Manufacturing’s Field of Dreams: Build It and They Will Come
Will the growing number of smallsat mega factories meet coming constellation and defense demand, or will oversupply hinder builders from achieving their own orbital ‘Field of Dreams?’
April 24, 2023
Long before the first Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites began launching by the likes of SpaceX and OneWeb, a crop of innovative smallsat manufacturers began building a new type of factory.
Balancing quality with cost, and embracing automation and AI, these innovators hoped to capitalize on future volume demand for the new LEO economy. Their thinking — if they build it, constellations and other customers will come — is not unlike the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams,” when a farmer carved out a baseball field in his Iowa cornfield, believing if he built it, players would come.
Today, those mega factories are here. Designed for volumes of smaller, more capable spacecraft, they include the best of automation and repeatability processes proven by the automotive and aviation sectors. Those advances are needed to achieve production scale to support the new space market.
Some builders have won major orders and all are aggressively expanding production facilities. With all this infrastructure, it’s reasonable to ask if there will be enough business to justify the investment. Not all experts agree, but U.S.-based manufacturers are most optimistic for the market. It’s with good reason: The U.S. government spent almost $62 billion in space programs in 2022, the highest in the world, according to Euroconsult.
“The demand for rocket and launch capacity is enormous as is demand to build satellites,” says Marc Bell, CEO of Terran Orbital.
In February, Terran Orbital won a $2.4 billion contract to build communication satellites for Munich-based Rivada Space Networks, which intends to create a wholesale market for wireless high-speed bandwidth. The satellites will be built in Terran Orbital’s Tyvak subsidiary (Tyvak’s founders invented the world’s first cubesats, ushering in the smallsat revolution).
“Between all these companies trying to get to Mars and NASA doing deep space research, you’re going to see an explosion of growth, especially since small satellites can assist in a lot of cislunar traffic management and cislunar communication layers,” predicts Tim Kienberger, LeoStella’s new CEO. The Boeing veteran considers these applications smallsat sweet spots since they can be done affordably.
But given the sheer number of factories coming online, some experts worry that the smallsat manufacturing industry could face an oversupply problem.
“It’s somewhat of a chicken and egg problem — if you want to win big constellation contacts, you need a mega-factory, but we’ve seen factories that have been around a few years and not get the contracts,” observes Euroconsult senior consultant Alexandre Najjar. “If you don’t get the contract, what are you going to do with your factory?”
While Euroconsult’s latest market industry research finds smallsat growth showing no signs of slowing down (the “Prospects for the Small Satellite Market” report forecasts a quadrupling in the number of smallsats over the next decade), Najjar remains cautious about how fast and broad the constellation market will scale.
“There’s a real risk of oversupply – we already see that on the launch side,” he says. “There is not sufficient market demand for everyone to survive. There will be failures and consolidation,” says Najjar, describing the smallsat manufacturing competitive landscape as very challenging and competitive.
In addition, constellation contracts tend to be all or nothing, since operators tend to go all in with one supplier.
The analyst cautions that the numbers are somewhat misleading since vertically integrated Starlink and China’s GuoWang constellations, which account for over half of the projected demand in units, won’t outsource their satellite production to smallsat manufacturers.
“The number of satellites is not really representative of the market value and the mass,” Najjar says.
Consolidation with Defense Primes
According to Najjar, this market uncertainty has led many smallsat primes to partner with space defense contractors, from Boeing’s acquisition of Millennium Space Systems to Raytheon Technologies’ ownership of Blue Canyon Technologies, Lockheed’s $100 million investment in Terran Orbital, and Norwegian aerospace giant Kongsberg’s ownership of smallsat bus manufacturer NanoAvionics.
Other players are aligning with equity partners to fund their capacity buildouts. For instance, AE Industrial Partners (AEI), a private equity firm specializing in aerospace, defense and government services, acquired majority stake in York Space Systems, which included a significant investment alongside BlackRock Private Equity Partners late last year to support York’s ability to manufacture 750+ satellites annually.
