CubeSats have come a long way from their origins as a teaching tool for aerospace engineering students. Robert Twiggs a professor at Stanford University first envisioned CubeSats as a learning tool; he then worked alongside another aerospace engineering professor, Jordi Puig-Suari at California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly), to standardize the tech.
Today these small satellites, some the size of a shoebox, are at the center of a new wave of innovation driven by commercial startups and funded by Venture Capitalists (VCs). CubeSats continue to drive low-risk space exploration, science and commerce. Via Satellite spoke to several industry experts on how they see the cubesat’s role evolving as an enabler in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and potentially well beyond Geostationary Orbit (GEO).
“It’s gone beyond my wildest dreams how wide and how adopted CubeSats are by everyone. We have elementary schools and high schools launching them now,” says Puig-Suari, noting that the traditional 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm form factor has evolved into larger, more capable spacecraft such as six-units (6Us) and 12-units (12Us). Just as important, they have inspired people to embrace “risk-taking and the lower cost, high-numbers-of-smaller-spacecraft approach,” he adds.
Sean Casey, executive director of the Silicon Valley Space Center, an advocate of broad community participation in space that funds LEO, microgravity and lunar projects, notes that in the last decade, cell phone technology has allowed enough processing power to fit within a one-liter CubeSat. “What’s getting traction now is the business case for space,” he adds, pointing to the business community’s interest in funding SmallSat firms. According to The Tauri Group’s “2015 Start-up Space Report,” more venture capital was invested in space deals that year than in the prior 15 years combined. The transactions, led by SpaceX and OneWeb, totaled $2.7 billion. Investment interest in SmallSats included Earth observation and broadband telecommunications, according to Kirsten Armstrong, principal investigator with The Tauri Group.
Aerospace engineering company SpaceWorks is also projecting strong growth. Its 2016 market assessment predicts more than 400 nano/microsatellite annual launches by 2022 and beyond. These types of missions have grown by an average of 39 percent per year since 2010, with an expected 13 percent growth per year over the next six years, the company reported.
Bill Doncaster, senior systems engineer for SpaceWorks, says two forces are feeding this growth: advances in electronics — most notably miniaturization and better battery performance — and containerization of CubeSats. “The CubeSat form factor adopted by a number of commercial companies theoretically could disrupt some of what traditional satellite providers do,” he says.
Dan Rasky, director and co-founder of NASA’s Space Portal Office, which opened in 2005 to provide “a friendly door to space” through closer partnerships with commercial firms, has seen how the CubeSat revolution has inspired a new generation of space innovators, many from within the engineering ranks of NASA.
“Planet is a great story where we had these three young engineers working on small spacecraft. When one of their mentors, Peter Klupar, looked at their design and held up his smart phone, saying, ‘My smartphone has more computational power than your little spacecraft,’ they got the idea to fly a cell phone and they literally did.”
Planet’s satellite fleet now provides high-resolution images of locations on Earth daily — giving customers a vital new data source in industries such as environmental, resource management, defense and intelligence, market intelligence, emergency management and agriculture. Planet (at the time named Cosmogia) spun out of the Ames Research Center.
Three International Space University students who were also interns at the Space Portal Office started another breakout company, Spire. “They had an idea they wanted to do a small educational CubeSat funded with Kickstarter,” Rasky recalls, explaining that NASA supported the trio as they developed their idea into a company, including helping to sponsor them in the NewSpace business plan competition. “They kicked off their project in May 2012 with a goal of raising $30,000 in 30 days. By the end of June they had raised $106,000 and, more importantly, they had close to 700 people following the project.” Lemnos Labs in San Francisco then incubated the company as it gained footing in the industry. It has since raised $100 million and now serves a number of industries, including maritime shipping and weather monitoring.
