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Mobile-from-space test satellite due for Saturday launch

Abel Avellan AST SpaceMobile.jpg

The first satellite to test mobile phone services from space is due for launch this weekend.

Operators including Vodafone, Rakuten Mobile and Orange, among others, are hoping that AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 will show them it is possible to deliver mobile services to rural areas direct from satellites.

Vodafone has an exclusive agreement to use AST SpaceMobile in 24 countries, and AST SpaceMobile has agreements and understandings with more than 25 mobile operators in all.

“The start of the BlueWalker 3 (BW3) mission is a major step forward to provide space-based cellular broadband,” said Abel Avellan (pictured), chairman and CEO of AST SpaceMobile.

AST SpaceMobile said in July it is working with Nokia on what will be a wholesale service for mobile operators. The two companies said they had signed a five-year 5G deal to build a space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by standard mobile phones.

Avellan said: “With agreements and understandings from mobile network operators who collectively provide service to over 1.8 billion subscribers around the globe, the BW3 mission bolsters our mutual commitment to connect the unconnected.”

The test satellite is planned to be orbited on a SpaceX Falcon 9, alongside the latest group of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites.

SpaceX successfully launched 51 Starlink satellites last weekend, and this weekend sees two planned launches: not only Saturday’s from Cape Canaveral, but also one from Vandenberg, California, on Sunday evening. And there will be yet another on Monday, again from Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX has a messaging-from-space plan with Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile US, that might be expanded to provide voice, the companies said in August.

If the BlueWalker 3 launch is successful, AST SpaceMobile plans to start tests with mobile network operators on six continents, it said last night.

“The start of the BlueWalker 3 mission is a major step forward to provide space-based cellular broadband,” said Avellan.

The Saturday launch is scheduled for 23:51 UTC (19:51 in Florida and the east coast of the US, 01:51 on Sunday in most of Europe). It will be shown on AST SpaceMobile’s YouTube channel.

The company said the actual date BlueWalker 3 reaches orbit remains subject to change.

At 64 square metres, the phased array on BlueWalker 3 will be the largest commercial communications array ever deployed to low Earth orbit (LEO), said AST SpaceMobile.

This large array of antennas is designed to connect directly to existing mobile phones from a much longer distance than traditional cell towers, said AST SpaceMobile, which added that it has a portfolio of more than 2,400 patent- and patent-pending claims supporting its cellular broadband technology.