French military shows interest in Stratobus • Emergency satcom gear deployed in Australia

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Thales Alenia Space and its majority shareholder Thales Group have signed a study contract with the French defense procurement agency DGA to evaluate the use of a Stratobus-type airship for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance applications. The study contract calls for a full-scale demonstrator that can fly in the stratosphere and collect observations. Jean-Philippe Chessel, director of the Stratobus product line, said the companies aim to have a flight demonstration by the end of 2023. The companies say Stratobus airships can conduct a variety of satellite- and drone-like missions, including remote sensing, environmental monitoring and communications. [Thales]

SmartSky, a company preparing a network of towers across the United States for in-flight Wi-Fi, obtained the rights to borrow another $25 million from lenders. The Global Credit Opportunities team at BlackRock, which agreed last year to loan SmartSky $75 million, said that the full amount is now available after SmartSky passed a network deployment milestone. SmartSky has drawn $50 million of the $75 million loan. The last $25 million was “contingent upon the company making substantial progress on the nationwide network rollout,” SmartSky said. SmartSky, which once expected to have its air-to-ground network operational in 2017, now anticipates starting commercial operations in the second quarter of 2020. [SmartSky]

NBN and Telstra are providing emergency communications via satellite in parts of Australia impacted by bush fires. NBN said Jan. 5 it had installed 12 satellite dishes at evacuation centers and is using them to provide free Wi-Fi. The state-run operator, which has two Ka-band satellites, said it was working on installations at five other locations as well. Private telecommunications provider Telstra said it had deployed a satellite cell on wheels, along with other emergency response gear to ensure communications during the blaze. Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher praised both companies for their responses to bush fire damage to telecom infrastructure. [ITNews]

MORE STORIES

Blue Origin opened a new headquarters building Monday. The U-shaped O’Neill Building, with more than 230,000 square feet of office space, is across the street from the company’s existing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington. The building will host 1,500 of the company’s 2,500 employees. The building is named after the late Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, whose visions of space settlement inspired company founder Jeff Bezos. [GeekWire]

L3Harris Technologies received a $100 million contract from the U.S. military to upgrade 550 very small aperture terminals and extend their usefulness. L3Harris said it will provide software and hardware upgrades to the military’s Hawkeye 3 Lite VSAT terminals, as well as a warranty. U.S. Special Operations Command uses the terminals to provide communications for Special Operations Forces. The U.S. Army has received 4,000 Hawkeye systems. [C4ISRNET]

A company that builds gateway ground stations for satellite operators says its latest acquisition should help it provide more turnkey products. Celestia Technologies Group purchased the ground segment division of Antwerp Space from OHB for an undisclosed sum. Celestia Chairman Jose Alonso said providing complete gateways instead of components provides higher profit margins. Celestia generated 30 million euros ($33.3 million) in 2019 revenue, and hopes to reach 40 million euros this year. The company also plans to conduct more acquisitions to stimulate growth. [SpaceNews]

Arianespace expects to have a record-setting year for launches, thanks in large part to OneWeb. The company projects carrying out 22 launches this year, shattering its record of 12 launches set in 2015. Of those launches, half will be for broadband satellite constellation company OneWeb, 10 on Soyuz rockets as well as the inaugural flight of the Ariane 6 in late 2020. The Vega rocket will return to flight in March with the Small Spacecraft Mission Service rideshare mission, carrying 42 smallsats. [SpaceNews]

The former chief executive of MTN Satellite Communications (now Global Eagle Communications), has joined the executive team of RigNet, an energy-sector connectivity provider. Errol Olivier became RigNet’s chief operating officer and a senior vice president Jan. 6. Olivier, in addition to MTN, was formerly the CEO of telecommunications company Broadpoint (now Tampnet) and the COO of CapRock Communications (now SpeedCast). He is responsible for all of RigNet’s customer-facing functions, including sales, service delivery, and the company’s global network operations centers. RigNet also announced Jan. 6 the departure of its senior vice president of sales Jay Hilbert. RigNet said Hilbert will provide consulting services until the end of March. [RigNet]

SpaceX became the operator of the largest satellite constellation with the successful launch of 60 more Starlink satellites Monday night. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 9:19 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the first orbital launch of the year worldwide. The 60 Starlink satellites deployed from the rocket’s upper stage an hour later in an initial 290-kilometer orbit. SpaceX has now launched 182 satellites for Starlink, counting two prototypes the company orbited nearly two years ago, making the system the largest satellite constellation operated by any company or organization. The launch was the first of as many as 24 this year carrying Starlink satellites. [SpaceNews]

SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer Jeff Foust contributed to this newsletter.

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