Transcript: Space4U podcast, Robert Brumley
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hello, this is Andrew de Naray with the Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make space exploration today more accessible to all. Our guest today is Robert Brumley. Bob is a cofounder and chairman of the CommStar space companies, to which he brings extensive executive experience in the management and financing of early-stage ventures, particularly in aerospace, telecommunications and defense.
Bob was a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee in the Reagan administration serving in both terms. During that time, he acted as the executive director of the Commercial Space Working Group of the National Security Council and the Economic Policy Council. He is also a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
In June 2020, Bob and his colleagues at Marble Arch Partners LLC, and the executive team at the LaserLight companies announced the launch of CommStar Space Communications, LLC. CommStar intends to deploy the CommStar-1 satellite to Cislunar orbit in 2023, serving as a high-capacity data relay satellite and the cislunar service area.
CommStar-1 is being designed in cooperation with Thales Alenia Space to serve as a hybrid satellite that’s able to receive and relay both radio frequency and laser optic communications, serving demand for data, transmission equipment, and bi-directional data communications between the Earth and the Moon for commercial, civil science, and government customers.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Bob. It’s great to have you on the show. I appreciate the invitation and I’m looking forward to it.
So, organizations, institutions, policymakers, and private companies such as yours speak to the cislunar area in space, the cislunar area is quite vast. So could you define for us what cislunar means to you?
Yeah, I think a to understand cislunar, both in an operational sense and then in what would be to, um, something that the average guy on the street can relate to, you have to look at it: First as geographic. Okay. So from a geographic standpoint, everyone used to talk about near Earth, meaning LEO MEO and GEO — lower Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit.
Places where the ISS flies around, where our geostationary satellites within the last five to 10 years, particularly on a pressure by commercial. There’s been a push out from what is called near Earth into now, because of the Artemis program and returning to the Moon. And so in understanding the geographic region, so you kind of have that benchmark and nearer.
There’s still that LEO MEO GEO area, but now they’re separate. Cislunar as technically defined, is that space between the Earth and the Moon. Uh, and specifically the part of the Moon that we see — the lit side of the Moon on the other side, past the Moon is called translunar. Where in other words, it’s beyond the Moon.
So generally it’s between those two spaces. Now to really understand it in not only operational terms, I always views cislunar as his vast sea of 240,000 miles, uh, between the Earth and the, uh, the lit side of the Moon, for example, and that see just by the nature of it being a sea, you’re not like on the Earth.
You aren’t on it, you’re actually in it. So consequently, it’s a lot like a submarine in a sense, cause it’s all around you. Uh, and you have to operate, uh, your systems and think about it that you’re flowing through something to get to somewhere. And that’s why this is really an interesting geographic reference because the sea itself.
Is something that then has a lot of reference points that are easy for guys like me to understand, seas have lighthouses, seas have geographic reference points. You need to make sure you’re on course, if you will. And we have technology for that in the near Earth, it’s called positioning navigation, and telemetry and PNT or GPS for the Earth, but you’re going to need that kind of guidance in, uh, in this cislunar sea.
You’re also going to need other, not just navaids that you’re also going to need another, uh, areas that, uh, like rest stops. If you will, in this sense, it would be places where those transiting, the cislunar sea and stuff, they can stop on the way to fulfill a mission, for example. So then that defines the services that you provide in the cislunar area, which gets to kind of my interest and my company’s interest.
And that service happens to be either transient services, which are, as I mentioned earlier, moving through the sea to get to your ultimate destination or else they’re supportive services at the destination, which happens to be in this case, the Moon. So the transient services are logistic oriented. There for example, navigation fueling transportation.
Now you’re going to need to be transported through the sea. So you get into sectors that are developing now a SpaceX is looking at a lunar insertion vehicle. So is a Blue Origin, so is Ariane, which is a French launch system, then you’re looking at supportive services around the Moon. In the transportation area happens to be the landers.
So the landers are sitting say on a SpaceX system. Now you have an ecosystem, you have a transportation ecosystem specializing in transiting the sea, and then delivering what would be capabilities to rest on the Moon. So in our sense, the distance becomes relevant. Because we’re not only interested in transiting, uh, and providing transit services communications to those who were passing by, if you will, are those who are interested in moving across the sea.
