Understanding the opportunities available in the space industry — especially for early-stage companies and new founders — isn’t easy.
The pool of people who have deep aerospace technical expertise isn’t huge, and like any community that requires a high degree of specialist knowledge, it’s a tightly-knit field that relies on social connections. But space is increasingly opening up, and we’ve already reached a point where the most valuable new entrants might come from industries that aren’t specifically aerospace or aerospace-adjacent.
In fact, we could be reaching a stage where the parts of the space industry requiring actual rocket scientists are more or less saturated, while the real boon is set to come from crossover talent that develops new ways to leverage innovations in other areas on space-based operating platforms.
“We have enough low-Earth launch vehicles, we have enough rockets,” Bessemer VP Tess Hatch told me in an interview at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference last month. “In 2020, we have even more coming online and a lot of the ‘fantasy’ ones [an industry term used to describe spacecraft that have been conceived and designed but not yet flown] are planning to launch, and I think maybe one of them will come to fruition.”
Hatch says she still sees much of the demand side of the industry cluster around existing and proven suppliers, even if new entrants, including Astra and Firefly, actually begin flying their rockets this year, as both have been planning. Companies like Rocket Lab (in which her company has a stake) will increase their volume and cadence and benefit from having a proven track record, taking up a lot of the growth in launch vehicle demand. “I don’t think there’s room for any more rockets in the industry,” she said.
Instead, Hatch is looking to payload variety and innovation as the next big thing in space tech. Satellites are becoming increasingly commoditized, and companies like Rocket Lab are looking to take this further by providing a satellite platform (Proton) as part of its launch offering. There’s still immaturity in the small-satellite supply chain, which is what led small-satellite operator Kepler to build its own, but the bigger opportunity isn’t in building satellites — it’s in equipping them with new, improved and radically redesigned sensors to gather new kinds of data and provide new kinds of services.
One of the various companies looking to deploy a globe-spanning broadband internet satellite constellation is adding 34 satellites to its existing operations in space. OneWeb will launch that many satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan with a liftoff time set for 4:42 PM EST (1:32 PM PST) today. The new satellites will join OneWeb’s six already in orbit, which launched last February.
In total, OneWeb hopes to eventually operate at least 650 satellites in low Earth orbit, the combined network of which will be used to provide internet service to customers on the ground. Launch provider Arianespace will be flying as many as 19 more missions on behalf of OneWeb to fill out its constellation goals between now and the end of 2021, and will look to begin offering connectivity in a pilot testing capacity by sometime later this year, with full commercial service coming online next year, too.
OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in funding last year, raising its total overall funding to $3.4 billion, to help cover the cost of their mass manufacturing and deployment phase; a significant portion of its funding has come from SoftBank. This launch will put it in good stead to begin its first tests later this year, but the competition for constellation-based broadband internet service is intensifying, with SpaceX already having put up 240 satellites for its own Starlink project, with a lot more launches of 60 satellites each set for this year. SpaceX, of course, is also its own launch provider, which simplifies delivery.
Meanwhile, Amazon is undertaking a similar project, currently codenamed “Kuiper,” but it has yet to begin putting any hardware in orbit for its endeavor. OneWeb is targeting maritime, aviation, enterprise and government customers — as are other smaller startup companies, like Swarm Technologies and Kepler. Speed to market is definitely a factor as these operators begin to come online, but the potential market is massive and spans multiple industries, so there will likely be more than one winner when this ultimately shakes out.
OneWeb’s launch will be available closer to launch time via the YouTube stream above, so check back for updates.
Satellite communications startup Kepler will manufacture its small satellites going forward at a new 5,000-square foot facility in Toronto, Ontario, Canada . The company is working with partners including the Canadian Space Agency and the University of Toronto on the new facility, which will also incorporate design and development of its satellites in addition to manufacturing.
Already, Kepler operates two satellites currently in orbit, and has demonstrated the capabilities of its technology by delivering a high-speed internet data connection to the North Pole for the first time late last year. These spacecraft were designed by Kepler, but manufactured via third-party’s through contracting agreements. With the new facility, Kepler says it’ll be able to “vertically integrate the development, production and testing of its future spacecraft.”
This will help the startup achieve its goal of producing, launching and operating a constellation of 140 satellites in total, which will provide high-bandwidth connectivity aimed fo ruse in a range of industries including agriculture, transportation and maritime shipping and logistics, to name a few. This new in-house facility will support mass production of the small satellites it requires to build out its fleets, while providing cost benefits vs. outsourcing over time.
The small satellite industry is one of the parts of commercial space that has seen the biggest increase in demand, especially since relatively affordable launch vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 have expanded the pool of potential companies building and operating satellites and constellations. Bringing satellite manufacturing in-house puts Kepler in rare company as one of the few small sat companies that owns the whole stack, which should be a big competitive advantage relative to the market going forward.
In terms of when the facility will be putting out satellites that Kepler plans to actually launch, the company currently plans to launch its final demonstration satellite, which is already built under its prior contractor arrangement, this spring. Then, it intends to launch the first commercial satellites produced by this new facility starting this summer, with an additional two launches planned for later in the year.