Can She Beat Bezos and Musk to Beam High-Speed Internet From Space?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her India-based startup is expanding the universe of satellites.
A hand-thrown aircraft made of balsa wood, which rose high enough for aerial surveillance, was the culmination of Neha Satak’s two years of research at the Indian Institute of Science.
Eleven inches across with electronics stuffed into it, her master’s thesis project had an egg-shaped wing and a front propeller. The wing also had its own ailerons — a word derived from the French for little fins — that we see in modern aircraft “to give it that roll and pitch and yaw” as Satak puts it. She had to go back to the drawing board to make it work, given the unique design.
Satak, 35, says she likes taking a systemic approach, working on a problem as a whole rather than taking a narrow focus. Astrome, her startup with co-founder Prasad H.L. Bhat, combines the disciplines of electronics, aerospace and software to pursue satellite-based internet — potentially groundbreaking technology for the half of the planet that still lacks an internet connection. In so doing, she’s taking on some Goliaths of global industry, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Greg Wyler’s well-funded OneWeb.
People who are in the past about how the satellite industry worked are still the naysayers of satellite internet connectivity.
The refrain from Astrome is that Musk’s SpaceX specializes in launch vehicles and OneWeb makes satellites, while Astrome allows each satellite to carry more capacity in its transponders — 11 times more than its competitors. It does so by using high-frequency millimeter waves, whereas others use more traditional satellite frequencies.
“Technology-wise it is awesome,” says Shagun Sachdeva, an analyst with Northern Sky Research, a consultancy focused on the satellite industry, referring to Astrome. To her knowledge, only Facebook’s experimental satellite Athena plans to use the millimeter wavelength band — and its capacity is much lower.
One problem: Astrome, which has a patent on its technology, has not yet done an in-orbit demonstration. “Because of the wavelength they are using, it is actually easier to fade away in the atmosphere,” says Sachdeva. The millimeter wavelength is easily absorbed by raindrops, for example. For her part, Satak says “absorption is manageable” in the frequency she’s working in — but that has yet to be proven in the real world.
After an in-orbit demonstration, Astrome will need to bring costs down so that it becomes viable for consumers, and then eventually recoup its large investment on satellite launches. Not everyone is convinced that this will work, which brings out an uncharacteristically combative response from Satak. “People who are in the past about how the satellite industry worked are still the naysayers of satellite internet connectivity,” she says.
While big players are racing in, satellite internet remains far from widespread. Hughes Network Systems, part of Echostar, is the main player in the industry so far, with 1.36 million customers as of December — nearly all of whom are in the United States.
Pioneers like OneWeb, Satak says, have ushered in an era where constellations of thousands of satellites are possible. In this model, launches occur more frequently. Instead of companies recovering their costs over the 5-10-year life of a satellite, smaller satellites can be made on an assembly line like cars and are easily replaceable.
In India, where internet penetration even in the most optimistic of surveys is around 40 percent of the population, there is a ready market. Satak combines idealism with engineering chops and a strong work ethic. It helps that the company has found a home at the Indian Institute of Science: Satak has been part of its aeronautical engineering department, and it has connections with the Indian space agency, ISRO.
Satak herself has been involved with several companies, including one connected to asteroid deflection technologies and one in cross-cultural fashion — another passion of hers. It was after a space conference in Los Angeles in May 2014 that she decided to return to India and launch a business.
“I remember that even when we worked together, she had dreams of becoming an entrepreneur,” says John Hurtado, her doctoral advisor at Texas A&M University. Hurtado recalls a particular problem relating to thrusters to orient satellites where they worked together to solve one case — then she surprised the professor by going off on her own to figure out how to apply mathematics to solve the other two.
The main subject of her research, though she took several side projects, was called incomplete information games. It takes off from John Nash’s game theory, but here the goals of other players are not known. “She developed a strategy we called ‘behavior running,’” says Hurtado. A player would initially adopt a safe strategy, and in the worst-case scenario, was guaranteed a minimal level of performance. As the player learned more about the behavior of the opponent, she or he could switch to a more aggressive strategy.
This wasn’t just for fun. Turns out, a cooperative game can be used to decide control in satellite constellations. Let’s say two or more satellites in a constellation want to maximize coverage and minimize fuel usage: That can be recast as a game.
In the middle of such heavy topics and business numbers, Satak refuses to be jaded, though you get the sense that she strives to be a private person. Growing up near Ajmer in the Indian state of Rajasthan, her favorite show was I Dream of Jeannie, because it involved an astronaut.
Her dissertation was dedicated “To my parents and Moon” to commemorate her long, late nights of work. Being from a family mostly involved in business, she relied on her parents’ support to be able to obtain a Ph.D. The cross-cultural fashion venture came because she liked making her own clothes. “It was a hobby I wanted to convert into a business,” she says.
Early next year or so, Astrome will be looking to prove its in-orbit capabilities. Then comes the challenge of making it a business. Meanwhile, companies like OneWeb and SpaceX already have launched. Will satellite internet work? Satak says, “We will know sooner than later.”
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