Science

Cheap, small-scale satellites are being developed for commercial use and deployed in a fraction of the time it takes cautious government agencies. By Kimberley Thomson.

Private CubeSat start-ups join the space race

The first set of Planet Labs’ small “Dove” satellites, centre, being launched from the International Space Station early this year.
Credit: NANORACKS

On the morning of June 21, 2004, in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, the dynamics of the space industry were altered forever. Self-trained pilot Mike Melvill flew the first private vehicle – SpaceShipOne – into space. Upon touchdown, Melvill had become the first non-governmental astronaut. The idea that space innovation could be separated from the sticky yolk of government backing was now tangible. 

A heavy blow was dealt to the private space sector when SpaceShipOne’s successor, the Richard Branson-backed SpaceShipTwo, met a fiery fate on October 31 this year, breaking up midflight and killing one of its pilots. The fatal crash is a reminder of the risks involved in commercial space ventures. The CEO of Virgin Galactic, George Whitesides, fronted the press soon after the incident, stating in tragically simple terms: “Space is hard.” But this fact is not deterring a wave of enterprising, young space companies from entering the market. 

Space start-ups around the world are harnessing an unabashed Silicon Valley mentality. They pride themselves on small staff cohorts, cheap technology and quick deployment, factors that would traditionally make NASA gag at the mere mention. 

But for now, start-ups are leaving human space travel to the multibillionaires. Instead, they hope to solve smaller, more immediate problems faced by those on earth. 

“Our goal is to fly,” says Tim Parsons, CEO of the Delta-V Space Accelerator, an initiative founded in Sydney earlier this year and dedicated to helping start-ups get their technology into space quickly. Australia remains a small-time player in the global space market – we are the largest economy in the world without a space agency – but Parsons belongs to a small vanguard of local space start-ups hoping to accelerate Australian access to space. 

“In the dotcom industry we talk about the hacker, the hipster and the hustler,” says Parsons, “You have to have those three things: the technical person, the commercial person and the marketing person have to be together to make it work.” With a PhD in aerospace, an exhausting list of strategic marketing roles to his name, and a sense of fervent enthusiasm, Parsons could rightly qualify for all three of those titles. But at the helm of Delta-V he plays hustler. His aim: to build “an entirely new ecosystem” for Australian space.

“Hang on,” he says, swinging his laptop around the Kuala Lumpur hotel room. The Skype connection is flickering. “That’s better.” Speaking with the rapid cadence expected of someone with a 20-year background in digital tech business, Parsons is explaining the industry shift to start-up culture, commonly dubbed “Space 2.0”. “Really,” he says, “it’s about miniaturisation.”

He flicks through presentation slides aimed at exciting Malaysian business clients, settling on a page showing four satellites in descending size order. On the left, a hulking, traditional construction. “Two-point-eight tonnes,” Parsons says, “and it probably took five or eight years to build … But it would have a failure rate of almost zero.” 

“On the right-hand side,” he says, pointing to a satellite that is minuscule, the size of a loaf of bread, “that project probably took about six months, with a failure rate of almost 50 per cent.” It is marked simply “Dove”.

In February this year, San Francisco-based company Planet Labs launched its first “flock” of Doves from the International Space Station. These loaf-sized satellites – generically known as CubeSats – are estimated to be 95 per cent cheaper than large satellites, and are built from parts commonly used in smartphones and laptops. Every 90 minutes, Planet Labs’ satellite flock sends a stream of images down to Earth, providing a much more expansive iteration of previous space-imaging technology. Currently, an image you see on Google Earth can be up to three years old. 

The data is set to be used for a host of purposes: tracking disasters and environmental shifts, agricultural analysis, and for insurance companies to validate claims of damaged property. One of Planet Labs’ current goals is to count every tree on Earth by next year. 

The company is just one example of a lean space start-up putting serious pressure on traditional paradigms. In June, a start-up working with similar satellite technology, Skybox Imaging, was acquired by Google for $US500 million. 