“We collect data where … only a large satellite constellation could do it. That means the satellites have to have highly miniaturized tech, be highly affordable, and plentiful to launch,” says Peter Platzer, Spire CEO. His company offers hourly data from any point on Earth to organizations needing to monitor global trade, weather, shipping, illegal fishing and maritime domain awareness. Spire uses software-defined radios that enable the company to change its sensor capability on the fly, in orbit. “It's like changing the power of your car via software — like a Tesla versus being more or less fixed with a gasoline car,” Platzer says.
Another company, Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems, came out of CalPoly. Originally started in 2011 to capitalize on the coming CubeSat revolution, it has evolved to support complex missions with end-to-end service from designing a payload to putting together a mission and managing operations.
“We are known for pushing the boundaries of what this type of technology can do,” says Marco Villa, who joined Tyvak as Chief Operating Officer (COO) in 2013. “Our principle is to limit the compromise between reliability, cost and performance.” Part of the evolution of CubeSats coming into the commercial sector, according to Villa, is the expectation that they are no longer experimental but well-performing tools. “It’s a business and there are expectations,” he says. “Some companies have gotten away with not having quality assurance and proper metrics. They can’t get away with that anymore. You have to deliver what you promise.”
The biggest demand Tyvak sees for CubeSats involves unconventional earth observation and communications applications. “Communication has been a quiet sleeper but we see that changing in 2017 and 2018,” he adds.
A third area of demand relates to advanced applications with rendezvous, proximity operations and docking. Tyvak and NASA will test this capability using two three-unit (3U) CubeSats. As an example, in future deep space missions, small companion satellites could fly with larger spacecraft to provide assistance and other critical support functions.
Providing affordable transport has been key to lowering the entry barriers to this market, contend many industry leaders.
“CubeSats are not that expensive to build, but they can certainly be very expensive to operate. Before, only governments could afford to do it; you had to build the rocket, the bus, the software and ground hardware — that’s a very capital-intensive process,” observes Rakesh Narasimhan, COO of Spaceflight Industries and executive vice president of Seattle-based BlackSky.
Narasimhan says Spaceflight Industries provides payload rideshare opportunities similar to how Expedia sells airline tickets. Until recently, that involved finding available capacity on existing launches. But as the market for small sat rideshares grew, the company decided to offer dedicated launch services by buying its own SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Even with new services available from companies such as Spaceflight Industries, users note that launch timelines can slip, especially when the primary payload gets delayed in the rideshare model. “For data companies using CubeSats, our biggest challenge is reliable access to launch,” says Spire’s Platzer.
Tyvak’s Villa, who previously worked six years at SpaceX, notes that launch costs “published online [are] not always the price you actually pay.”
But even if the process is not yet entirely stress-free, more launch options have opened up the market and made it more cost effective. Narasimhan’s company is working with Spire to offer CubeSat ground communications infrastructure, where users pay per minute to communicate with a ground station. In December, Spaceflight Industries announced the launch of the BlackSky platform, providing real-time satellite imagery and data sensors. Early users include the United Nations and World Bank. The platform will incorporate data from BlackSky’s 60-satellite constellation as it enters commercial operation in 2017.
NASA officials also shared the important role CubeSats play for tech development, testing technology on a smaller scale before deploying it on a large multi-million-dollar mission, as well as on actual missions.
“People not just at NASA but also the military and commercial guys want to use CubeSats as part of their main mission complement,” says Bruce Yost, director of Small Spacecraft Systems Virtual Institute (S3VI) at NASA Ames Research Center.
Last March, NASA deployed a pair of Nodes satellites into LEO to demonstrate the ability to receive and distribute commands in space from the ground, while periodically exchanging scientific data from their onboard radiation instruments, a first for small satellites.
“These two little satellites can talk both to the ground and to each other,” notes Yost, explaining that such connectivity has implications for deep space missions since it opens a path toward new network capabilities for operating swarms of small spacecraft in the future. The satellites configure to their data network autonomously, with one spacecraft communicating with the ground each day of the mission.
