If the speakers and panelists at this year’s SATCON Conference were to be believed, reports about the death of satellite have been grossly exaggerated. In fact, it seems that the future for satellite is brighter than it ever has been.
Some background – last week I had the opportunity to attend SATCON, one of the year’s largest satellite conferences that takes place as part of the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) Content and Communications World (CCW) event. The conference brought COMSATCOM providers, manufacturers of spacecraft and ground terminals and even government decision makers together to look at the major trends and challenges impacting the satellite industry today.
One of the largest trends – and a reason for so much excitement – was new space, which dominated a large portion of the overall conversation at the conference and also had its own panel discussion entitled, “The Real Potential of New Space.”
What is new space?
As defined by Bob Shuman, the Vice President of Business Development at Kymeta Corporation, “New space is high throughput, it’s LEOs, it’s really the creativity and the expansion of this business towards what’s needed to serve the commercial world.”
The commercial satellite industry has been in existence for over four decades. So why now? How have the stars suddenly aligned to enable this type of rapid innovation and growth in the satellite industry?
Ultimately, a handful of ongoing trends and advancements have given birth to an environment of unparalleled opportunity and innovation in space. Between advancements in technology and easier access to space, a new generation of satellite and space flight startups are being born that have the potential to truly revolutionize the industry.
The largest factor driving this exciting growth and opportunity is the removal of the two largest barriers to space – launch and equipment cost.
The emergence of the commercial space flight industry has ushered in a new world of opportunity for satellite companies and startups. These commercial space flight companies exist to deliver previously unheard of access to space to enterprises by both reducing the cost for launch and increasing the convenience. By reducing the cost of launch and making launch easier and more convenient, access to space – by far one of the largest challenges for emerging satellite companies – improves.
According to Chuck Beams, the President of Vulcan Aerospace, “The barrier to entry to space has been – for a long time – launch and launch costs. That has been the thing that has held back the ability to really commercialize space and move the ball forward. That’s what Vulcan Aerospace is about – revolutionizing space transportation, getting cost to LEO ridiculously cheap and the convenience really high.”
But the cost of launch wasn’t the only expense hindering satellite startups and emerging companies. The other was satellite manufacturing and equipment costs – another area where new technologies are causing monumental shifts and delivering steep cost savings.
In the past, satellites were custom built spacecraft that could take years to design and manufacture at significant cost to the purchaser. When coupled with launch costs, the cost to build satellites made entering the satellite industry almost impossible for organizations without extremely deep pockets. But that’s changing.
The technological advancement in satellites themselves was summed up by Bryan McGuirk, the Chief Operating Officer of ViviSat LLC, when he said, “The first satellite that I was involved in launching was a 386 computer. We’ve come a long way. The miniature computing power, the manufacturing approach – that even legacy manufacturers are looking at – where it’s not a piece of bus that has to be redundant – these are different models of survivability that are driving sustainability. And there are new paths to space. The combination of all of those things has created an economic box that is attractive and good for the overall satellite industry.”
In the past, high launch costs impacted the kinds of satellites that companies purchased. With launch costs declining, the size and complexity of satellites is declining as well. This is opening the door to a new generation of mass-produced satellites that are available practically as “off the shelf” products and not as custom-built spacecraft. The reduced launch costs also makes it feasible for a more “disposable” approach to satellites.
Chuck Beams compared this technological advancement to what was witnessed in the desktop computer market over the previous decades. According to Chuck, “It’s staggering what a satellite is able to do in terms of onboard processing. And – again – unless you absolutely have to have a large aperture, Moore’s Law continues unabated. And – because of that – no longer does it make sense to design satellites to last 15 years. The rate of change and improvement in the capability outpaces. The smart thing is to replace every two years and go single string as much as you can on a satellite design. Especially with the low launch cost that we will provide.”
So what does this all mean?
It means more access to LEO and MEO. It means lower cost and barrier to entry for startups and emerging companies. It means more innovation and a more “Silicon Valley” approach to satellite and space than we’ve ever seen before. This means new and exciting services, such as those offered by ViviSat – a startup company that will be using satellites for extending the mission of existing GEO satellites through docking and flying as a joint stack.
Coupled with the emergence of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) – another hot topic at this year’s SATCON – it means a glut of new, lower cost bandwidth available in space from HTS GEO, LEO and MEO satellites. This overwhelming supply of bandwidth can go a long way towards meeting the world’s exponentially increasing demand for connectivity and usher in an age where satellite connects everyone – even those in developing nations.
This sentiment was echoed by Kymeta Corporation’s Bob Shuman when he said, “Satellite is now usable for moving things at high bandwidth. The Internet of things (IOT) has huge demand outside of cities. Let’s talk about machine-to-machine. There’s a huge market for telemetry. Why not have satellite do this? It can get anywhere. It can get there quickly. It can be setup easily and the services are broadening that the satellite operators and service providers are offering. Why not?”
But new space isn’t all positives. The emergence of this next generation of satellite startup comes with its own set of challenges and concerns. In my next article, I’ll share some of the discussions at SatCon that centered around the challenges and problems that can emerge from new space.