Via Satellite

Small Companies, Big Ideas at Startup Space

Small companies with big ideas touted their ambitious plans at the startup competition held in the exhibit hall of the annual SATELLITE show in Washington, D.C. Tuesday. Judged by four experts from space industry or venture capital competitors, the contest gave each of the competitors five minutes to make their pitch and another five to answer judges’ questions.

Among the competitors were TimeTag and Alen Space.

Space is becoming more and more crowded, which makes millimeter precision measurement of satellite positioning increasingly important, said Pavel Razmajev, COO of Latvian firm TimeTag. He said the future, especially in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), would be as different from the immediate past as “the traffic in London or New York in 1920 was from the traffic in 2019.” Time Tag was spun off by Eventech, which makes technology to measure timing with extreme precision. Eventech products are already used in ground stations to do Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR), in which tiny laser bursts from the ground — reflected back from retroreflector-equipped satellites — are used to measure the precise altitude and velocity of satellites.

“For SLR to work,” Razmajev explained to Via Satellite after his presentation, “You have to know exactly when the pulse was sent and exactly when it came back.” But that same precision makes the technology useable in all kinds of space- as well as ground-based applications. LIDAR, for example, uses laser bursts to map or measure the distance to an object. “In space,” Razmajev said, “objects are moving really, really fast, so that precision matters.” He said TimeTag technology would be ideal for use in systems that track and avoid space debris, and “it improves position, docking and landing accuracy.” It could even replace atomic clocks for time synchronization and distribution in LEO satellite constellations.

“We have this technology right now,” he told the judges. “Obviously, it has to be adapted for new applications, but we already have this solution that we can offer to different companies. We can scale it right now.”

TimeTag technology is being used by the European Space Agency (ESA) and MDA U.K. in planned missions, including lunar missions, and the company is looking for a 1-million-euro investment to do customer development and market entry in the U.S.

The Spanish firm Alen Space specializes in designing and building nanosatellites, but there’s nothing small about its ambitions. The company wants to “become the Amazon Web Services (AWS) of space,” declared CEO Guillermo Lamelas. Alen wants to offer Space as a Service (Saas) — launching a constellation of software-defined and constantly reconfigurable LEO satellites, and then allowing customers to buy the right to use them — much as AWS does with its cloud computing business.

Alen, which has been designing and building small satellites for more than a decade, found that many of their potential customers were baulking at the complexity and expense of deploying their own nanosat constellation. The company decided that, to help them get into space, they should offer customers a “virtual constellation” — the ability to access nanosatellites and deploy communications and other software on them, without the bother of actually launching anything.

Sayari, as the constellation will be dubbed is “our bet to blow up barriers to space” for small- and medium-sized businesses, Lamelas said. “Companies that need space infrastructure will be able to host their applications, manage their virtual constellations and commercialize their services without launching a single satellite,” he said. “All the advantages of near-space, without the hassle.” The first test satellite, the shoebox-sized Lume-1 was launched in December. The company is seeking $3.5 million to fund the first wave of a planned 40 satellites they aim to have in orbit by the end of 2022. The eventual size of the constellation will depend on customer demand, Lamelas said.

But the key piece of Sayari is “not the satellite. The key piece is right here on Earth: The Sayari centralized software platform” that enables developers to work on applications and then deploy them to the satellites.