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Good morning. Rocket Lab will soon attempt to pluck a very hot Electron first stage from the skies with a helicopter, as the rocket falls back to Earth. If you have friends or family who are space-curious, this is your chance to show them that it’s pretty cool and wild. You can also refer new readers to Payload using your personalized link below…

In today’s newsletter:
📡 Isotropic update
✈️ SOFIA termination

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These Are Selling Like Hotcakes

Isotropic Systems has doubled in size over the last year, just recently signing its 130th hire, and expects to 2X again in the coming year, the British startup told Payload.

The Reading, UK-based company has created—and successfully field-tested—a potentially revolutionary technology: multi-beam, multi-link, and all-orbit satellite terminals. 

Origin story

In 2013, Isotropic CEO and founder John Finney set out to “simply just do make-before-break connections,” Brian Billman, the company’s chief marketing officer, told Payload. Make-before-break = linking with a rising satellite on the horizon before terminating a connection with one that is moving out of sight. 

Simple in theory, but not so simple in practice. Isotropic engineers and scientists spent years of R&D and tens of millions of dollars to get here. Isotropic had to work through bleeding-edge technology, difficult physics equations, and…Mother Nature.

  • The short, non-PhD version of this story includes transformational optics, metamaterials, and negative refractive indexes…some of the same tech that could theoretically go into invisibility cloaks, Billman said.
  • But, there’s always a but. “When you solve those equations, typically what you end up with is material that does not exist in nature [or] real life,” Billman said. “That can be a problem when you’re trying to carry a real product and sell it and make money.” 
  • Isotropic’s breakthrough, Billman said, was to pair transformational optics with common commercial manufacturing techniques and radiofrequency (RF) lenses that are “easily manufacturable, extremely low-loss, and extremely broadband.”  

How about that timing?

Not only did Isotropic reach the make-before-break mecca, it also developed a way to “talk” with the birds in their various roosts. Satellites are increasingly migrating to NGSO (non-geostationary) homes in low, medium, and highly elliptical (LEO, MEO, HEO) Earth orbits. Big, traditional parabolic dishes won’t be able to fully tap all the new capacity that is coming online, Billman said. Isotropic’s pitch = the antenna will be able to leverage all those new constellations in new places, without any sacrifices in bandwidth, latency, and the like. 

Going to market

Billman said multi-link, multi-orbit capabilities offer sizable boosts in throughput, efficiency, and resiliency. Use cases range from cellular backhaul to in-flight connectivity to bolting terminals onto special operation forces’ tactical vehicles.

While Isotropic aims to sell into multiple markets, it’s currently feeling the strongest pull from government customers, who place a premium on resiliency and aren’t as price-sensitive. Billman said multiple military and government customers have said: “Look, as soon as that is out from your production line, I don’t even want to demo and trial it. I want to get it out in the field.”

  • Production terminals are sold out for the rest of 2022, and the backlog is starting to stretch well into 2023. 
  • Billman wouldn’t divulge any specifics on pricing, so as to not tip off the competition. But it’s safe to assume Isotropic’s antennas, which are split among multiple product lines, aren’t retailing for the price of Starlink’s Dishy. 

What next? Isotropic is going after a huge market and pitching itself as the ground infrastructure provider for the 2020s. The next big hurdle, it seems, will be reaching volume production and starting to accommodate the “insatiable demand.” And…finding talent. As it grows, Isotropic’s recruiting efforts are focused on manufacturing and software development roles.

Read/share online.


Bye, SOFIA

Image: NASA

It’s official: NASA and German space agency DLR have agreed to end operations on the expensive airplane-mounted infrared observatory this year.

NASA has been trying to cut the line item from its budget for a few years now, but for the past two years, Congress has restored the observatory’s funding in the agency’s federal budget. SOFIA is an expensive project, chewing up ~$85M per year for “modest scientific productivity,” per Astro2020. In November, the decadal survey’s authors recommended that NASA terminate the project.

SOFIA: The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy basically consists of a 2.7m infrared reflecting telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 aircraft. It’s used in a similar way to a ground observatory, but by flying above 99% of the infrared-blocking atmosphere, it can provide a unique vantage point for astronomers to observe the universe.

SOFIA performs 10-hour overnight flights, collecting infrared data from distant objects in space. Arguably, SOFIA’s most significant achievement was identifying water on the sunlit surface of the Moon.

  • The observatory has been operating for the past eight years, and had an original mission duration of five years.
  • 70 more flights are planned before the craft is officially retired at the end of September.

Missing the mark: While SOFIA has been a unique program for NASA and for the astronomers that utilize it, it just doesn’t keep up with the productivity standards needed to justify its $85M a year price tag. Plus, other ground-based and orbiting telescopes can fulfill the same science needs for the US space agency and astronomers.

DLR covers 20% of program costs for SOFIA each year, so NASA needed the German agency’s sign-off to terminate the observatory’s operations. DLR has agreed to an orderly shutdown of the project at the end of its current mission extension.

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In Other News

  • China announced plans to build a comms and navigation constellation for the moon.
  • Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev completed a spacewalk to jettison thermal blankets that were used to protect the European robotic arm on the ISS.
  • Microsoft researchers say six Russian-aligned, state-sponsored hacking groups launched 237+ cyberattacks on Ukraine before the invasion. Over 40% of the attacks were aimed at organizations in critical infrastructure sectors.
  • Russia may fly its small-lift Angara 1.2 rocket as soon as next week after 25 years in development, Anatoly Zak reports.
  • The FAA deadline for releasing its permitting decision on Starship/Super Heavy is today, though another delay is always possible. If a full environmental impact statement is deemed necessary, launches from Boca Chica could be suspended for years.
  • Amazon called out Project Kuiper, and its procurement of up to 83 launches, in its earnings report.

The View from Space

Image: Planet

Planet imagery shows a timelapse of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano before and after its eruption early this year.