York Space has won multiple contracts, most recently, a $200 million contract to build experimental satellites for the SDA. The SDA is leveraging York Space to see if payloads can perform the same in LEO as they do in Geostationary Orbit. Earlier contracts totaling $476 million include 42 satellites for SDA’s Tranche 1 built on the LX-CLASS platform and 10 Tranche 0 Transport Layer.
“The new Space Force leadership recognizes the enormous cost savings of leveraging our commercial production line for their satellite programs,” says York Chairman Charles Beames. “It’s really not much different than when the Air Force bought several hundred of Boeing’s highly successful 707 commercial aircraft to perform critical missions like troop transport, intelligence collection, airborne warning and air refueling. The USAF literally saved billions over decades by doing that, and the Space Force is now doing the same with satellites.”
Market Differentiators: Size, Price, and Speed
There’s a clear trend toward more capable smallsats, a result partially attributable to more affordable launch and rideshare options, says Euroconsult’s Najjar. The analyst estimates that the average smallsat – excluding satellites above 500 kilograms – is anticipated to grow from about 140 kilograms to 200 on average.
“We see this trend in growth as people realize that the first cubesat prototypes launched were not the optimal solution,” he says. “Adding a thruster, a larger antenna or optics, or more fuel can let you double the lifetime of the payload, deferring the CapEx for the replacement generation.”
Beames says the type of missions will dictate market demand for more capable payloads. An example includes York’s LX-CLASS satellite platform launched in 2021 to give customers more power and platform stability compared with the smaller S-CLASS product. Despite the differences, both products are priced about the same.
“There’s a lot of new missions moving to space. You’re going to see different classes within the smallsat arena and you’re going to see people largely divesting themselves of cubesats,” he adds.
Airbus U.S.’s new Arrow 450 commercial bus, which offers more capabilities than the Arrow 150 platform used in the OneWeb Gen1 constellation, is being provided to Northrop Grumman as part of the SDA contract, the company said. Other customers leveraging the Arrow 150 platform include DARPA and Loft Orbital.
Leostella, however, is pursuing constellations in the 10 to 30 volume range, rather than those exceeding hundreds or thousands of satellites, notes Kienberger. “From my background working on government systems, there is both commercial and government demand in that 10 to 30 satellite range,” he adds.
Seattle-based LeoStella is a critical partner for BlackSky’s global monitoring constellation. The company’s intelligent manufacturing process enabled BlackSky to add six satellites via three missions in less than 30 days at the end of 2021. Currently, the company is building and integrating satellite buses for upcoming Loft Orbital missions.
Several builders offered insights into the competitive landscape for smallsat manufacturing, with price, speed, and performance factoring into customers’ decisions.
Terran Orbital’s chief executive Bell notes that there are trade-offs – “faster and cheaper does not mean better,” he says. “We want a satellite to work every time, not some of the time.”
That philosophy helped position Terran Orbital for success: In addition to winning the Rivada constellation, it has already delivered 10 buses for Lockheed Martin for SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche O contract.
Terran Orbital manufactures about 85 percent of its components in-house, with facilities ranging from aerospace aluminum processing and machining to new printed circuit board assembly and testing operations. Bell says that by owning its own supply chain, it “reduces the time to build a satellite, increases productivity and guarantees higher quality control,” he says.
“I believe in the expression, ‘If you control your supply chain, you control your destiny,’” Bell says.
In terms of government contracts, Beames of York Space notes that the government smallsat market is headed towards fixed price contracts and “no development,” so platforms have to work.
“It’s going to come down to cost – who has the best value followed by schedule,” Beames says, noting that U.S. defense customers feel an urgency to deploy satellites without delay because of China and other geopolitical issues.
Debra Facktor, head of U.S. Space Systems for Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, agrees. “Schedule and cost are huge factors and when you can deliver at scale and high quality, even better.”
Airbus and other manufacturers are looking to standardize the core platform but keep the payload separate.
