In the first of three articles looking at the burgeoning Nano / Micro Satellite market, Corentin Guillo, Head of Missions at the Satellite Applications Catapult, explains how the ‘NewSpace’ concept has developed.
Constellations of Nano/Micro-Satellites are revolutionising how private organisations and individuals will exploit space. This paradigm shift is opening up new educational and commercial opportunities, but not without risk.
For decades now, the development and exploitation of satellite missions has been led by major multi-national companies backed by governmental and institutional organisations mainly focused on security or environmental purposes. As a result, only a handful of wealthy commercial organisations – such as in the energy or insurance sectors – could afford access to derived products or information.
With the arrival of applications such as Google Maps in 2005, and handheld devices like the iPhone in 2007, the exploitation of space assets for imagery, mobile telecommunications and navigation has been opened up to users that had previously not considered them valuable to their business.
Having spotted this trend, several companies are now developing innovative business models to capitalise upon it. Known as ‘NewSpace’, this new technology and market trend describes the new generation of space development, notably commercial, which is disrupting the dynamics of the Space sector.
NewSpace is a transition of the Space sector enabled by the ‘Commoditisation of Space Technology’ – the stage at which the technology is commercially available in off-the-shelf form, and/or when the knowledge or parts required to build the technology are freely available.
Commoditisation of Space Technology
The interesting thing about the commoditisation of space technology is that it affords all players a new solid foundation of common-denominator technology to build upon. Innovation can then move up to the next level of abstraction. Almost nobody builds their own satellite standard anymore – it doesn’t make sense to re-invent that wheel when there are several incredibly powerful, commoditised open source options. So everybody just uses them and innovates on top.
The two most relevant satellite standards are the well-established CubeSat and the emerging PocketQube.
The first one is a 10cm cube weighing 1.33kg. These specifications were defined in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University. Assembled in units containing 2, 3, 6, 12 etc individual cubes, CubeSats offer much greater capabilities and flexibility which positions them as ideal for commercial exploitation in opposition to their original technology demonstration or scientific aims. Although the smallest CubeSats still have limited capabilities, they represent a unique opportunity in term of learning curves to achieve quick access to space.
Indeed, since CubeSat are all 10x10cm regardless of length, they can all be launched and deployed as secondary payloads, using a common deployment system called a Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD).
These opportunities have been well captured by industrial organisations such as Clyde Space which has been providing components for almost half of the CubeSat missions built during the past decade; or launch services providers such as NanoRack1 which has launched more than 200 CubeSats from the International Space Station.
The second standard, PocketQube, is a 5cm cube with a mass of no more than 180g. Although its commercial exploitation is still very limited, it represents a fantastic tool for education. The Satellite Applications Catapult is currently using it as a framework to educate students on the new opportunities space is offering, by offering the opportunity to build a PocketQube satellite over a weekend.
To another extent, the commoditisation of space technology is also happening in the launchers market. Who hasn’t heard the recent attempt from Space X (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), a commercial launch provider created by Paypal’s founder Elon Musk, to land their heavy Falcon 9 first stage on a custom-build ocean platform? By re-using the first stage, Space X ambition is to break the $1,000 per pound launch cost barrier; in comparison to around $5,000 per pound of payload for an Ariane 5.
Other examples of companies, such as Rocket Lab, Firefly or Generation Orbit, are developing dedicated launch solutions to offer a fast, flexible and dedicated launch service for nano / micro-satellites in response to the fast-growing demand. The most notable aspect of these companies is not so much the price per pound, but the response to launch delays that small secondary payloads are experiencing. Indeed, the critical aspects of exploiting the commoditisation of space technology for developing missions in a few months, is to have quick access to space to hit the market first. Currently, nano / micro-satellites do not have viable and sustainable dedicated launch services, and they are offered only secondary payload options for launch services, making them dependent upon the primary payload development progress, or lack of.