, help the company build an app for people on the ground to interact with space missions and payloads through Solstar’s future internet and phone service, and push forward on construction of a more robust communications router to manage internet connections with satellites and other space vehicles in low earth orbit.
The April 29 Blue Origin flight successfully demonstrated the company’s technology, converting Solstar into the first firm to offer commercial Wi-Fi service in space. That captured global attention from space businesses and enthusiasts, something Solstar hopes to capitalize on through its WeFunder campaign, said Solstar President and CEO Brian Barnett.
“The Blue Origin flight was a major success that got a lot of international press,” Barnett said. “People have now asked about how to invest in Solstar, and this is one way to do that.”
Reward-based crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow companies to pre-sell products or offer novelties to people in return for contributing. In contrast, WeFunder allows participants to directly invest in startups through “regulation crowdfunding” authorized by the Jobs Act, which took effect in May 2016.
WeFunder bills itself as the nation’s largest regulation equity investment platform, with about 150,000 people contributing about $60 million to more than 165 startups since 2016. Those companies, in turn, have gone on to raise about $1.3 billion in follow-up financing after first being listed on WeFunder, according to the platform’s website.
Under the Jobs Act, companies can raise a maximum of $1.07 million through regulation crowdfunding. Investors must contribute a minimum of $100, but there’s no cap on individual commitments.
The Santa Fe-based artist collective Meow Wolf raised $1 million through WeFunder last year.
“WeFunder people came through New Mexico last December after the Meow Wolf campaign, and we met with them at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe,” Barnett said. “It’s good timing for us. People will have already learned about Solstar from our first launch in April, and our next launch on Blue Origin is coming up.”
Anybody investing above $10,000 will get a VIP invitation to the next launch, and $100,000 gets a “backstage pass,” Barnett said.
Solstar aims for commercial release of the Schmitt Communicator on suborbital flights by next year, along with a management app. It’s also building a more robust device for deployment on the International Space Station by 2020, if not earlier.
That next-generation device, called the Slayton Communicator for Deke Slayton – one of the original Mercury astronauts who flew with Alan Shepard and John Glenn – is designed for operation in low earth orbit rather than suborbital flights to the tip of space. Unlike the Schmitt Communicator, which is contained inside a protective metal box and placed onboard a space vehicle, the Slayton device will be on the outside of the International Space Station, where it will face solar radiation and extreme temperatures.
“It needs to meet more rigorous requirements,” Barnett said. “We’ve been working on it about two years already, so development is fairly far along. We’ll deploy it on other spacecraft as the years roll on, but the space station is an ideal place for us to try things out.”
That next-generation router is critical for deploying Solstar communications technology on small satellites and miniature “cube sats,” which orbit less than 1,000 miles up.
Those satellites are rapidly gaining traction among commercial companies and government entities because they offer faster communications at much lower cost than traditional geostationary satellites that fly at 22,000 miles. But ground-based communication with low earth-orbit craft is still hampered by current technology, making Solstar communications a potentially attractive solution for public and private operators, said Solstar Chief Operating Officer Mark Matossian.
“It’s still a challenge to communicate with them once they’re in orbit,” Matossian said. “If, say, a university puts up a small research satellite, it can only talk with it once it passes over the ground station, which limits the ability to download data. Solstar’s technology will allow access to the satellite at all times, which could be a powerful option for space businesses and researchers that they haven’t had until now.”
As the commercial space industry advances, demand for rapid, real-time communication between ground and space will grow exponentially, generating enthusiasm for technology like Solstar’s, said Charlie Walker, an engineer who flew on three space shuttle missions in 1984 and 1985.
Walker worked as a payload specialist for McDonnell Douglas Corp., making him the first non-government individual, or commercial astronaut, to fly in space.
“Communication up to space and back is a vital connection for any activity in space, but NASA and the government have had a lock on that until now,” said Walker, now a part-time adviser to Solstar. “This technology is creating industrial infrastructure from the communications standpoint for users on the ground and in space.”
New funding will help accelerate that process, especially given Solstar’s ability to test its technology on Blue Origin’s New Shepard, and possibly other rockets in the future, Walker added.
“With the space shuttle, things moved at a snail’s pace, with a year or more between flights,” Walker said. “That’s all changed with commercial companies like Blue Origin, which is allowing Solstar to take big steps forward. With more investment through channels like WeFunder, I believe we’ll see this come to fruition within a few years.”