The 10 Hottest Satellite Companies in 2021
Via Satellite’s annual “must-watch” list returns with the year’s most ambitious and buzz-worthy space companies. Will they meet our high expectations?
The space and satellite industry is at an exciting inflection point, as startups prove their business plans and industry standard-bearers invest in next-generation technology. Via Satellite’s third annual crop of “10 Hottest Companies” features represents a broad swath of global startups and legacy companies which are working to revolutionize launch, remote sensing, manufacturing, situational awareness, and many other space capabilities.
Via Satellite’s editors chose the companies on this list based on their expected activity in 2021, and a mix of market share, transformational technology, ground-breaking deals, and overall industry excitement. One caveat — companies that made our two previous lists in 2019 and 2020 weren’t eligible for a repeat this year. With that, we present the list:
In March, Astroscale, the Japanese startup that became the industry’s leading brand of space debris removal in a short span of eight years, launched its long-awaited ELSA-d debris removal spacecraft. With ELSA-d in orbit, Astroscale will now spend the next few months proving that its technology lives up to the hype by demonstrating the world’s first commercially provided end-of-life services — debris docking and removal.
Entrepreneur Nobu Okada’s timing couldn’t have been better when he founded Astroscale in 2013. Space congestion was already a concern for the industry, as some nations began testing anti-satellite weapons and commercial satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) began colliding with deactivated military spy satellites. The 2013 film “Gravity” elevated the threat of space debris to the public consciousness (which endures today as comedian Samantha Bee recently addressed the issue with a ‘space junk in the trunk’ segment).
Just a few years later, SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, Telesat, and a wave of New Space entrants announced plans to launch LEO constellations, adding thousands of new satellites to an already congested space environment. Astroscale created an awareness campaign around its fundraising efforts and quickly grew into a multi-national company with divisions in the United States, Israel, Singapore, and Europe. If ELSA-d meets expectations, Astroscale could find itself a leading provider in a very high-demand market.
Iceye is one of Europe’s most talked about satellite companies and aims to make a difference in the area of climate change and disaster monitoring. The startup aims to empower commercial and government partners with persistent monitoring of any location on Earth through its Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites. This monitoring can help customers make informed, data-driven decisions to address time-critical challenges in industries and uses such as border security, flood monitoring and oil spill clean-up.
Iceye has three lines of business — a missions line, a SAR data line and a solutions line. Its solutions business recently signed a major deal with insurance company Swiss Re. The partnership will advance flood risk management, assist disaster response and speed up claims payments. Swiss Re turned to Iceye because it wanted to leverage technology to make insurance more affordable, fairer, and faster. Improving its ability to deal with natural catastrophes is a priority for the insurance industry and for Swiss Re, one that Iceye could address with its technology. such a deal could have significant societal and economic impact, and pave the way for similar satellite deals moving forward.
Iceye’s plans to launch more satellites this year than originally forecasted, with a total of 10 new missions. Remote sensing is a crowded space, but the value of satellite-based imagery has never been higher. Iceye’s on-orbit SAR fleet, innovative deals, and humanitarian mission make it a company to watch.
Kymeta was launched in 2012 and over the last few years, it has generated excitement in the ground segment arena that few have matched. While the company has been hyped strongly over the last few years, it is now moving from hype to results.
A lot of the excitement over the last year is related to the commercial release of its u8 Electronically Steered Antenna (ESA) terminal, which has probably gained more headlines than any recent antenna release. The Kymeta u8 covers the full Ku-band and is designed to be LEO upgradeable. The u8 is the culmination of seven years of research and two years of field experience. Kymeta designed this second-generation terminal to be lightweight and low profile, mounting easily on vehicles and vessels. The company doubled the antenna’s gain from its previous model to enable full Ku-band coverage, and realize near-theoretical scan loss performance – all at a lower cost.
Much is expected of the u8 terminal, which aims to address the need for lightweight, slim, and high-throughput communication systems that do not require mechanical components to steer toward a satellite. It is targeting both the commercial and government market, and also released the u8 GO easy transport option to serve more government, military and mobile end-user needs. Kymeta also takes an interesting approach to sales — offering hardware and Kymeta Connect service on a subscription-basis, to bring in first responder customers who may not be able to afford hardware upfront.
Ground-based Space Situational Awareness (SSA) provider LeoLabs has always been a favorite of private investors. The company took the grand prize at SATELLITE 2018’s Startup Space competition and has made analyst’s watch lists every year since.