But also we’re interested in providing services of those who have basically, uh, located themselves in and around the Moon in order to be able to relay those services back. We’re capable of data. For example, it has to traverse that. See our principle mission is to basically aid in essentially their ability to get data from the lunar surface, to the surface of the Earth, and then an integrated into the terrestrial networks.
But it’s a fairly simple business plan. So you then get into back to the geography. How do you do that? Across 240,000 miles? We’re situated in what we consider a really interesting location, because it can serve as not only a transition or transient service provider, but also it can serve the needs of those who are on the Moon or orbiting around them.
Um, as a basically supporting service provider, because we’re not at the Moon, we’re actually 40,000 miles closer to the Earth. And in fact, we often point out to the fact that if this was some kind of a cartoon, you can put an astronaut with a big sign on our satellite saying “last connectivity for 200,000 miles,” for those who are around the Moon.
The point is, is that we’re that rest stop where that one location that you stop at to get a latte or a coffee before you head back to Earth. But we’re at the L-1 location. Take a breath and reorient yourselves before you cover that last 40,000 miles, which is your basically insertion into lunar orbit and also onto the lunar surface.
So that’s what kind of cislunar, geographically and operationally means to us. I would say it is different than, and beginning to be much different, in terms of how space agencies are defining it, because they’re now even splitting the world into deep space. Which used to be everything outside of basically GEO to now, uh, near space, which is out to 2 million kilometers from the Earth.
And then everything beyond near space is now deep space. Now that sounds technically interesting, except for commercial folks who deal with NASA particular. NASA now has, uh, as a matter of policy said, we’re now extending reliance on commercial services through the near space, which means that commercial now is a policy preference that NASA will buy from commercial providers first, before building infrastructure that themselves except where mission requirements, uh, dictate that and that they will still, however, continue to do work like with JPL and others.
Pass the near space into asteroid and Mars for the time being we’re in the middle of an evolution here, which is you’ve got your foot basically off the shoreline. And now you’re in, this lunar sea. If you will. And then someday it’ll be Mars. And that, that near Earth space is now going to be extended further out into what would be our solar system.
So we had communication capability between Earth and the Moon back in the Apollo days, but obviously communications have evolved significantly since the single S-band transponder used in that era. Why is it so important to now have this kind of infrastructure closer to the Moon? Well, you’re going to have more complex systems.
Uh, I think if you break, first of all, communications down into two large service areas, one is connectivity, the Apollo program and programs since the Apollo program that are not only in the deep space network, but also in said lunar area, primarily government is looking at connection. You’ve got to have 24/7 connectivity it’s gotta be available so we can basically provide tracking telemetry and control to those spaces tracked as they traverse that sea.
If you will, that’s low-kilobit stuff and maybe at most megabit stuff. And I, we use kilobits, as we all know the reference. Uh, nobody wants kilobits on their mobile phone. Nobody wants it on their surface. They want gigabit service that they can get. And they’ll live with it and grumble about it. If it’s megabits that’s, that’s not the way the NASA deep space program and other programs like it, they need the service, but it is low throughput in part because of the space, weight, and power requirement to put more technology on these small systems that are going out into deep space.
So that would be enough if all we were doing was visiting the Moon and then coming back. But if in fact, you’re not only visiting the Moon, but also intending to stay, uh, to develop it in an industrial sense, in a habitation sense, et cetera, you’re going to need a different kind of communications. And that’s based on content that requires a significant amount of data.
Now we’re looking at your, the surface you have in the handset you have here, when you’re looking at. You know, uh, Instagram photos or your gaming, or you’re doing video work. All that is driven by one word — content. Now the value of the content is based on what you’re buying as a consumer, when it relates to the Moon content has a great deal to do that.
What the commercial company, particularly, or even the space, the space agency is trying to retrieve from the lunar surface. You know, for example, analyzing the lunar surface for water, analyzing it for materials and taking that analysis and not sending it back to Earth, but in fact, sending the results, meaning.
Meaning content back to Earth, is a much more efficient way to essentially develop a market. As you develop the market with more content, you need more bandwidth. We all know that, and there’s never enough bandwidth. So you’ve got two schools here. You have one is a connectivity school. And then the other one is the content school.
