Ellipso, Inc. was founded to develop and launch communications satellite constellations situated in elliptical orbits. By placing the satellites in specific elliptical orbits closer to the Earth than geosychronous orbit (GEO), Ellipso hoped to offer lower cost satellite communications, including low cost voice, data, facsimile and geolocational services. For a time, things went quite well for Ellipso. Boeing and L-3 Communications designed and developed the satellites. Boeing was awarded a $1.4 billion contract to construct Ellipso’s satellites. Arianespace agreed to provide launch services for the would be 17 satellite constellation in addition to investing in the satellite company. Unfortunately, like other private satellite companies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ellipso ran out of money before it could get hardware to space and was forced into bankruptcy. In order to pay off its creditors, Ellipso’s assets are being sold off. In fact, Ellipso’s intellectual property portfolio is being auctioned off by IpAuctions this month!
Ellipso’s intellectual property portfolio consists of 21 patents, 1 patent application, and 2 US trademarks. The vast majority of the patents up for auction focus on novel ways of reducing the cost to operational orbit for communications satellites, avoiding transmission interference with other satellites, and providing satellite coverage analogous to the coverage provided by GEO satellites from elliptical orbits. Their most recently issued patent, 7,277,673, was granted in October 2007. It describes a way to create a “virtual GEO space.” A constellation of satellites would occupy elliptical orbits with apogees of a mere 27,000 km and perigees of 800 km and are arranged in a manner that mimics the “hovering” qualities of GEO satellites. Although more than one satellite is required to truly mimic the behavior of a single GEO satellite, the system disclosed in Ellipso’s patents does not require a rocket powerful enough to boost the satellites to a geosynchronous orbit of 35,800 km, which could result in significant launch cost savings.
Some of the patents offered for sale require the payment of maintenance fees in order to keep them active. Other patents, like Patent #6,263,188 (the ‘188 patent), are valid currently but the patent maintenance fee will be due within the year.
The ‘188 patent is another good example of Ellipso’s elliptical orbit-based communications satellite work. This patent, entitled “Elliptical Satellite System Which Emulates the Characteristics of Geosynchronous Satellites” (not a bad name for a patent), is directed toward an elliptical satellite system which emulates the behavior of GEO satellites. Satellites are placed in a specific elliptical orbit. Around apogee, the satellite is travelling at approximately the rotational speed of Earth and the satellite itself appears to hover above a single ground location. This “hovering portion” may last for several hours per orbit. This is precisely the behavior exhibited by satellites in geosynchronous orbits for the entirety of their orbits. In order to truly mimic the behavior of a GEO satellite, several satellites must be placed in similar elliptical orbits spaced in such a way that as one satellite leaves the hovering portion of its orbit another enters the hovering portion, providing constant satellite line of sight for the area above the point on Earth where the satellites appear to hover over. Due to the inclination of the orbits utilized in the ‘188 patent, ground-based antennae communicating with such an elliptical satellite system must be angled differently than traditional GEO satellite ground station antennae, reducing the possibility of interference with transmissions from GEO satellites.
A full listing of the available patents including links to their full text is available here.