When news broke last month that Astranis’ first commercial satellite in orbit malfunctioned, the company made an unexpected announcement: it had a backup. That backup is called UtilitySat, and the company is finally ready to give it a formal introduction.
UtilitySat is aptly named: as Astranis CEO John Gedmark explained in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, it is designed to be exceedingly useful. Gedmark – who refers to UtilitySat as “the Swiss Army Knife of satellites” – said it will be the first satellite of its kind capable of multiple missions, and the first satellite equipped with transponders in the standard Ku, Ka, and Q/V bands for different mission profiles.
UtilitySat’s most obvious use case is the one the public learned about in July: it can be launched as an on-orbit spare, taking on part of the load if a dedicated Astranis satellite glitches and can no longer provide connectivity. But this is far from its only application.
The real utility comes from the satellite’s dual-propulsion chemical system and electric ion thruster, which gives Astranis the ability to move each UtilitySat around the geostationary belt more than thirty times over its useful life. This is a huge shift from legacy GEO satellites, which have very long lifespans and single-mission profiles that are decided well in advance of launch.
“That allows us to have this incredibly powerful asset we can bring to bear in almost any kind of situation you can think of where someone needs broadband connectivity in a remote or very underserved location,” Gedmark said.
One such situation could be during a natural disaster, when reliable communication is paramount; another might be national security, to add resiliency to space-based and ground communication architectures. As opposed to Astranis’ dedicated satellites, where capacity is sold on long-term leases with telecom providers, customers will essentially be able to task UtilitySats for shorter-term use.
UtilitySats will also be capable of providing bridge capacity for customers waiting for their contracted Astranis satellite, or to boost capacity over an area, Gedmark added.
Astranis, which is taking a novel approach to internet satellites, is looking at launching one or more UtilitySats in 2025, with the eventual aim to include a UtilitySat in every batch of satellites the company launches.
Although the public only learned about UtilitySat in July, Gedmark said the “secret satellite” has been under development for quite some time.
“This has been a part of our roadmap for a very, very long time,” he said. “I would actually say, going all the way back, it’s been part of the original vision for Astranis.”