The space agencies, for reasons I mentioned are really built around connectivity. But the commercial sector builds around content because that’s the only way they pay for what they’re doing on the lunar surface. And whether you’re videoing and sending video tracks back on drone races on the Moon, believe me, don’t laugh at that because that’s actually, that’s actually contemplated, uh, or you’re doing commercials to send back to the Earth to have rebroadcast commercials that were live generated on the lunar surface.
I mean, Americans and Europeans are really good about building value in the content. And then when you translate it either into packaged content or else you put it into something I want to watch, which is eyeballs, which clicks and advertisers pay for, that’s not in the province of the space agency.
That’s in the province of the commercial sector and they have figured out they broke the code, that if I can get megabit and gigabit throughput at 40 megabit per second channels, if I can do streaming, if I can also expand that to actually do IOT and robotics, at some point, as I build more infrastructure on the, on the Moon, I can pay for this experience.
I can also get a return on my investment and therefore I can attract investors to build more infrastructure. That’s the future of the Moon. Yeah. An interesting perspective there. And who are the current players? Both public and private in the cislunar area whose primary focus is on or around the Moon.
Public agencies are pretty easy to identify. I mean, you have NASA and the Artemis. And Artemis is a series of, uh, steps. If you will, leading to the culmination, uh, Artemis 3 landing, two astronauts, a man, and a woman on the lunar surface in a habitation module where they actually have boots on the ground.
Artemis 1, uh, just like the early Apollo emissions where it’s kind of toe in the water where the orbit, the Moon, you know, Artemis 2, is the next step getting closer and would be unmanned. And in Artemis 3 would in fact be essentially a manned mission or in this case, a, the humankind mission, if you will.
The supporting infrastructure that is part of Artemis goes all the way back to the HLS system, the landing system, uh, that, and you have the competition in the commercial sector between SpaceX and Blue Origin for those as well as through, uh, what would be NASA zone, HLS system, uh, and then all the infrastructure that goes around it, that’s a centrally focused mission working backwards to billions of dollars worth of government-funded hardware and contracts.
Then you have ESA the European Space Agency, which is an international partner of the Artemis program is providing elements to it. Gateway is, uh, this orbiting facility, uh, just yesterday was announced that, uh, Northrop Grumman is going to build one of the modules for Gateway and Thales Alenea, our partner for CommStar, is also building one of the modules for Gateway.
Uh, as the name implies, it is going to be orbiting the Moon to provide what would be a staging area for the astronauts. Also a place for the astronauts to go off the lunar surface, back to Gateway. If in fact there was an emergency or a crew recycle or some other reason it provides logistics. It provides habitation.
The orbit is, not thinking of it as an orbit, like a circle around the Moon. It’ll be more like an elliptical orbit where it’ll swing into the Moon, turn around the backside and then come back out from the Moon. It may not actually go to the dark side. It may stay so it has visibility on Artemis’ footprint down in the south pole all the time.
Uh, and that’s part of the Artemis program. ESA is a supplier to that. But more importantly, ESA is also building the communications infrastructure around the Moon. It is building a program called Moonlight, which is an orbiting constellation around the Moon, which will provide connectivity in my sense, also content for both supporting the Artemis program.
But also secondarily to supporting the private sector, uh, commercial activity, they have two programs under Moonlight. One is called Pathfinder, which is with SSTL, which is a firm out of the UK. It’ll be a, an elliptical, around the Moon single vessel or single, uh, satellite. And it’ll be doing RF relay to the Earth.
Primarily, I believe to the UK and a larger station there called Goonhilly. The Moonlight program is multiple satellites. So you have the space partners providing incremental support to Artemis. So Artemis is facilities. ESA is communications and habitation modules. The Canadians are providing the robotic arm for the Gateway module.
So then you get to the commercial side. Now government budgets and the time and duration to build such sophisticated infrastructure, one would think would crowd out the commercial sector. And historically that’s, that’s been the case. In this case, however, that’s not the case. The private sector is basically a lunar goldrush going on right now where you have a really creative program that NASA is sponsoring called CLIPS, which is the commercial lander payload support program, where they’re an anchor tenant for commercial privately funded lenders.
And the first three to five years before our Artemis and during Artemis is going to be driven by commercial landers. And these landers are consist of multiple payloads, private sector payloads, including government payloads for research, but also private sector payloads to do those drone races.