“This allows you to have more flexibility and to focus on the payload specialties or the unique needs a certain market or customer may have,” says Facktor.
Facktor adds that the satellite market has experienced a huge shift with SDA ‘s implementation of the Space Force’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA).
To compete with these new requirements, Airbus U.S. is marrying its knowledge of final assembly lines with a more commercial, digital engineering approach found in the aircraft and automotive sectors. Using “cobots,” or collaboration between machines and humans, Airbus “looks at key points in the manufacturing process that can be improved to do operations repeatedly and faster with higher quality,” she explains.
For Leostella, Kienberger sees two sets of customers – those seeking the lowest price point for a data stream and those motivated by competitive pricing and performance.
“We’re not trying to the lowest cost possible; we’re focused on the right set of performance metrics at an attractive cost that works for your business,” he says. “Commercial is still driving the price, but defense and government markets are trying to leverage commercial in more creative ways with an emphasis on bringing in non-traditional spacecraft providers and spacecraft subsystems.”
Kongsberg NanoAvionics looks to be the best bus and payload-agnostic bus provider, says Žilvinas Kvedaravičius, chief sales officer for Kongsberg NanoAvionics.
The sales leader says in today’s economic environment, it’s important to align realistic expectations with customers. “If you have done all your homework to assess the technical needs to build in a mass production manner, you can be set up to meet the customer demand.”
Kongsberg NanoAvionics has doubled its manufacturing capacity to 150 to 200 satellites per year due to the opening of a new facility in Lithuania. At the same time, the company is switching business focus and offering customers standard and customizable platforms, which benefits the firm financially and improves time-to orbit compared with custom-made satellites.
Kvedaravičius says Kongsberg NanoAvionics also is focusing on configurability versus design and modular power management. In addition, all of its products use a common onboard computing platform.
Smallsat newcomer Astro Digital, based in San Jose, California, takes a building block approach using a modular platform of satellite technology infrastructure to achieve mission goals in the shortest timeframe possible.
According to CEO and co-founder Chris Biddy, Astro Digital’s predominantly commercial customer base can leverage the firm’s experience, flight heritage and supply chain without needing to build up their own in-house capabilities, which takes significant resources.
“We provide several benefits such as a hot production line and mature supply chain as well as domain expertise – we are living and breathing small satellite design and production,” he says, noting that the company’s collaborative approach enables customers to more easily innovate and optimize their system to achieve aggressive schedules.”
This flexible and collaborative approach has resonated in the market, with wins such as a new Global S-band constellation contract with EchoStar to provide IoT services. Astro Digital will build 28 smallsats for EchoStar that will launch in 2024 and will feature an advanced software-defined radio with onboard storage and processing for two-way device connectivity, the company announced in February.
To date, Astro Digital has designed and delivered over two dozen satellites ranging from 6U cubesats to 100+ kilogram smallsats.
Eyeing the Future
The future of smallsat manufacturing, like other parts of the industry, will depend on software and data capabilities rather than hardware innovation, says Beames.
“We just had a big capital raise and a big part of that is the software,” Beames says. “The future of the space business is data science – it’s about software and smart networks in space.”
Another manufacturing trend includes the growing importance of optical communications to deliver more secure connections and larger throughput capabilities, says Airbus U.S.’s Facktor.
“There is huge demand for integrating optical intersatellite links and putting them into a constellation,” says Facktor, citing as an example Airbus U.S.’s current work with DARPA and Telesat to demonstrate interoperability of intersatellite links.
Nearer term, the industry is moving toward more standardization of product lines. The days of “one-off” satellites are no longer realistic.
A key effort at Astro Digital is balancing standardizing satellite platforms to improve quality and accelerate schedules with leaving in the flexibility to configure the bus to the customer payload and mission.
According to Biddy, the “commodity bus” idea is a little bit of a myth. “I don’t see a standard bus becoming a jack of all trades, master of none, where a modular bus configurable to a payload and mission is the right balance to deliver maximum value to the customer,” he predicts. VS