Israeli Firm to Launch First of Fleet of Low-cost Satellites

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An NSLComm satellite illustration, May 27, 2019.
An NSLComm satellite illustration, May 27, 2019.Credit: NSLComm

NSLComm, an Israeli spacetech startup, is due to launch the first of its innovative satellites for broadcasting fast internet to remote areas early from a Launchpad in Russia on Friday morning.

Its NSLSat 1, to be mounted on a Russian Soyuz rocket scheduled to lift off at 1:42 A.M. Russian time, is the first of a series of satellites the company plans to put into obit that feature an expandable antenna, which is the key to building a much smaller, cheaper communications satellite.

“Today a communications satellite costs half a billion dollars to build and launch, and that’s due mainly to its size,” said Raz Itzhaki, NSLComm’s CEO and co-founder.

“We’ve designed an antenna from flexible material that folds into a small space for the launching. Once in space it opens up to its full size. That way we can build a small satellite with big transmitting capabilities, something that lowers the cost by a factor of 10,” he said.

NSLComm, which is based near Ben-Gurion International Airport, originally focused on developing the antenna technology to sell to satellite makers, but “We realized we wouldn’t be able to sell them without proof of concept,” Itzhaki explains.

Friday’s launch aims to do just that, but the company also intends to do much more. Its ambitious plans call for putting 30 satellites into space by 2021 to serve regions straddling the Equator. Hundreds will follow by 2023, all at low-level orbits.

The idea is to create a satellite network that can provide fast internet of 1.5 gigabits, much faster than the 20 megabit standard of satellites today.

They will be used for a variety of uses, such as providing internet service to aircraft and ships, military applications and the “internet of things.”

Several others companies have announced similar plans for fleets of small satellites at altitudes of just a few hundred kilometers to provide internet service to remote parts of the world. However, the others are big companies that could cover the huge costs involved, like Amazon, Facebook and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

How does NSLComm expect to compete? “We won’t be doing it alone but with partners,” said Itzhaki.

NSLComm has raised $16 million since it was formed in 2015 by Itzhaki, Daniel K. Rockberger and Danny Spirtus. Venture capital funds Jerusalem Venture Partners, OurCrowd, Cockpit Innovation and Liberty Technology Venture Capital accounted for $12 million of that sum.

Additionally, it’s backed by the Israel Space Agency and the Israel Innovation Authority, which provided the remaining $4 million in its initial funding. NSLComm also received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

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