I mentioned earlier, or make those commercials, as I mentioned, This is where people who really want to get into this can get into it for about a million dollars a kilogram. And so they essentially are building what would be business cases that can ride on these landers, do something bespoke, something unique, have the thrill of doing it, and at the same time, hopefully are reimbursed for it and make money doing it.
So you’ve got these massive billion-dollar government budgets to do one simple thing. And that’s to basically get a man and a woman on the Moon in a habitation, and in the end to show that we’ve returned. And then you have these lander programs, which are really very small relative to funding.
And yet there’s a they’re building what would be the base of the commercial pyramid. Because there’s so many of them. And so many that want to that are in line to continue to go and grow that they’re becoming the commercial base. At the end of say, 2028, 2029, I don’t know what happens after Artemis 3.
I don’t know, you know, what we’re going to do, but ironically, we’ve got business cases that are being presented to us for their demand on communications that go into 2035. And so you see the commercial sector is encouraged by Artemis, and that’s great. But they’re going on their own in a small, compact, simple way.
And from our business standpoint, from a data standpoint, they’re our future. It’s not Artemis and connectivity it’s content originating with the landers and ultimately going into industrial development. Interesting. So that’s kind of like spurring you on there, but then there’s already foresight beyond.
Yeah. In our business case, the first five years of CommStar, our primary service, uh, is landers, landers and more lenders. And really what we’re talking about are their customers, the payloads. Around year four or five in that period, the first robotics are going to start to be deployed in robotics meaning separately from the land or self-contained robotic activity, but actually robotics to do industrial development.
And industrial development could be something as simple as not only looking for water, but also looking at subterranean activity like lava tubes to see if they in fact serve as decent sites for habitation, uh, also communications networks, et cetera. When you get into robotics. Our first five years, we’ve themed the Moon as basically a megabit gigabit market from a standpoint of data relay and have to be capable of carrying that kind of bandwidth.
In the next five years, it’s a petabyte market — and petabyte, meaning just, you just look on the Earth. How much does IOT suck up in terms of bandwidth down here. And then just look at what that concentration of activity is going to be in locations on the lunar surface. So you’re seeing an evolving, sophisticated industrial development that is starting to materialize by independent companies.
Not by government driving it, but by independent companies following their nose, that habitation may be a function of government, but industrial development, could in fact, be robotics driven by the private sector and we need bandwidth to be able to do that. And that’s really where CommStar’s validation was.
Is that middle five years — we’ve got to build a satellite system that’s up there for 15 years that can not only handle the landers and also the robotics, but then the actual industrial, the day-to-day industrial cash compute and store of data like we have here on the Earth. And that means you got to build it for year 14. In capacity, as opposed to building it in year one, where you have basically kilobit and megabit relays, and then expect to put another satellite somewhere as the market grows.
So it’s, uh, it’s pretty exciting to stop to see it on the commercial side. That’s great. Could you give a brief background on the inspiration behind CommStar’s founding? Yeah, the, uh, LaserLight had worked on a project. Uh, for NASA back in 2019 on deep space networks and particularly on, on, uh, data relay networks, uh, we’d worked with our partner Atlas Space Operations.
Uh, there, they operate ground stations, uh, uh, for NASA and for the Air Force. And so we were looking at an ecosystem where you can basically relay, uh, in this case, it would be relaying in the, uh, LEO GEO or MEO environment around the Earth. Uh, in looking at that, we looked out deeper into, uh, into what would be space.
And so we went into what then was referred to as deep space or DSN, the deep space network. So in looking at the DSN, uh, we realized that with Artemis and with ESA’s plans, there was a gap. And that gap was, uh, was, uh, basically, uh, trying to make the jump between around the Moon or on the Moon directly to large Earth stations on the, or on the Earth, these big, huge, uh, 13-meter, 20-meter dish stations that you have in your head how they look.
Uh, They’re usually sprinkled around sunny places like Hawaii and Australia and Chile and South Africa. And then they connect to fiber and then move all the traffic up into, uh, whoever’s looking for it. By putting something in this gap, which happens to be L-1 Legrangian point 1. There was nobody there.
And so we thought that that’s an opportunity. Uh, if we put a relay system here, first of all, uh, what advantages would we have doing that? Or anybody doing that? Uh, number two is, is there a demand for, and then number three is what’s the cost going to be, and who’s going to vend it, uh, in about a year of work.