Everyone wants SSA. It is the pillar of space sustainability that enables life extension and debris removal. All hopes for effective SSA lie on the commercial industry. After all, the world’s superpowers surely aren’t going to start behaving responsibly and sharing this data with each other. Enter CEO and Co-Founder Dan Ceperley’s LeoLabs – the comprehensive SSA data provider offering to help manage the awful mess of traffic in Low-Earth Orbit.
LeoLabs has a big year ahead. It officially transitioned to a full service provider in April when it commenced full operations at the Costa Rican Space Radar facility it started building in 2020. LeoLabs chose the radar station’s location near the equator because it offers unique capabilities to track active satellites and orbital debris as small as 2 centimeters in low inclination orbits, and provide full coverage of other activities in LEO.
Combined with its existing network, the new facility will provide the data that fuels LeoLabs’ new Collision Avoidance automated platform for satellite operators. The cloud-based service gives satellite constellation operators their first real access to a service specifically designed for protecting their assets in space.
Space lasers are widely seen as one of the technologies in development that will disrupt data communication in space. Lasers — or Optical Inter-Satellite Links (OISLs) — are not limited in the same way that Radio Frequency (RF) communication is. OISLs can’t be jammed like RF signals, and they don’t require the same regulatory oversight, because light isn’t a regulated band. These links have huge implications for data transfer that requires high security, for government and enterprise users like banks.
Mynaric is at the center of this development. The company is working to volume-produce OISL terminals for LEO constellations, and has the potential to commercialize this technology and bring space lasers into widespread use. The company, led by SpaceX alum Bulent Atlan, is based in Germany, but recently opened up a 10,000 square foot production facility in Hawthorne, California, to compete for U.S. commercial and government business. That expansion is paying off. Telesat has selected its OILS terminals for the operator’s work on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Blackjack program, and the startup has also signed deals with SpaceLink and Cloud Constellation.
Further, Mynaric is establishing a laser communication interoperability lab at its Los Angeles facility, with a link testbed. Interoperability will allow communication between laser terminals from multiple vendors, multiplying the possibilities of laser communications. Mynaric’s work here can help establish a common laser communication standard within the U.S. government program and potentially beyond.
The Israeli satellite industry has been a hub of innovation and has produced world-class companies such as Gilat Satellite Networks and Spacecom. Gilat's founder Yoel Gat is now at the helm of Satixfy, a vertically integrated company founded in 2012 that provides chips and products across the entire satellite communications value chain that enable remote connectivity.
Satixfy has signed some exciting deals over the last few months. It will develop a new In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) terminal that will work over the OneWeb network as well as GEO satellite networks, and SatixFy UK has formed a joint venture with ST Engineering called JetTalk, to commercialize the IFC terminal. Satixfy will also offer Telesat early access to its second generation modem chip and will develop prototypes to demonstrate the chip’s capabilities for both Lightspeed landing stations and user terminal modems.
The company is also playing a pivotal role in the flourishing U.K. space sector, and recenly won $35 million to build the payload of a beam-hopping satellite as part of a project backed by U.K. government funding, and led by OneWeb with participation from Celestia UK, and Astroscale UK. This satellite will be able to switch which part of the world it covers, managing real-time surges in commercial demand or responding to emergencies such as natural disasters.
With so much pressure being put on the ground technology side of things, it will be up to companies like Satixfy to come up with the technology to enable the coming LEO era. Satixfy’s breakthrough deals have cemented its reputation as one of the companies to watch in the technology sector.
Spire has big plans for its network of sensor-collecting smallsats and Satellite-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings — targeting more than $1 billion in revenue by 2025. The company has been honed in on the type of Radio Frequency (RF) data it collects, sensor sets that are used specifically for maritime, aviation, and weather use cases. While other Earth Observation (EO) and remote sensing allow customers to task satellites, Spire’s satellites collect the RF data and sell insights based on it via a subscription to its platform. Top-tier customers include NASA, Aerion Supersonic, and Chevron, and the company reported $36 million in revenue in 2020.
While other New Space players are building up their constellations, one of Spire’s advantages is that its infrastructure is already fully deployed. Spire has around 100 satellites in orbit, and therefore the CapEx of building and launching satellites is a smaller portion of its business. Also, all of Spire’s satellites are software-defined, so the company says its satellites are more capable on the day they are retired than when they are launched.
