Space is (no longer) the El Dorado of billionaires. Now, space agencies and private companies are teaming up to put nanosatellites into orbit for companies and even individuals.
A balloon in space
A catastrophe at Cape Canaveral: Zuma disappeared. The spy satellite, launched by SpaceX on January 7, never reached its intended orbit, and no one could explain why. Some in the media spoke of a separation problem with the launcher. Elon Musk’s company, for its part, chose to exonerate itself. And if the billionaire himself remains silent, it’s because Zuma – about which nothing is known publicly, except that its client is the American defense giant Northrop Grumman – cost more than a billion dollars. Implicitly, it represents the first failure in the global trend of sending a plethora of satellites into orbit – without actually publicly announcing why. And everyone is getting involved, professionals and individuals alike.
“When I was a student, I put a camera in a helium balloon that we launched into the stratosphere. It took high-definition snapshots of Earth viewed from the sky. It cost us a hundred euros. I immediately wondered, how could we adapt that to satellites?” Rafael Jordà-Siquer wondered years ago, then a student in Barcelona. His school years now seem long past. After having spent time with Airbus, Jordà-Siquer today is considered one of the most promising young entrepreneurs in Great Britain. In 2015, he founded Open Cosmos, which since then has received a significant financial boost by the startup incubator Entrepreneurs First. And he’s got a big vision.
Behind the startup is an ambitious theme: for about $700,000, to allow anyone to launch 45 pounds of material into space in under a year – while traditionally, something like that would take four years and $7 million. Open Cosmos, then, seems to be performing miracles. What’s more, the company doesn’t rush the work: from mission simulations to spacious internal spaceship designs, everything works. The secret to its efficiency is in the normalization of its interfaces, which simplify missions and skim off costly and superfluous elements.
But above all, there is one particular innovation, one which answers Jordà-Siquer’s schoolboy question: the nanosatellite, called CubeSat, created in 1999. As its name implies, it’s a miniaturization of classic satellites. And that directly serves the interests of Open Cosmos, because the primary goal of these little objects is to vastly reduce launch costs, which vary depending on the mass of the object being sent into orbit and still require a considerable budget. In 2014, the price to put 2.2 pounds into low orbit varied between $10,000 and $15,000. While a “traditional” satellite weighs between one and six tons, a nanosatellite comes in below 22 pounds – the calculation is brilliant, reducing several billion to several thousand.
With the startup established and the technology mastered, only one thing remained: demand. “It took a while before we got our first order,” Jordà-Siquer admits. But one beautiful day in 2017, “we found several researchers who wanted to send satellites into space to study them, as part of the QB50 Program,” he says. The goal of the mission, financed in part by the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme, was to launch a constellation of 40 CubeSats manufactured by universities around the globe into space, in order to open access to space and to encourage hands-on work study, but mostly to show that space belongs to everyone. “We designed one of the satellites that took off. It’s now in orbit and works perfectly. We’re proud of it. Especially since we built it in barely six months, when a mission usually needs six to seven years before it’s realized.”
This opened the floodgates for Open Cosmos. “Several entities have started contacting us to tell us, ‘Hey, I heard what you did with that satellite, could you do that for us?'” says Jordà-Siquer. “We were getting as many requests from the private sector as the public. That’s kind of interesting: once you bring the price down, people from all industries line up. We have a very eclectic address book.” And among the many applicants, the European Space Agency (ESA). Indeed.
May 30, 2017: in the form of an official press release, with a photograph of the exact moment of the signature, the ESA and Open Cosmos sealed their partnership under the banner ARTES. What was once a small startup had become the ESA’s primary supplier, whose $700,000-a-year nanosatellite launches brought a wave of attention.
Right away, the two entities sealed the union by announcing the impending launch of Project SAPION (Space Access Provider of Nanosatellites), a supplier for access to space through nanosatellites. All clients have to do is decide what to fire into space, and Open Cosmos takes care of all the logistics, including satellite construction, testing, frequency recording and launch procurement, as well as paperwork like insurance and export compliance.
The labyrinthine process is understandable. If a startup wants to democratize satellite launching, it needs to make it look easy, not like the swirling galaxy of problems it actually involves. Project SAPION could then make improvements across various sectors like remote sensing, for example, “to survey agriculture from space with an omniscient eye on climate change,” Jordà-Siquer explains. Besides that, telecommunications, public security, disaster relief and navigation services could also benefit from a boost from space.
If all that is finally possible, it’s thanks to Frank Salzberger.
Frank Salzberger is an engineer by trade. Nowadays he supervises the largest space entrepreneurship network in the world on behalf of the ESA. He and his team have effectuated more than 160 industrial transfers and invested more than $37 billion across 500 startups – including Open Cosmos – nested across 18 incubators. “In addition to the prestige of the ESA logo, the companies that we welcome to our incubators receive 50,000 euros; offices; and marketing, technical, and cultural support. That really helps them develop and achieve their goals,” he explains.
From a business perspective, it’s a godsend. “You want to meet with Total, Shell or Petronas? We’ve got their numbers. We’re like benevolent uncles with full wallets and address books,” he jokes. “But just be aware, we’re not a bank. We supply the initial funds, then as different projects progress, provide investment funds.”
Salzberger has a nose for potential. 86% of startups under his heading survive past their first four years. And yet he’s not satisfied: he believes that number is too high. “I think as an intergovernmental agency, we should be taking more risks and supporting more crazy ideas that are likely to fail,” he says. For him, the ESA’s goal is not simply to support projects that are guaranteed to succeed, but also to experiment – even unexpectedly. That kind of thinking made him and his team all but aliens in the ESA. “We want to be different, open-minded, curious. We’ve come a long way from the primary goal of the engineering profession, which is to avoid any probability of failure.” What Salzberger wants, basically, is to buck the system and to craft a more eccentric side to his employer.
To do it, who better to associate with than Open Cosmos, the only group exploiting the growing desire to make space an open space? The one problem, if there is one, is that “the cosmos end up getting overloaded,” Rafael Jordà-Siquer recognizes. Therefore, there will have to be some sort of regulation without betraying the initial promise of entertaining both public and private requests. Never fear: “Think how many planes fly every day in the sky. If you manage to coordinate them, you can avoid collisions no problem. It’s no different with satellites. The secret is to think of them as constellations.”
If everything seems in-bounds, then maybe Asgardia’s dream is as well? With or without Open Cosmos, the self-proclaimed nation that considers space its territory put its own satellite into orbit in December 2017. With a storage capacity of 0.5 TB, it contains the nation’s foundations, with its constitution “papers” and its 154,000 “citizens.” “It’s a first step, but it’s an important one in that it takes, virtually for time being, all the citizens of Asgardia into space,” says the nation’s spokesman. If the idea sounds cuckoo right now, who knows? Maybe 20 years from now, it’ll be real. After all, who would have ever believed that a common person could send their own satellite into orbit, after only six months of construction, pour $700,000?