We validated that there were no plans and still aren’t for NASA to build and deploy anything at that location. So there wasn’t a competitive concern. Number two is we checked with ESA and ESA said, no, we’re around. And we would welcome a relay if someone decided to put something there. So, okay.
There was a potential demand side validation three, we found a fabulous supplier of the type of satellite we wanted in Thales Alenia. And then number four, number five is we essentially went through the process of how the design would be at a high level. By June of 2020, when we announced it, we already had well over 18 months in and thinking about it, we created a separate company because it’s not the same as LaserLight.
LaserLight is a, um, a medium Earth orbit satellite that deals with data that originates on the Earth and terminates on the Earth. So we just we’re like a submarine cable in, in, near, in, uh, you know, near space, but it has the ability to see. Therefore, it has the ability potentially with some design rework to relay CommStar, uh, into the laser light system, especially optical and move it around the Earth without having to have more than one CommStar.
So. Uh, the idea has been since validated by the customer demand study. Um, there is one other, there is one other commercial firm that is, I’d say in our area physical area, which is L-1, which is Aquarian. Uh, Aquarian has stated an interest in being a relay satellite for, um, say, for example, the Webb telescope. Uh, which is more, uh, government DOD, civil science — we’re oriented toward commercial, in fact we don’t have any revenue projected in our budgets.
Uh, for, for government service. We only have it projected for commercial and we’re able to balance that budget and get an ROI, uh, just off the commercial bank. You sent me some literature with a diagram on how the system works. And you, you said earlier, it’s a simple system, but it actually, it looks pretty complex … how it works.
The best way to think of it is from the lunar surface or around the Moon to the Earth. Think of it that way first. You’ve got no matter what the platform is, a lander. Or an orbiting spacecraft in and around the Moon or quite candidly, in cislunar that can see line of sight can see CommStar.
CommStar can receive that signal. All right. So that’s a point-to-point, line-of-sight connection. Okay. Then from that, CommStar, depending on what the customer wants in terms of, uh, do you want improvement on a signaling? What we call managed services? We then relay. Data packet or that RF signaling to where they want it to go.
If they want it to go directly to a ground station like Atlas, then it would go direct to a ground station and one of Atlas’s stations. And it would do that line of sight. And the reason for the confusion as you were talking about is you were looking at a multiple number of different ways that it could connect instead of the more simple way that it’ll go directly to a ground station, or if it’s optical, it could go to LaserLight.
Or if it’s optical, it could go to an optical ground station bypassing LaserLight, or it could go to a GEO that has an antenna that could receive it, like TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite) and relay it, or it could go to a LEO that in fact could relay it. The whole point is inter-operability with what would be the frequency. In other words, the spectrum, or the optics that is not unlike in fact, that is exactly how the world optical transport network now works.
In other words, you’re connected to the internet and you’ve got an ISP supplier. You’re probably riding their infrastructure connected then to somebody else’s infrastructure is moving you along over a longer distance in the wide area network. That’s connecting you to somebody else. It’s moving you to a data center.
That’s getting your data out of it or your Netflix movie or whatever. And then bringing it back to you is something people who don’t do this for a living take for granted. Okay. But when you put it on paper, all, you see these lines going everywhere and essentially think of it as this end to end. And everything else in the middle is just basically standard, uh, software routing between the end points, but the important part to the consumer, is…
If I’ve got a laptop, I’ve got a, an API or in this case, what would be some form of a web access software on my laptop? I want to see that my lander data, I want to look at it. I should only have to basically click on that icon connect and make a service request. And it’ll go all the way up to that lander that payload that’ll open up and it’ll show you your data.
You can retrieve it, or you just look at it and basically leave it on an end-to-end view. How many different handoffs you have along the way may add a little bit to latency, but more importantly, it gets you there in a software sense now from the Earth about 1.5 seconds.
So you’re about 1500 milliseconds. Yeah, faster time than take a drink of coffee while you’re basically waiting for it to load or download. So that’s the explanation of that busy chart that I sent you.
As envisioned. And you, you said there might be some latency in some cases, but as envisioned, the service will be as reliable and uninterrupted as Earth systems of this type are?
