SAN FRANCISCO – Shey Sabripour was first exposed to active phased array antennas while designing satellites at Lockheed Martin in the early 1990s.
At the time, engineers spent three to five years building a geostationary communications satellite that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to perform a specific job. If that job was broadcasting television programming to the United States, the satellite’s fixed beams offered coverage in the shape of the U.S. map.
High-end military satellites with active phased arrays were far more flexible. Operators could steer beams electronically, modify power levels to address changing demand and even move a satellite to a different orbit to fulfill a new mission.
“I thought, ‘Why aren’t we building all communication satellites around active phased arrays,’” Sabripour told SpaceNews. “We should be able to have lots of beams we can put where the customers are. When the business plan changes, just go ahead and change the beams.”
For the next 25 years, Sabripour watched as the cost of phased array technology dropped and the entrepreneurial space sector blossomed. “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” he said.
Dramatic improvements in semiconductor technology produced inexpensive, radiation tolerant chips, meaning the cost of active phased arrays, which require considerable numbers of amplifiers and beamformers, was falling as well.
Sabripour was tempted to form his own company in the late 1990s, just before the dot-com bubble burst and low Earth orbit telecommunications constellations like Iridium, Globalstar and Teledesic struggled.
“I stayed at Lockheed Martin,” Sabripour said.
Finally in 2017, after spending three years as chief technology officer for launch vehicle developer Firefly Space Systems, predecessor to Firefly Aerospace, Sabripour founded CesiumAstro in Austin, Texas, with the goal of making phased arrays as ubiquitous as he envisioned decades earlier.
“If there was ever a time for this technology, it’s now,” Sabripour said. “There’s more demand on spectrum and low Earth orbit constellation require phased array technologies.”
In late November, CesiumAstro raised $15 million in an investment round led by Airbus Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.
CesiumAstro has raised $29.2 million to date to establish its business of selling phased array communications and radio frequency sensing payloads for government and commercial customers including the Aerospace Corp., Airbus, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Innovation Unit, Honeywell, NASA, Northrop Grumman, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Navy.
“One of the pillars of the company is providing the full stack a payload requires,” Sabripour said. “We want it to work right out of a box, where all you should need is a high-speed data cable to steer your beams.”
CesiumAstro plans to offer Lego-like building blocks for full-stack phased arrays in frequencies from L-band to V-band. The company has built, qualified and begun shipping its first-generation S-band products with the Ka-band products scheduled to ship in the spring of 2021.
With the latest funding, CesiumAstro plans to launch two cubesats to prove its technology in space and to expand the number of frequencies it offers customers.
In addition, CesiumAstro plans to expand its workforce from the current level of about 60 employees to 100 people by late 2021. In addition, CesiumAstro plans to establish a new facility.
The company established a second office in Broomfield, Colorado, in May to build end-to-end cubesat missions for customers. CesiumAstro also is preparing to open a design center for radio frequency payloads in El Segundo, California, in early 2021.