SpaceX Transporter Aurora Insight Charlie

Go for Launch: Aurora Insight’s Charlie Satellite Takes Flight

SpaceX Transporter Aurora Insight Charlie
SpaceX’s Tansporter-1 mission carried Aurora Insight’s RF-sensing Charlie satellite into space January 24. (Courtesy SpaceX on Flikr.)

The Aurora Insight team gathered Saturday morning on a live webcast to share with viewers the launch of the company’s Charlie satellite into space. Jennifer Alvarez, CEO of Aurora Insight, along with several of the company’s leaders and technical experts, shared information about the nano satellite — measuring roughly the size of two shoe boxes — including how it was built and what it would do once in orbit.

Just minutes before the expected launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was scheduled to deliver Aurora Insight’s satellite into orbit, the mission was postponed because of inclement weather. The mission had already been delayed, but the stakes are high in space endeavors, and missions are frequently delayed rather than taking unnecessary chances.

Ultimately, the Transporter-1 rideshare mission successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early on Sunday morning, January 23, carrying a record 143 commercial and government satellites into space. It was SpaceX’s first dedicated small satellite rideshare mission.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” Alvarez said of how she felt during moments leading up to the launch. “Intellectually you know there’s absolutely nothing you can do at that point to control the outcome, but that doesn’t stop your stomach from flipping and that anxiousness of hoping everything will go well.”

The launch did go well, and that nervous energy gave way to relief and happiness once the satellite was deployed just over an hour after launch. There is also a certain amount of awe about launching a satellite into space, Alvarez said. And then it’s right back to work, preparing the now-orbiting satellite to do the job it was created and sent 500+ kilometers above Earth to do.

Aurora Insight satellite
Charlie (Courtesy of NanoAvionics)

Aurora Insight’s mission is to gather real-world data about radio-frequency spectrum usage to provide impartial insights to companies building out 4G and 5G networks. The company uses a “multi-regime” approach to gathering data, including fixed RF sensors and drive tests in dense urban areas, sensors on airplanes to gather data in vast rural areas, and satellite data to provide a global picture. Alvarez said the data generated via satellite provides coarse data necessary for mapping RF spectrum around the world, while the air- and ground-based tools fill in more granular data and help map actual towers and infrastructure.

Using its network of sensors and machine learning of radio signals, the Denver-based company continuously samples and reports on RF spectrum, from licensed infrastructure to dynamic utilization, with the goal of helping the industry make the best use of a scarce commodity. During the early stages of COVID-19, for example, Aurora Insight was able to visualize how spectrum was being shared among the nation’s wireless carriers to meet the broadband needs of remote workers and learners.

Aurora Insight launched its first satellite, Alpha, in December 2018. Alvarez said that satellite is about half the size of Charlie and was designed as an experimental satellite to prove what its sensor technology could do from space. The results from Alpha have been positive, said Alvarez, and so about a year ago, the company decided to go ahead with two more satellites — Bravo and Charlie — incorporating upgrades to the satellite and payload based on its experience with Alpha. Bravo is expected to launch in a couple of months.

“We always had the ambition to obtain global coverage to create maps of spectrum usage, so it was always in our roadmap to launch more satellites,” said Alvarez. “In fact, we started out thinking we might be a satellite company, but we realized very quickly that we had to prove all of our technologies on the ground, then in the air, and then finally in space, because space is a high-risk business with long timelines and high costs. We found that the data that we were collecting on the ground and in the air is inherently valuable, so that led us to do more work outside of space, but we still have this goal of obtaining global coverage.”

Jennifer Alvarez Aurora Insight The ability for small companies like Aurora Insight to leverage the value of space is a relatively new phenomenon. Not that long ago, it might take up to a decade to build a satellite. A new era of space flight — known as Space 2.0 or New Space — now brings space within the reach of commercial enterprises, by bringing down the costs and shortening the timelines to develop a satellite. This is accomplished through standardization of subsystems on a smaller and lighter-weight satellite that can accommodate custom payloads.

NanoAvionics Corp. built the satellite and the Aurora Insight team developed the RF sensor payload. The entire pre-launch process took about a year, said Alvarez, and included custom hardware development, custom software development, integration and testing.

“It’s an amazing timeline to get it all done,” said Alvarez. “It’s a testament to innovation on the satellite side.”

With Charlie now orbiting the earth — about 16 times per day — a commissioning phase begins. Communications with the satellite has already been established, and NanoAvionics will begin turning on various systems and running functional checks to ensure everything is working properly. Once complete, Aurora Insight will begin powering up and checking the health of its payload, gathering data, and analyzing it to make sure everything is working properly. The satellite and payload will be fully operational in 6-8 weeks, barring any issues.

NanoAvionics Aurora Insight Satellite
A NanoAvionics engineer works on Charlie.

“There are only certain times per day that we can communicate with the satellite, and you want to do things very incrementally because with something up in space, you can’t go and hit the reset button,” said Alvarez. “It’s a very slow and meticulous process.”

Alvarez said Aurora Insight is targeting to deploy a constellation of 12 satellites initially at a pace of about two satellites launching every two years. This, of course, can also be ramped up with customer interest. The company is learning more with each satellite, leading to more advanced technology over time.

For Alvarez, the process, the excitement and even the nervousness aren’t likely to get old.

“I’ve always been fascinated with space,” she said. “When you think about things that are leaving the earth, orbiting earth and able to observe what’s happening on the earth, it is really exciting. It is a huge step forward, and I think applying some of the commercial principles to space has really enabled small companies like us to be able to do amazing work that was previously out of reach.”