Santa Fe startup calls Wi-Fi space launch test a success

The Blue Origin New Shepard crew capsule, with the Solstar and other payloads aboard, floats to a landing Wednesday near the launch site in Van Horn, Texas. Courtesy Image/Blue Origin.

The Santa Fe startup tech firm working to bring commercial Wi-Fi to space successfully completed a second test of its system Wednesday.

Solstar Space Co. tweeted a message from the New Shepard crew capsule just after it reached its highest point above West Texas, 73.8 miles above sea level and 34,000 feet higher than the previous test flight in April.

“What a view of Planet Earth,” the company tweeted, using the Wi-Fi connection. “Brought to you live from Space — this tweet from Solstar’s Space Communicator on board #NewShepard! Connecting People and Things in Space to Earth #WiFiInSpace.”

“It was well into space and it worked great,” Solstar CEO M. Brian Barnett said after the flight, launched from a site about 100 miles east of El Paso.

Solstar flew its payload, one of several onboard the capsule, atop a reusable rocket created by commercial spaceflight company Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.

The flight, primarily intended to test an emergency escape system for the crew capsule, lasted a little longer than 11 minutes.

Barnett said the flight offered an opportunity to test the Solstar Schmitt Space Communicator, a form of router, under extreme conditions. The escape system test involved separating the capsule in space from the booster and firing a rocket motor to stabilize the capsule before it fell back to the launch area under parachutes.

The escape engine, which generates 70,000 pounds of thrust, propelled the capsule higher than it’s been on previous flights, according to Blue Origin.

“We volunteered to be on this mission because we knew it would be an extreme test for our equipment,” Barnett said. “Everything worked out pretty well. The stars aligned.”

Barnett said the company is working toward viable commercial Wi-Fi technology for space-based users within two years. Solstar, a privately held company, opened up to outside investors through a campaign to raise $1 million by December. The campaign, which began July 11, had raised $21,182 as of Wednesday.

Wi-Fi in space is a technically challenging proposition because of the speeds and distances that space vehicles travel and the forces imposed upon them. The International Space Station has an internet connection described as slow, but that service is provided by NASA for its exclusive use.

The New Shepard capsule flew from the Blue Origin facility near Van Horn, Texas. Also aboard the flight was an experiment from Johns Hopkins University to monitor magnetic fields and the ambient pressure inside the capsule, equipment designed by Controlled Dynamics to isolate sensitive payloads from vibrations, and an assortment of textiles and medical and scientific equipment designed by mu Space Corp. of Thailand.

NASA, which flew its own payload to collect spaceflight data, also funded the cost to fly some of the other payloads through its Flight Opportunities Program.

Some of those payload providers could become future Solstar customers, Barnett said. A commercial Wi-Fi connection of the type he envisions would provide service to commercial space vehicles via a satellite network already in place.

“Many of them are very interested in being able to interact with their payload during the flight,” he said. “We’re just hearing that over and over again.”