Brian Barnett, president and CEO of Solstar, shows his Schmitt Space Communicator, a device to provide internet and wireless phone service on space vehicles, in 2018. (Greg Sorber/Journal)
When the first leg of NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station begins orbiting the moon in 2024, an onboard wireless access system will provide continuous internet connectivity, courtesy of New Mexico’s Solstar Space Co.
Northrop Grumman Corp. subcontracted Solstar in July to supply the wireless-enabling technology to create a Wi-Fi “hotspot” on NASA’s Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO, which will launch in 2024 as the first stage of the moon station. Northrop Grumman is building the HALO module under a $935 million contract awarded by NASA last year as part of its Gateway project to create a permanent, orbiting space station to support long-term human exploration of the lunar surface and deep space.
“It’s meant to be a hotel for astronauts, a jumping-off point to go down to the lunar surface,” Solstar founder and CEO Brian Barnett told the Journal. “Our system will be mounted inside the HALO module to provide Wi-Fi inside and outside of the space station.”
It’s the biggest contract won to date by Solstar, which launched in 2017 to create permanent, 24/7 internet and phone connections between Earth and space vehicles as the 21st century race-to-space gains momentum.
The company is building two sets of communications technology, including its “wireless access points” system to create Wi-Fi hotspots in space, plus space-based communication routers that can be mounted on any rocket, satellite or other space vehicle to provide direct Internet and phone connectivity with Earth.
Solstar already proved the functionality of its direct-communications system in 2018, after sending its first prototype into suborbit two times on test flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft in West Texas. That original prototype — dubbed the Schmitt Space Communicator in honor of Apollo 17 moonwalker Harrison Schmitt — is now at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to exhibit the world’s first commercial space internet and phone-service technology.
Solstar is now building a next-generation Deke Space Communicator, named after late astronaut Deke Slayton, for commercial launch in 18-24 months.
“The Deke communicator will be much more hardy and robust for sustainable deployment in space,” Barnett said.
The wireless access system, meanwhile, will offer continuous connectivity for Internet communications in targeted locations like the Lunar Gateway, said Solstar co-founder Mark Matossian.
“It will provide a Wi-Fi network for connectivity that will support astronaut communications with ground control, the lunar surface and spacecraft, while also supporting payload integration, experiments and more,” Matossian said in a statement. “It will securely connect Wi-Fi-enabled components including computers and (Internet of Things) sensors, creating a collection of space-based networked devices.”
Future, space-hardened units could also be developed for operations directly on the moon’s surface.
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The wireless access system is currently in the design phase.
“Once we choose a final design, we’ll start building it for delivery in 2023,” Barnett said.
The company has raised about $2 million from private investors, and through WeFunder crowdfunding campaigns. It employs about 20 people, with offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, plus a new location it opened this week in Boulder, Colo.
This spring, Microsoft invited Solstar to partner with it to integrate Solstar communications technology with Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform, said Solstar Director of Cyber Operations Ian Kelly.
“They’ve offered us a lot of assistance, including free cloud-computing resources and access to their internal research teams,” Kelly told the Journal. “They want to get into the space cloud-computing business and they need companies like ours to mutually leverage resources. … It’s a win-win partnership, for both Microsoft and for us.”