That’s right. And in fact, I hopefully it’ll be better because the service level agreements, remember you’re originating your traffic. You should have a good connection through say Lumen to what would be the uplink, wherever you’re going for the uplink. When you get to the app. Most of the terrestrial, uh, transport layer, risk or quality of service is over and now you’re going up now you’re in the free space.
And then you’re, you’re, you’re on your way to CommStar. At that point, a lot of things that interfere with ground networks you don’t have to worry about missed utility and somebody cut your fiber or something like that. You’re, you’re on your way, your data packets on, on its way. And it’s loaded into CommStar.
And then CommStar in turn is relaying it to the lunar surface and or the lander or the orbiting spacecraft. So it becomes more efficient. Because there’s no atmosphere. And so it should be a more efficient system. In fact, reduce the space aspects of it, to what would be common practice so that it’s not, you know, the result is space.
Obviously you’re seeing all this stuff that’s coming off the lunar surface, but the actual practice isn’t any harder than what we’re doing right now. So, uh, that’s all very similar to what we have on Earth. Now. How about in developing a cislunar orbiter, like CommStar-1. How does that differ from like a more traditional satellite orbiting Earth?
Is it the same or are there like non-standard trajectories and different orbital mechanics at play? How, what kind of factors and variables are there to consider? Our particular orbit is at L-1, Legrangian point 1. And when you use the word orbit, everyone in their mind thinks of circular. You know, you’re going around the Earth through you’re going around the Moon.
You’re really more in what would be more like an area placement where you’re using some fuel, but L-1 happens to be in a unique position where it’s in space terms. It’s a fairly stable environment where it’s almost fixed. You’re not totally fixed. You have to do some maneuvering, but, uh, it’s not a quote orbit.
It’s really more like a fixed point. The stability of it is good for a lot of aspects, particularly for comms, because you want to avoid a lot of movement around. You’re doing line of sight from the Moon to the Earth and the Earth to the Moon. So the more you move around, you really have to make sure that you’re accommodating what would be line of sight.
The orbits around the Moon are trickier. The Moon is wobbly. And that’s a nice space term. That’s not my term. It’s wobbly. And the best example I can give you is take a… I’m not an astrophysicist or a geologist, but a NASA guy explained to me this one time took pity on me and said, think of a bowling ball with a big lead interior ball inside it.
So it’s a ball with a ball inside it and that ball inside it is offset from the middle. So it looks like a bowling ball until you roll it. And then it does as well. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay. Well that wobbliness creates a ripple effect. We get the benefit out of it. Then the Moon’s wobbliness generates tide flow down here.
So it also generates unstable orbits around the Moon. So when you go around the Moon, you’re orbiting a wobbly thing to begin with, and then you have to maintain your station. And so I think NASA and ESA and the Japanese did a series of, uh, working group studies, which are publicly available that show the best three or four orbits around the Moon.
And those, are generally at, you know, like an equatorial orbit, and a displaced orbit, a halo orbit or a HEO orbit, which is elliptical orbit, they require fuel. And so you’re burning more fuel to station keep than you would if you were sitting at someplace like L-1. So, and they’re managing, as they move, they also, because you’re moving in an orbit, your field of view or field of regard on the lunar surface changes as you cross, you traverse the Moon.
So there you’re, there are places in [?] you’re not connected to, until you get around to it, unless you put enough satellites, three, maybe at a certain altitude that you then get full coverage on the Moon.
So if you’re a single satellite, you can do an elliptical orbit where you can run right at the Moon, go around the dark side and run away. But that means that when you’re on the darker side, you’re not on the lit side. So whoever is your customer on the lit side is not getting service. So you need one satellite going in one satellite going around the dark side and one satellite leaving — very similar to XM and Sirius satellite radio here on Earth.
They have an elliptical orbit around the Earth, and they’re always connected because they have three satellites generally that run at or around our backs, backside of the Earth. So you really build these obits, or should, based on what you’re trying to accomplish and essentially where those you want to provide service are going to be located.
NASA is going to be right now is going to be in the south pole. South pole is a little dicey to see all of the south pole from L-1. And that’s really gonna, it’s gonna come down to some mechanics as to where the best position in the L-1 vicinity would be to see that. But then again, commercially, they want to go in the equator.
They want to go in the Sea of Sinus, up toward the north pole. They want to go different places. Partly because they have a sense, there are rare materials, rare Earth, they’re places to make money. So those who are looking at these orbits, you’ve got to work backwards from who your customer is going to be. Where are they going to be located?
