What just happened? AST SpaceMobile has completed a crucial step in testing its space-based cellular broadband network. Back in September, the Texas-based satellite designer and manufacturer launched its BlueWalker 3 (BW3) test satellite into orbit. This week, the team successfully deployed the satellite's communications array.

According to AST SpaceMobile, BW3 is the largest-ever commercial communications array deployed in low Earth orbit. Fully unfurled, it spans 693 square feet and is expected to have a field of view of more than 300,000 square miles of the Earth's surface. The satellite circles our planet roughly every 90 minutes.

Solar cells on the backside of the panel will collect energy and on the opposite side, small antennas form a phased array to create tight communications beams. The company said these beams are an efficient way to push a strong signal far away, like from space to Earth. It is also reportedly capable of "hearing" feeble cell phone signals from hundreds of miles away.

AST SpaceMobile was founded in 2017 and went public in the summer of 2021. The company has amassed a portfolio of more than 2,400 patent and patent-pending claims to support its space-based cellular network. BW3 is designed to communicate directly with ordinary mobile phones via 3GPP standard frequencies at 5G speeds.

The startup aims to conduct direct-to-cell phone testing on all six inhabited continents and claims to have agreements and understandings in place with more than 25 mobile network operators including Vodafone and Orange.

"The successful unfolding of BlueWalker 3 is a major step forward for our patented space-based cellular broadband technology and paves the way for the ongoing production of our BlueBird satellites," said Abel Avellan, chairman and CEO of AST SpaceMobile.

BlueBirds are even larger versions of BW3 that are in development. Eventually, 168 of them will create a constellation to blanket the planet with connectivity.

Shares in AST SpaceMobile are trading down more than four percent as of writing on the news.

AST SpaceMobile is just one of several companies racing to create space-based communications systems for mainstream consumers. The offerings are appealing on paper but not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of further littering Earth's orbit with space debris. Last year, Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding launched Privateer Space to help tackle the growing problem.