“The next step is thinking about what you can do with eight, 10, a dozen more spacecraft [called swarms]. They start to act like a network and that becomes very powerful,” Yost says.
NASA’s science community has a lot of interest in swarms because they allow multiple simultaneous measurements in spots over a large area for a long period of time. Yost considers Heliophysics applications, which study the effects of the Sun on the Solar System, and require the ability to measure larger areas all once, the “benchmark” for what you can do with CubeSats.
“You can do the same kind of thing around Mars,” Yost says. “Instead of just having one or two cameras flying around Mars, you put dozens into orbit and turn it into a high-resolution Google map for future people to use when they are thinking about missions and where to land and rove.”
Yost says that CubeSats are already serving in a scouting role as the agency prepares for deep space missions. BioSentinel, set to launch in 2018, will deploy beyond the moon to do radiation mapping before human spaceflight missions to the moon launch.
The limitations of the technology, according to Casey of the Silicon Valley Space Center, revolves around whether networking across devices and apps through the internet on the ground will also happen for CubeSat constellations in LEO. “You can throw up a bunch of individual CubeSats and they all function on their own, but as we know from the PC revolution, it’s not how technology works on its own but how it networks with everything else,” explains Casey. “The whole networking connection among assets in orbit hasn’t really played out yet. It’s the distribution of computing, power and communications capabilities, plus ancillary services like launch.”
When asked how they see the market for CubeSats unfolding over the next two to three years, most industry leaders were upbeat with varying degrees of caution and excitement. Doncaster explains that previously two-thirds of CubeSat missions were government or university sponsored. Today it’s a 50-50 split. “By 2018, I would expect it to be majority commercial,” he says.
“I feel the barrier to LEO is low enough that you are seeing a wide variety of entrepreneurs pursuing investment dollars,” adds Casey. He notes that a number of investors are waiting for further return on investment with companies such as Spire, Planet and Rocket Lab. He contends that the industry has underestimated the size of the SmallSat market given the cash reserves available from several successful new space startups. Casey warns that any missteps by firms that have garnered a lot of attention could hurt the industry as a whole if investors decide to pull back funding. Casey says that investment fervor over SmallSats may be too optimistic in a still-maturing market.
Tyvak’s Villa expects that the industry will enter a period of diversification and consolidation. “I foresee in the next few years increased sophistication of the products and in the overall market, with mergers and acquisitions becoming more of an established practice in this sector.”
Platzer says data from smaller, cost-effective constellations will continue to grow exponentially as more industries realize the potential for “cost effective, highly accurate, quasi-real-time, global data collected from space.” He also sees a future for SmallSats in deep space. “I don't think CubeSats will play a role in GEO, but I can see a role for them as a payload for moon or Mars to deploy a high temporal resolution constellation with limited lifetime. We build probes that crater into the moon or asteroids in a trade-off of a lifetime versus value of the data and cost. I can see small satellites coming out on top in a similar trade-off study as the best solution of the problem,” Platzer says.
With all the momentum around CubeSats and commercial investment in LEO, what will a Trump Administration mean for this industry? Silicon Valley Space Center’s Sean Casey says it depends whether President Trump sides with the established aerospace industry or embraces entrepreneurs who are behind the SmallSat revolution.
Casey points to Trump’s campaign slogan, “Let’s make America great again,” as a hopeful sign that he will embrace NewSpace innovation embodied by SmallSat startups. “Space is what makes America great — no doubt about it,” he says, adding that in the last 30 years he’s seen “a deterioration in our investment in the space economy from Washington, D.C. Up until the rise of NewSpace five years ago, many aerospace engineers left the industry to go pursue commercial opportunities elsewhere.”
He hopes that changes and a new focus on entrepreneurialism in aerospace engineering programs take root across all sectors. “NASA needs to embrace it, investors need to embrace it and engineering curriculums need to embrace it,” he concludes. VS