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Small in space: Toronto company's satellites no bigger than a loaf of bread

A sister satellite called CASE is set to be launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle later this month.

Canadian satellite company Kepler Communications Inc. is proving there’s room for the little guy in space.

The Toronto-based startup rocketed past major milestones this fall, securing approval for U.S. market access from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and landing US$16 million in a Series A round of financing led by Costanoa Ventures. The company is also counting down to the launch of its second satellite near the end of the month. (The exact date is a closely guarded secret.)

“For the cost of building a software company, we’ve built a space company,” Kepler’s 29-year-old chief executive Mina Mitry told Yahoo Finance Canada in an interview.

Thinking big while being small has been a theme throughout the fast-growing firm’s brief three-year history. Right now, Kepler has just one nanosatellite in orbit. It’s about the size of a loaf of bread. It’s the first member of a constellation that could grow to 140-strong.

CELLULAR TOWERS IN SPACE

Kepler is basically a phone carrier in space. Its low-Earth orbit satellite acts like a cellular tower, beaming around data from oil tankers, rail cars, icebreakers, and shipping containers located anywhere on the globe on single network.

The satellite’s orbit is about 600 kilometres above Earth, well below the 35,000-kilometre range of traditional satellites. Less distance means more speed for customers moving large amounts of CCTV data or weather information, for example. According to Mitry, Kepler’s network is up to 10 times faster than traditional satellites.

Kepler’s maiden satellite, named KIPP, was launched into low-Earth orbit last January from a Chinese Long March 11 rocket. KIPP may be alone for now, but it’s covering a lot of ground.

“Our satellite is moving at 7.4 kilometres per second, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes. We’ll see every location around the world in a given day,” Mirty said.

“That’s with one satellite. With more satellites the frequency by which we visit locations around the world is improved. As we build towards our 140 satellite constellation, it gets to the point of connecting in real time.”

Kepler has raised close to $30 million to date from venture capital and banks, Mirty said. The bulk of that money is earmarked for producing and launching more bread-sized satellites to grow the network.

Meanwhile, KIPP is generating revenue on its own, serving customers on icebreakers, to tourism companies and scientific organizations.

“That’s really helped to bolster our fundraising efforts,” Mirty said. “Traditionally, the satellite communication industry tends to be one where they have to build the entire network before they can recognize a dollar of revenue from customers.”

A sister satellite called CASE is set to be launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle later this month.

On launch day, Mirty and his staff will watch with a mix of anxiety and pride from the company’s downtown Toronto office as the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carries CASE into orbit.

“It’s incredibly gratifying,” he said of the launch day experience. “The atmosphere is obviously tense. We have our dedicated operations team that focuses strictly on the satellite as soon as it emerges out of the rocket. They’re almost separated from the rest of the team just to keep them focused on the tasks at hand. Everyone else is just strapped in and watching, hoping for the best.”

A third satellite called TARS is also expected to blast into space in the second half of 2019 to support Kepler’s internet of things (IoT) connectivity service. The company has partnered with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, the largest railcar operator in Europe, to deliver unique IoT connectivity solutions within its business units.

Kepler’s maiden satellite, named KIPP, was launched into low-Earth orbit last January from a Chinese Long March 11 rocket. KIPP may be alone for now, but it’s covering a lot of ground.

A CONSTELLATION OF COMPETITION

Kepler’s planned constellation won’t be alone up there. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, as well as two other companies, also received FCC approval to deliver satellite services in the U.S. on the same day as Kepler. SpaceX’s plan is reported to call for more than 4,400 satellites, with the aim of beginning deployment by the end of 2019.

Mirty anticipates Kepler will stand out next to larger aerospace rivals thanks to its focus on connecting internet of things-based equipment and machines, as well as trade secrets that keep its satellites small and costs low.

“Most people in the world will believe that it takes a team of one hundred, and hundreds of millions of dollars to build a company in the aerospace sector,” he said. “The proof is ultimately in the outcomes. We’ve had our satellite operate in orbit for almost a year.”

Kepler currently has about 20 employees. The company was born out of the award-winning University of Toronto Aerospace Team in 2015, and has doubled its headcount every year, Mirty said. He expects that trend to continue as entry barriers fall in the aerospace industry, and smaller firms take their place next to well-funded government agencies and giant corporations.

“As the space economy is starting to expand and become more commercially used, we (will) start moving away from exploration of space into settlement of space. We are already starting to see signs of that,” Mirty said. “The initial cellphone tower networks that were laid on the ground here are powering our entire digital ecosystem and the apps that we use day-to-day. That’s what we want to do for space.”

UPDATE: Kepler Communications successfully launched their second wideband satellite to low-Earth orbit on the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle C43 mission that lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India on Nov. 29, 2018, at 06:20:09 a.m. UTC (01:20 a.m. EST).

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