Although Spire’s satellites are tiny, it operates one of the largest fleets of any operator, and is working to use that infrastructure as a revenue stream through its SaaS business. Spire integrates customers’ virtual or physical payloads into its satellites, which it operates as part of its constellation, giving access to the data through its platform. This works for companies that want data from space, but don’t want to build their own space infrastructure. Spire’s early adoption of software-defined technology and the potential of its SaaS offerings make it a compelling player among New Space sensing companies.
Swarm is shaking up Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity from space with its sandwich-sized satellites and cheap data plans. The company first garnered media attention in 2018 for launching satellites without FCC approval, but it is now a grown-up, operational New Space player. Swarm has around 100 satellites in orbit, and took its network live this year.
The real head-turner is Swarm’s pricing, which should put legacy providers on notice. Swarm sells a small user modem called the Swarm Tile that can be embedded into any IoT device for $119, and offers connectivity at a market-disrupting price of $5 per month per device. The company is vertically integrated, and built and designed its hardware, software, and protocols, which it says allows it to offer the service so cheaply.
This price level can bring in new customers who haven’t been able to afford remote IoT connectivity before. Sara Spangelo, CEO and co-founder, said this pricing model is four to 20 times cheaper than similar satellite offerings today, allowing customers who may pay $10,000 each month to another provider, to spend just $500 per month with Swarm. Furthermore, Swarm claims to be able to transmit customer data more often than legacy providers because of its large number of satellites.
Swarm reports the highest demand in agriculture for water monitoring applications, and logistics for tracking trucks or maritime tracking. But the company stresses its technology is “vertical agnostic,” and it will be exciting to see what new use cases this pricing opens up for satellite IoT connectivity.
Thales Alenia Space
Thales Alenia Space has long been one of Europe’s most respected and largest space companies. It started 2021 with a bang, winning THE big contract that all satellite manufacturers coveted — the Telesat deal to build and manufacture the 298 Lightspeed constellation satellites.
While this is the signature deal for Thales, the company has signed other significant contracts over the last few months. It teamed up with South Korean operator KT SAT, subsidiary of 5G commercial service provider Korea Telecom, to lead a 5G demonstration using the Geostationary Koreasat 5A to provide 5G network to remote areas. This experiment consists of backhauling the connection between a 5G Core network and a 5G gNB through a GEO satellite.
While deals with the European Space Agency (ESA) for Galileo gain media attention, there is some cutting edge technology at play here. For example, Microsoft is adding the DeeperVision automated image processing solution developed by Thales Alenia Space to the Azure Orbital platform. With DeeperVision, all images downlinked by EO satellites can be immediately and systematically analyzed as soon as they are produced. Thales is also involved in the European Commission initiative to design, develop, and launch a European-owned space-based communication system.
The satellite manufacturing sector is a hive of activity right now. Traditional business models are changing. Thales Alenia Space’s new CEO Herve Derrey has landed some of the major deals in the satellite sector over the last 12 months, making this standard-bearer for the European satellite industry one of the hottest companies.
Bouncing back strong from a rocky 2020, Richard Branson’s rocket company Virgin Orbit wasted no time taking center stage in the new year by sending the world’s first air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket to space. On January 17, Virgin’s LauncherOne vehicle took off on a customized 747-400 aircraft named Cosmic Girl from New Mexico’s Mojave Air and Spaceport and successfully deployed 10 NASA cubesat passengers to orbit.
With this critical test behind them, Virgin Orbit is now ready to officially transition into commercial service, with upcoming launches scheduled for the U.S. Space Force (named “Tubular Bells, Part One” after the first track on the first album ever released by Virgin Records), as well as the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace. With no launch pad to recertify between flights, CEO Dan Hart has said that Virgin Orbit hopes to launch once a month or more by 2023, and then double that cadence in the future.
Virgin Orbit is simultaneously building a global launch system infrastructure. It is working to establish new launch facilities at Alcântara Spaceport on Brazil’s northern coast, and U.K.’s spaceport in Cornwall, expanding global access to launch, bringing access to countries that don’t currently have the capability. The company is integrating its legacy of commercial air travel to its space launch business – making access to space as familiar as selecting a flight from the most convenient airport. VS
This year, Via Satellite is introducing an ecosystem of content around the 10 Hottest Companies, complete with video Thursday Morning Conversation (TMC) interviews, and related On Orbit podcast episodes. You can access all of the 10 Hottest Companies content online here.