Because once you’re in one of those orbits to kind of tied to that, you know, for a period of fixed period of time, we’re, we’re at L-1 for 15 years. Now, the CommStar satellite, you asked me about what modifications need to be made to it. There’s more radiation that you have to basically protect against.
Uh, when you get past the Van Allen belt, there are other trades relative to antenna. And also your solar panels that you have to put on the satellite. It is not a brand-new satellite you’re building. It is a commercial off the shelf, satellite that you’re improving. You’re, you’re hardening where you need to harden.
Uh, but you’re not having to go and build a bespoke satellite that saves you significant CapEx dollars. So not reinventing the wheel. No, in fact, you really want on the commercial side, you really don’t want to do that. And you, you want to find something. Well, like I said, just even on the orbits, you want to find something that meets what would be your business case and work backwards from that.
Otherwise, if you find I got a fabulous business case and there’s no such satellite that can serve it, you don’t have a business case. That makes sense. So you’d mentioned that there might be some maneuvering — is the idea that a CommStar-1 could be serviced when needed like refueling for maneuvers or other maintenance.
One of the really interesting things about what I would call both government and business ideas is this idea of both, uh, space tugs that then, uh, are capable of moving what would be let’s call it value added services to satellites. A space tug that can move additional fuel. That’s been demonstrated now, uh, satellites that have been refueled that clearly is an opportunity.
Space tugs can move, uh, satellites from one area to another, maybe improve where they happen to be situated. Maybe, maybe you don’t really want to be looking at the south pole. You really, your customers want to move your orbit. A space tug could help you do that. What my personal opinion is is that being around the Moon is exciting.
And sexy if I can use that phrase, but it may not be the most efficient place to do logistics. The place to do logistics would be offset from the influence of the wobbly aspects of the Moon and being someplace that’s stable, like L-1 or L-2 and in those stable places build logistics hubs. So you have fueling stations, you have tugs where you’re not flying a tug out there and then flying it back.
You’re actually residing tugs out there. You’re providing other value-added services like PNT, which is positioning navigation and timing. So that spacecraft transiting the cislunar see, can actually get constant upgrades and updates as to their, you know, within a meter or two of where they are relative to where they are going.
You can provide tracking, tagging and logging, kind of a traffic control sense by watching traffic go by, you know, you’re a truck stop and everything is going by. So you, you really are building what would be instead of just this single activity there, which is data relay. You’re also building logistics, fueling, transportation, uh, that are all now relieved of the weight of having to get off the Earth.
Uh, storage. If you need storage for one reason or another, if you need a rescue, if there’s a failure and gateway has an emergency, you can run to the rescue and you become really this response area, add the Space Force into it, and their new interest in cislunar, their desire to basically have a kind of a Watchtower environment.
I think L-1’s got, and L-2 to have a tremendous amount of potentiality for that, but they all have one thing in common, no matter what they are, they need comms. So we may start relaying for landers and robotics, but if we’re providing stable comms in, cislunar itself, sort of like that one cell tower that everybody can see and connect to, and it has enough capacity to do that, then things will gravitate around us.
And, uh, and then I think that’s the future. Uh, and, when I say the future, I mean within 10 years, uh, and remember we’re there for 15. Could a similar configuration like CommStar-1 be considered for other locations, deeper in space or other Lagrange points that like support other forays into space exploration? Like maybe even Mars?
Yeah. I think the one thing that’s unique about, and we say it in our public material about CommStar-1 is that the payload itself is going to be really unique. It is not going to be a standard relay, where RF comes in and RF goes out. Instead, it is going to have the ability to run as a hybrid integrated payload, where you have RF and optical laser comms.
If you will, working together and working together off of what the customer requirement is, I want to do, we have a phrase called E to O electronics, RF to O to optical. So I can do E to O. I can do O to E and I can do it based on what the customer requires. To build this payload and build it in such a way that it operates on this particular satellite.
It’s not a jump. It’s not a giant leap to take that payload and turn it into a satellite unto its self. So instead of it needing the mothership, the payload fits into it could in fact be a payload unto itself with its own power supply, its own solar panels, its own antennas. And then send it out to say L-2, L-4, L-5.