On home soil, the Australian government spends about $1 billion on space yearly, which sounds impressive but is tempered by the knowledge that Australia is still not self-sufficient in space. Countries such as Japan and the US allow Australia to use their space data, leaving our country vulnerable to their decision-making and priorities. The ongoing federal government approach has garnered criticism for being a passive strategy, lacking consolidation and a focus on independent innovation.

In April last year, Australia released its first space policy, pledging a $40 million investment into research. Talks of a New South Wales “Space Industry Precinct” were also on the table, but were eventually dropped. 

“Forty million is a drop in the bucket in this industry,” says Jason Held, director of Saber Astronautics, a start-up split between Sydney and Held’s native Colorado. The plucky American was not deterred by the government cancellation. He continued conversations between space centres at the University of NSW and Sydney University, recruited a second start-up, Launchbox, and hired Tim Parsons as CEO. With the support of the NSW government, Delta-V was founded in March this year.

On the ground, the Delta-V Sydney hub will ultimately include a workspace, resources such as 3-D printers and circuit-board makers, and facilitate a mentor program. Currently, Parsons explains, Australian companies that want to go into space have to start from the ground up. “Every company is building their own CubeSats. It’s taking too long.” Delta-V will provide a “multi-tenant platform”, meaning several companies can launch their technology into space simultaneously, on a single craft. Delta-V will employ the start-up-favoured “fail fast” mentality. And Parsons means extremely fast. Ideally, Delta-V will launch every three months. 

The CEO of Launchbox, Flavia Tata Nardini, says Delta-V will help her company navigate bureaucratic issues. Originally from Italy, with a background in rocket science, Tata Nardini was alarmed when she arrived in Australia to find such a small space industry. “It was complicated to find anything related to what I do in Australia. It was a bit of a shock to me.”

In part a reaction to a lack of professional opportunities, she helped found Launchbox, an education-focused start-up enabling school students to launch their own prototype satellites into space. “Delta-V has got a very critical role,” she says. “We are thinking of changing the world here. We need support, we need help, we need feedback, we need validation.”

Saber Astronautics develops spacecraft systems that can automatically repair themselves if damaged – technology that seems increasingly important in light of recent craft failure. Among the start-up’s success, in March, Saber secured government funding for an India–Australia space partnership that has already yielded impressive results.

Parsons says international collaboration is vital if Australia is to capitalise on the booming markets of its regional neighbours. Over the next few years it is predicted the Asia-Pacific region will outstrip the United States in demand for satellite technology. The growing middle class across Asia is allowing governments – India, Indonesia, Malaysia – the economic liberty to spend on space. Instead of waiting for a grant from NASA, says Parsons from his KL hotel room, “We’re actually going to find customers in our backyard and prove that we can deliver real value, a real positive outcome to people who have problems that we think space can solve.”

The world is not ignoring the region’s massive growth. It was announced last month that Adelaide will host the 2017 International Astronautical Conference, the world’s largest congregation of space industry delegates. The conference will be a vital platform for all Australian space activities. And if Delta-V can successfully deliver on its acceleration program (its first launch is slated for next November), the conference may provide a perfect stage for start-up validation. 

The plight of SpaceShipTwo overshadowed another critical space mishap that occurred a few days earlier: the explosion of an unmanned cargo rocket built by Orbital Sciences. Bound for the International Space Station, the craft was carrying among its 2000 kilograms of cargo many privately owned small satellites, including almost 30 Planet Labs Doves. A regrettable setback for the start-ups involved, the crash will presumably not sit well with risk-averse investors. In the wake of fatality and technological failure, we mustn’t forget that space is hard. Time will tell if, buoyed by fierce entrepreneurial optimism, Delta-V can make it any easier.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 22, 2014 as "Satellite of Dove". Subscribe here.

Kimberley Thomson
is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

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