TAMPA, Fla. – AST SpaceMobile will begin deploying operational satellites in 2023 “even in the event of any complication” with the BlueWalker 3 prototype launching this summer, an executive for the cellphone-enabled broadband constellation said.
The startup’s operational BlueBird satellite program has conducted “in addition to” more than 700 ground tests on BlueWalker 3, said Abel Avellan, CEO of AST SpaceMobile, during an earnings call on May 16.
Scott Wisniewski, Chief Strategy Officer of AST SpaceMobile, said the BlueBird satellites it will build in-house this year will benefit from the more than $80 million spent on BlueWalker 3 over several years.
“The BlueWalker 3 program, like any prototype, gave us the opportunity to put our engineering solutions into practice, address design-by-production issues, develop our supplier base, refine internal teams and processes, and perform on-site testing. to do,” Wisniewski said via email.
While a “significant amount of ground-based testing could be done,” Wisniewski said the upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from BlueWalker 3 remains important for demonstrating technology in low Earth orbit and configuring ground infrastructure.
The 1,500-pound BlueWalker 3 prototype, which AST SpaceMobile has said is significantly smaller than BlueBird, has a 64-square-foot phased array antenna designed to expand in space to communicate with smartphones and other devices at broadband speeds. devices to communicate.
AST SpaceMobile assured of an experimental license May 2nd from the Federal Communications Commission to test BlueWalker 3 services in Hawaii and its home state of Texas.
AST SpaceMobile also expects to test BlueWalker 3 with mobile partners in Japan, Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.
Wisniewski said the company will use BlueWalker 3 to configure gateway-level ground equipment and software to optimize scheduled services.
“We plan to use BlueWalker 3 for this kind of testing and it’s an important step to keep ground network development on track with space network development,” he said.
“Our gateway development efforts have been underway for years, working with customers and suppliers, in addition to developing the space network.”
BlueWalker 3 is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket with other passengers.
AST SpaceMobile also has a contract with SpaceX for the launch of the first BlueBird in 2023. Their agreement provides a framework for ordering additional launches through the end of 2024, when AST SpaceMobile expects to have deployed 110 satellites to deliver a “substantial global” mobile coverage.
AST SpaceMobile remains open to using other launch providers for deploying its constellation, and has said more than one BlueBlird could fly on a heavy lift vehicle.
Supply Chain Resilience
Avellan said during the company’s earnings call that AST SpaceMobile is on track to complete a second production facility in Texas by the end of 2022, which will allow the company to produce six satellites per month by the following year.
He said AST SpaceMobile is confident its expansion plans will not get caught up in supply chain issues that have slowed down other satellite projects.
To reduce the company’s exposure to semiconductor shortages, he said AST has stocked SpaceMobile with flexible chips that can be reprogrammed after they’re manufactured.
Early BlueBirds will leverage these Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), Avellan said, while later satellites will migrate to application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs).
“We feel we can continue to execute on our plan despite potential supply chain issues,” he added.
AST SpaceMobile has been offering quarterly business updates since it became a publicly traded company on April 7, 2021, after merging with a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) in a deal that raised approximately $462 million.
AST SpaceMobile said it had approximately $254 million in cash and cash equivalents as of March 31, after $32.7 million in operating expenses over the past three months.
Approximately $8.3 million was spent on research and development (R&D) for the three months to March 31, an increase of $8 million from the same period in 2021. While AST SpaceMobile expects R&D to increase until design and development of BlueBird has been completed, the company said it has enough money for at least 12 months.
The company also announced a deal on May 6 to raise up to $75 million by issuing and selling stock to B. Riley, a financial services firm, at AST SpaceMobile’s sole discretion over the next 24 months.
AST SpaceMobile had forecast revenue of $181 million for 2023 in a December 2020 presentation outlining its SPAC merger plans.
However, satellite production and launch delays have pushed plans to monetize the constellation by 2024.
Shares of AST SpaceMobile closed at $7.01 on May 16, after fluctuating as low as $15.48 and as low as $4.84 over a 52-week period.
AST SpaceMobile has said it has early agreements with mobile operators around the world who want to use its satellites to expand their coverage areas. According to the company, these mobile operators together serve more than 1.8 billion mobile customers.
Virginia-based Lynk Global, which as a private company doesn’t have to reveal the same level of detail about its business plans as AST SpaceMobile, is also developing a constellation to connect smartphones that are out of reach of cell towers.
SpaceX launched Lynk Global’s first operational satellite on April 1, and the startup expects to deploy nine more over the next 12 months for text messaging, emergency alerts and other initial services.
Like AST Space Mobile, Lynk Global is awaiting regulatory approval to offer commercial services in the US and several other countries.
Established satellite operator SES recently unveiled that it is also considering plans to deliver 5G services directly to wearable devices.