There’s some line-of-sight restrictions. But one of the things we learned in the deep space study we did, the key to connectivity is satellite relay, the key to space communications networking is infrastructure, multiple infrastructure. And so the real challenge would be here. How do you make, how do you make a satellite?
And in this case, think of the payload, something that is cheaper, that is capable of going out, what would be toward the asteroid belt. And as it goes out, it’s capable of relaying from other missions that are already out there line of sight, back to it, or it also is capable of relaying to other, other CommStars, CommStar-2, 3, and 4?
That happened to be offset. And then you’re creating a network and then those network all have one thing in common. They have to be line of sight of each other, but that also can be, uh, they can be around the Moon. They can be out beyond the Moon. They can be in, uh, what would be the asteroid belt. You have to change the antennas.
You have to change. In other words, you have to build a bespoke to that particular requirement, your inner, your optical inner satellite telescopes would have to be a little different, et cetera. But the idea that the reason we called it CommStar-1 is because we expect there to be more CommStars.
That’s awesome. Just one final question: Are there any significant challenges or hurdles in making CommStar-1 a success as it’s envisioned? Well, I think in fairness to your audience, the challenge is always raise your money. You know, this is not a government-funded program, so you have to present a business case to the private market.
That first of all, makes sense. You know, there’s the old, the old expression. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? And if you can solve the problem cost-effectively with a quantifiable user base that can be validated, you’re generally a fundable project. So we brought that into this. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
We’re trying to solve the problem of trying to go all the way from the Moon to the Earth, without the ability to essentially improve signaling improve throughput and add more security on a stable point. Okay, well that one is there a user community. Yes. We had identified that back in September, and a user community that was not dependent on government budgets.
So we segregated government out of that discussion to look just, could commercial support this number three. Is it commercial off the shelf or do you have to build something that’s never flown before? The answer is, is COTS — commercial off the shelf. So by doing that, you’re, de-risking what would be the financial aspects of it, but you still have to go out and raise your money.
We’re really pleased over the interest in the company, both from a financial standpoint, but also on a debt side where we know where our financing is going to come from. We have a strategy relative to the equity side. What I call follow-on equity, whether it be public or private, and we’re out in the market now doing our, what would be our series-A round, which is the one that really lights the rest of the candle.
But we’ve got to have strong LOIs on what the infrastructure is going to cost. I think that until funded, you’re not funded, once funded, then you have to do your next funding round and then your next funding round until your revenue’s coming in. And then once you’re revenue’s coming in, you’re fully funded with, you know, associated with revenues.
So those are the financial challenges associated with a deal like this operationally it’s a COTS system. It is, work’s been done relative to the regulatory agencies. So that it has to applications in for its spectrum and has applications in for it’s orbit the ITU. So that’s done, it has a very supportive regulatory authority.
I mean like the FCC or Ofcom in our case Ofcom. So we’ve done this before. We know the things that kill companies, and we know that the things that companies have to do to avoid basically failure. And I think on CommStar, it is, uh, I think we’ve hit all the markers on it, but I would tell you that without Artemis and without SpaceX and without just what happened the other day with, uh, with Richard Branson, and what will happen with Bezos without this whole desire of private equity to get into space and the markets are getting into it. I can recall a time and I’m, this is my fifth satellite company. I can remember a time going in and talking about raising money for satellite companies.
And some very main big banks were saying we don’t do that. Uh, that’s not something we know how to basically assess risk over. That has fundamentally changed, led by Morgan Stanley and the analysts there who see this as a trillion-dollar industry. But what’s cool is, this trillion-dollar industry is not just low Earth orbit now.
It’s not just imagery and Earth observation, and Starlink and OneWeb and all that. It’s now including cislunar, and most recently cislunar, and people are just learning: What is his cislunar? And what does that to do with the Moon? And is there a real commercial opportunity outside what the government is doing?
And within the last six months, particularly what we’ve experienced the answer is yes. And there is real excitement about bypassing what would be low Earth orbit and going deeper. And that to us is really cool. Well Bob, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us today. We can’t wait to see how the CommStar-1 project progresses and ultimately supports commercial and public lunar aspirations in the not-too-distant future.
Well, listen, I appreciate the time and hopefully it was helpful and, uh, stay tuned. We’ll keep you posted on our progress. That’s great. That concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review on Podbean, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
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