Startups join Google, SpaceX and OneWeb to bring new technologies into space

<pre><pre>Startups join Google, SpaceX and OneWeb to bring new technologies into space

Space X CEO Elon Musk

Photo by Kevork Djansezian

American space exploration has long been a closed circle: there was only one customer, the United States government (NASA) and a handful of gigantic defense companies. Then, in 2008, Elon Musk's SpaceX launched the first privately funded rocket, Jeff Bezos & # 39; Blue Origin promised private flights, and space was suddenly a lively market with companies that tried to get satellites and people into it Bring orbit.

A decade later, hundreds of startups poured into the space sector and brought advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computers, phased array radar, space-based solar energy, "tiny" satellites and services that could not be imagined years ago.

Space Angels, an early-stage investor who also tracks investments in the sector, reported that venture capitalists invested $ 5 billion in space technologies in Bezos in the first three quarters of 2019. According to Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, investors have invested nearly $ 24 billion in 509 companies since 2009.

Anderson said that SpaceX not only triggered the transformation by offering NASA competition, but also released the prices for a launch. Before this unveiling, space was an opaque market that made it difficult for potential competitors to evaluate their products. "It was a really big decade for commercial space," said Anderson.

Most of the venture capital still goes into the most basic task: putting satellites into orbit. According to Anderson, 89 companies have received funds for so-called launchers for small elevators. These are companies that promise to carry payloads of up to 2,000 kilograms into near-Earth orbit. It focuses on a new generation of small satellites, such as those used by OneWeb and SpaceX's StarLink, that promise broadband Internet access even in the most remote parts of the world, using "constellations" of hundreds or even thousands of tiny satellites.

Satellites have become so widespread that you can now buy a 4-in standard. from 4-in. "cubesat" kit online. All of these activities could mean that 20,000 to 40,000 satellites will join the 1,000 satellites in orbit over the next few years. "It gets clogged up quickly," Anderson said of the small elevator market. SpaceX and Rocket Lab, based in New Zealand and Virginia, regularly launch from venture-backed rocket companies, although Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is scheduled to begin manned shuttle flights this year.

The sky is always full. Aside from the thousands of new satellites planned to launch, there is already a lot of clutter in space – up to 250,000 pieces of junk and debris orbiting the earth. To date, the U.S. Air Force has been instrumental in tracking debris and warning satellite operators of possible collisions. However, the military tracking radar can only detect parts with a diameter of at least 10 cm with some components from the Cold War. LeoLabs, a start-up based in Menlo Park, California, has developed an advanced radar system that can detect objects in an orbit only 2 cm long.

LeoLabs' kiwi space radar was launched in 2019 in Central Otago, New Zealand. It is the first in the world to detect space debris less than 10 cm in size.


A tiny object moving at several thousand miles an hour can seriously damage a satellite. With LeoLabs, customers can more easily track their small satellites and safely move them to a new position. "This will take many collision risks off the table," says founder and CEO Dan Ceperley. His company has built phased array radars at three locations that electronically steer the radar beam – faster than a conventional antenna – in Alaska, Texas and New Zealand. To date, LeoLabs has raised $ 17 million from venture funds, including Marc Bell Capital Partners, Seraphim Capital, and Space Angels.

Many of the 1,000 satellites that are now in orbit are watching Earth. They monitor the weather, humidity and temperature under dozens of other phenomena and capture millions of images. SkyWatch, headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, recently completed a $ 10 million round of financing led by Bullpen Capital in San Francisco to develop its service to make satellite data readily available to businesses.

SkyWatch would license and pay for subscription fees, and companies could use their software to build their own apps for tasks like tracking crops or assessing natural disaster damage. James Slifierz, CEO of SkyWatch, compares his timing with the consequences of creating the global positioning system infrastructure. As soon as GPS was available, civilian applications followed.

The increasing flow of data from satellites has raised concerns about data security. Singapore-based SpeQtral plans to create encryption keys based on quantum physics laws to protect space-to-earth communications. "The security of all communications is critical," said Chune Yang Lum, CEO of SpeQtral, who completed a $ 1.9 million launch round led by Space Capital, Space Angels' venture arm. Quantum encryption has been advertised as practically unbreakable.

A representation of the SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite using Arbitrarily Large Phased Array), which transfers energy to Australia. In the concept phase, this approach includes a number of huge platforms that are positioned in high Earth orbit in space to continuously collect solar energy and convert it into electricity.

SPS-ALPHA concept and illustration courtesy of John C. Mankins

Startups have no monopoly on the development of new space applications. Tech giant Google has been looking for ways to commercialize its growing expertise in artificial intelligence and its enormous computing power in the cloud. "We're working with some of our biggest and most transforming customers to create something epic," said Scott Penberthy, director of applied AI at Google Cloud.

He said Google Cloud has done a number of projects with NASA's Frontier Development Lab, including one that takes low-resolution photos and uses AI to combine them into one high-resolution image. Another suggestion from Google would enable navigation on the lunar surface (without GPS) by the AI ​​comparing the environment of an astronaut with photos of the moon from space.

NASA itself tries to benefit from the innovations of the startups. In December, NASA's Ames Research Center announced a contract with the Founders Institute, a renowned start-up accelerator, to make some of its technologies available to start-ups. In September 2019, the space agency announced that the latest round of its public-private tipping point program has distributed $ 43.2 million to 14 American companies whose technologies could contribute to NASA's plan for their Moon-Mars project. Participants include SpaceX, which will work on spaceship fueling nozzles, and Blue Canyon Technologies, a Denver startup that develops autonomous navigation systems that allow small satellites to maneuver without communicating with the "earth".

Over the past five years, NASA has awarded five groups of tipping point awards totaling over $ 120 million. Generally speaking, a company or project selected for a turning point award receives NASA funds up to a fixed amount, with the private side paying at least 25% of the total cost of the program. In this way, NASA can support the development of important space technologies and at the same time try to save the agency money.

Despite the money surge, not all space projects are easy to finance. John Mankins, a former NASA physicist, has long been an advocate of space-based solar energy. Satellites would capture solar energy, convert it into microwaves, and beam it down to Earth, where it would be converted into electricity. Mankins believes that such a system, which takes advantage of the latest technological advances, can supply electricity at competitive prices in regions of the world where electricity is expensive.

Mankins' company, Solar Space Technologies, has entered into a joint venture with an Australian company to seek financing for power supply to remote parts of Australia with minimal environmental impact. While the cost of space-based solar energy may have been prohibitive in the past, Dr. Michael Shara, an astrophysicist at the New York Museum of Natural History, "it will be really interesting" when the cost drops.

Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, said venture capitalists are reluctant to invest in space solar energy because they are large infrastructure projects. "They require significant investment and amortization is much longer than the typical 10-year term of a venture capital fund." Given increasing concerns about climate change and the rising cost of putting "things" in orbit, clean energy from space can become an attractive business proposition.

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