BlueWalker 3 satellite unfurls biggest commercial communications array ever

sun shines over solar panels with black of space in behind
AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 satellite deployed the largest commercial communications array ever in low Earth orbit on Nov. 14, 2022. (Image credit: AST SpaceMobile)

A record-breaking communication array just unfurled in space.

AST SpaceMobile announced on Monday (Nov. 14) that its prototype BlueWalker 3 satellite had deployed its array. The milestone comes about two months after BlueWalker 3 launched to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, along with a set of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites

AST SpaceMobile bills BlueWalker 3's gear as the largest commercial communications array ever deployed in low Earth orbit; its area is 693 square feet (64 square meters), or roughly the size of a small apartment. 

Related: SpaceX and OneWeb tell FCC their broadband megaconstellations can coexist

That large size is needed to test the space-based cellular broadband service that AST SpaceMobile wants to deliver. The company is engaged in an ongoing race for direct-to-cellphone service that also involves SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon, to name a few of the more prominent examples.

"Every person should have the right to access cellular broadband, regardless of where they live or work. Our goal is to close the connectivity gaps that negatively impact billions of lives around the world," Abel Avellan, chair and CEO of AST SpaceMobile, said in a statement (opens in new tab) on Monday (Nov. 14).

BlueWalker 3 is a pathfinder for AST SpaceMobile's planned "Bluebird" satellites, which will use similarly large arrays to interface with mobile phones directly. Some astronomers have said the size of each array could contribute to light pollution issues in orbit — concerns that have also been voiced about megaconstellations such as SpaceX's Starlink, which consists of more than 3,200 spacecraft and continues to grow. (In 2020, NASA raised concerns that AST SpaceMobile satellites could add to the ever-growing risk of collisions in orbit, too.)

More than 100 Bluebird satellites are expected to be aloft by 2024. Astronomers with the Vera Rubin Observatory and the International Astronomical Union have been among those raising alarms about the constellation's potential effect on dark sky observing, Sky&Telescope reported (opens in new tab) in September. New Scientist (opens in new tab) added that the BlueWalker 3 test satellite could even outshine the brightest planet (Venus) in Earth's night sky. 

"While other constellations may require thousands of satellites — there could be as many as 58,000 in orbit by 2030, according to a recent US government report — we plan to provide substantial global coverage with a network of 168 or fewer satellites," Scott Wisniewski, chief strategy officer for AST SpaceMobile, said in a Wednesday (Nov. 16) statement to Space.com.

AST SpaceMobile emphasized that there are other benefits to the constellation that will be accruing to remote populations. "Our planned network is designed to support a universal good," Wisniewski said in the statement. "Cellular broadband for more people globally would help ease poverty, support economic development, build a more equitable and diverse digital society, and save lives. The network we’re building could connect hundreds of millions of devices around the world."

In the hours after its deployment, BlueWalker 3 was easily spotted in a set of Portuguese meteor cameras, one astronomer reported on Twitter, and other scientists have been chiming in with their own concerns.

Related: Challenge for astronomy: Megaconstellations becoming the new light pollution

See more
See more
See more

In the next few months, AST SpaceMobile will begin a test program across six continents with several network operators (such as Vodafone), provided it continues to secure the necessary regulatory approvals, company representatives said in the release.

Other mobile network operators in the program include, but are not limited to, Rakuten Mobile, AT&T, Bell Canada, Telecom Argentina, Africell, Liberty Latin America and Orange, spanning a potential 1.8 billion existing subscribers, AST SpaceMobile added.

Other companies are hopping on board the cellular space trend, with Lynk planning to test an experimental 5G cellular base station as soon as December, if earlier predictions from October come to fruition. Lynk has an approved plan from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test this out. Its largest competitor, SpaceX, has an agreement in principle with T-Mobile that was announced this summer, despite not having yet secured FCC approval.

This story was updated Wednesday, Nov. 16 with new comments from AST SpaceMobile.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace