The space and satellite industry continued to move at a rapid pace in 2021 — seeing more investment in both startups and new public companies, technological innovations, and blockbuster industry consolidation deals.
In this feature, Via Satellite rounds up 10 of the most impactful events covered during 2021, which will likely affect the industry well beyond 2022.
SPACs for Space
After years where only venture capital could invest in space startups, some New Space companies are now on the public markets after a rush of special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) mergers over the last two years.
SPAC, also known as a blank-check company, is less time consuming and comes with less scrutiny than the typical IPO process. SPACs were an infrequently used method of financing until 2020, and have only increased in popularity since then, both in space and in other industries. The SPAC wave kicked off in late 2020 as a few startups like Momentus and AST SpaceMobile announced their deals, but it reached a crescendo in 2021 as more established players like Rocket Lab, Planet, and Spire joined the fray. Now, retail investors can buy into the New Space excitement.
These deals came with eye-catching valuations — $4.1 billion for Rocket Lab, $2.8 billion for Planet — that some analysts questioned, especially when investor decks revealed actual revenue, or lack thereof. Most industry watchers see SPACs as an opportunity, but also note the high expectations these companies face to execute their bold growth projections to justify valuations — all while under the scrutiny of being a publicly traded company.
SpaceX, Now an Even Rarer Unicorn
In October, CNBC reported that SpaceX hit $100 billion in valuation, making the company a “centicorn” — a $1 billion unicorn, 100 times over. The news was clearly an intentional leak — SpaceX is a private company and not required to release financial information. But it represents just how powerful SpaceX has become, both in the space industry and private markets. This valuation was up from 33 percent from SpaceX’s from a $74 billion valuation in February 2020.
SpaceX has a constellation that serves about 100,000 users, the company is the most dominant launcher, it transports astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and it is developing the rocket that is set to return astronauts to the Moon.
The jury is out on whether SpaceX’s rising tide lifts all boats. As the excitement for space SPACs shows, there has never been more interest and investment into the space industry, but it remains to be seen what the company’s dominance means for competition. The question every business has to answer between launch, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, and space exploration is — Can you beat SpaceX?
Boris Johnson’s Vision of a ‘Galactic Britain’
The United Kingdom released its first-ever National Space Strategy this year, declaring its intent to be one of the top space economies in the world. The strategy sets out ambitions for a “Galactic Britain,” with goals to establish launch capabilities from Cornwall and Sutherland, to invest into military satellite communications, and to support space-oriented venture capital funds.
This move was applauded by local space companies like Orbex and NanoAvionics, and constituent country Scotland followed up by releasing its own space strategy. While the United Kingdom has decades of space heritage, is known for its manufacturing capability and made the surprise investment into OneWeb in 2020, this new strategy further establishes its seriousness.
Now, the government is in a spending preview process to set budgets for government space activities into the coming years. In 2022, the U.K. expects to see the establishment of native space launch, and must demonstrate how it will back up its promises to be a greater player in the global space arena.
OneWeb Constellation Takes Shape, Backed by Global Consortium
OneWeb has been one of the satellite industry’s most interesting companies to watch — from its early ambitions to connect the world to a dramatic bankruptcy and restructuring in 2020. With bankruptcy in the rearview mirror, the renewed OneWeb continued to take shape in 2021, filling out its investment consortium with a global cast of telco, government, and satellite heavy hitters.
Over the past year, Eutelsat invested $500 million, making the traditional Geostationary Orbit (GEO) operator an investor on par with the United Kingdom government, and Japan’s Softbank. Then, Bharti Global doubled down on its investment with another $500 million dollars, fully funding the first version of the constellation. South Korean tech company Hanwha Phasor joined as well.
In an interview with Via Satellite earlier this year, CEO Neil Masterson emphasized how crucial he sees this inter-industry cooperation: “Innovating together to develop the best possible solutions for customers at the lowest possible cost is the way forward,” Masterson said.
At the same time, OneWeb has now launched 358 satellites, reached a number of distribution agreements including with AT&T, and unveiled user terminals to serve different types of end users. With an investment consortium of telecommunications, government, and satellite players, OneWeb has bolstered its position to fulfill its mission of providing connectivity from LEO and is one to watch in 2022.
Telesat Goes All In on $5 Billion LEO Play
“What is going on at Telesat?” — many asked at the end of 2020 as Telesat kept pushing back the announcement of prime contractor for its LEO constellation. The Canadian operator first announced LEO plans in 2016 and put up a demonstration satellite in 2018, but the question remained as to who would build the constellation.
Telesat put these questions to rest in February 2021, announcing a $3 billion contract with Thales Alenia Space to manufacture Lightspeed, a LEO project worth $5 billion in total. This year, the operator has had a steady drumbeat of announcements as it has closed financing agreements, finalized plans to build the constellation in Canada, and made progress to go public by the end of this year.
CEO Dan Goldberg told Via Satellite that this constellation will be “the massive growth driver for Telesat going forward.” But as Telesat will start launching satellites in 2023, there are questions about what the LEO arena will look like when Lightspeed is available, and how much of the market opportunity SpaceX and OneWeb will have captured. Can the Canadian GEO operator reinvent itself in LEO?
Eutelsat, Intelsat and One Dynamic Day
In one 24-hour period in October, leaders of two of the top satellite operators announced they would depart their organizations. First, Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer announced he is leaving the company for French tech company Atos, and then Intelsat CEO Steven Spengler shared plans to retire once the operator exits Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Spengler’s plan to depart wasn't unexpected, but the timing of the Thursday morning announcement took some by surprise, including company officials. It also came just a few weeks after Spengler gave Via Satellite a cover-story interview discussing Intelsat’s future strategy.
While analysts agreed it was likely coincidence that these announcements were made so close together, they signify how rapidly the satellite business is changing.
“We’ve been asking for years, when is change going to happen? Well, here’s change,” NSR President Chris Baugh said at the time. “Change like this signifies that the operator business is forever altered. This isn’t the business where we sit back and cash checks for video. This takes a much more creative sell. It’s a different era and that’s why these companies need to evolve and become more telecom-centric.”
In 2022, all eyes will be on Intelsat moving out of bankruptcy, and what route both companies take with their new leadership — whether they look within the industry or outside of it.
Viasat Scoops Up Inmarsat in Industry Consolidation
Soon after the shakeups at Intelsat and Eutelsat, Viasat made a major announcement that signals even more change in the industry. Viasat will acquire Inmarsat in a $7.3 billion deal that brings together two major satellite operators with businesses in broadband, mobility, and defense.
Viasat and Inmarsat have pitched the combination as one that will bring together spectrum licenses across Ka-, L-, and S-bands, 19 satellites in service, and potential for a hybrid space and terrestrial network.
The move comes as Viasat is gearing up for the first launch of its ViaSat-3 constellation, which it had previously beefed up its market position with acquisition of European Broadband Initiative and RigNet. At the same time, Inmarsat seemed to ready itself for an acquisition with a slew of new executive hires and CapEx plans under the leadership of new CEO Rajeev Suri.
With both businesses playing heavily in the In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) area it could create a dominant combined company with presence in both the United States and Europe. Investors have questioned the deal, and Viasat stock is down about 5% since the announcement, but it could be a major shift in the satellite industry moving forward.
Tech Demonstrations Drive Innovation Forward
This past year saw a number of tech milestones that have the potential to make satellite a more integral part of the global communications ecosystem.
Optical communications — or space lasers — are widely seen as the “next big thing” in satellite communications to enable faster transfer of both imagery and sensing data and secure communication. SpaceX, for example, began launching Starlink satellites this year equipped with Optical Inter-Satellite Links (OISLs). Over the past year, Mynaric has moved aggressively to commercialize this technology with deals with Cloud Constellation, SpaceLink, Northrop Grumman, and Capella Space. While it’s terminals have yet to be validated in orbit, Mynaric is working to make optical a valid option in the near future.
Then in November, Isotropic Systems demonstrated its optical beamforming antenna, linking it to a Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite and a Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite at the same time. This has huge implications for interoperability — if satellite networks can not communicate directly with each other, this antenna can allow an end user to take advantage of multiple networks at the exact same time. A greater rollout is planned for 2022.
And space sustainability saw major developments over the year as well, including Astroscale’s in-orbit validation of its end of life services ELSA-d satellite in August. ELSA-d successfully demonstrated the ability to capture spacecraft — which CEO Nobu Okada called a “fantastic first step in validating all the key technologies” for end of life services.
Ground Tech Provider Coalesce Around Calls for Standardization
While the satellite ground technology segment has long depended on proprietary technology, the segment is experiencing a major time of change, with increasing calls for standardization. There was no better sign of this than Sept. 1, when two separate industry working groups put out statements calling for an interoperability standard for space and ground system networks.
This was followed up with discussions at SATELLITE 2021, and satellite operators and parts of the U.S. military have joined the groups as well. Ground segment leaders said an open standard will allow the companies involved to create new technologies and compete against each other on new capabilities instead of proprietary systems. And, it will encourage customers to adopt virtualized modems.
This specific interoperability standard comes as part of larger calls for standardization. The ground segment will have to change its ways as the industry is changing, and this is a step in that direction.
Billionaires Cross the Threshold into Space
This summer, space was front page news beyond the pages of Via Satellite magazine, when Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos hitched rides to the edge of space on their respective rockets within weeks of each other.
Branson came through first in what was somewhat of a competition, with each moving their flight dates, and making dueling statements about the specific point where space begins. But the flights were moments of excitement, captured in this month’s cover story interview with Sirisha Bandla, who was on the Virgin Galactic Flight.
These milestones were met with mixed reactions. They raised important questions about who gets to go to space, and if space tourism is the best way that some of the world’s most powerful men should be using their time.
While the Branson/Bezos spaceflights were not specifically satellite-related, the entire space value chain is affected by both the praise and the pushback. These billionaire spaceflights come at a time when the space industry has more attention on it and more of a chance to tell its story than ever before. “Why space?” is a question that everyone should be prepared to answer in 2022. VS