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With an estimated $1.2 trillion addressable market over the next 10 years, small satellites and the commercial space industry are booming. Here is a brief rundown from the annual space entrepreneurs confab, the SmallSat Symposium...

We’ve just wrapped up the annual SmallSat Symposium held at the Computer History Museum In Mountain View, CA. This confab of companies and industry experts was held in person for the first time in two years, and attendance exceeded pre-COVID levels. This should not be a surprise as the space and satellite industries are experiencing unprecedented growth in funding, developing, launching, and operating missions of all types. Here are a few highlights:

Space Tourism

NASA Space Hotel Module Concept

Surprisingly, this topic of space tourism came up in several panel discussions despite the conference’s focus on small satellites.

Now that Virgin Galatic and Blue Origin New Shepard have successfully inaugurated commercial human missions into low earth orbit, venture capital is already flowing to create a longer and more immersive space travel experience: the space hotel. It’s hard to believe, but we are at the dawn of a full-fledged space

Blue Origin New Shepard Launc
Blue Origin New Shepard Launch

tourism industry. Profitable business plans, including market, pricing, capital, and operating costs, were the subject of serious discussion at the symposium. LEO (low earth orbit) hotels are expected before the end of the 2020s, and Lunar tourism to follow in the late 2030s. What was once the subject of science fiction is becoming a reality.

The Small Satellite Market

A decade ago, the launch of satellites was the exclusive realm of government-funded (or subsidized) aerospace companies. Satellites were massive, 1000s of Kg, and launches were about $15,000 per kilogram (Kg). The satellites themselves cost $20M or more, and a typical single satellite mission would run $50M or more. Fast forward to today, the SmallSat/CubeSat revolution can produce a fully functional Earth Observation or Communications satellite for $100,000 to $1,000,000. A similar revolution in launch cost reduction can put a 25Kg satellite in low earth orbit for $250,000. In just over a decade, the industry has experienced a stunning cost reduction on the order of 25x to 50x. Those cost reductions have paved the way to an entirely new space market.

Here are some projections for the industry over the decade courtesy of Northern Sky Research:

  • The small satellite addressable market will be over $1.2 trillion

  • 25,000+ launches

  • Communications and Earth Observation will generate 500,000+ Penta Bytes of traffic a day

  • 94% of launches will be under 500Kg

  • Plans have been announced for 143 different LEO (low earth orbit) and MEO (medium earth orbit) communications, including SpaceX StarLink, Amazon Kuiper, OneWeb, and Telesat

  • Earth Observation, Science and Technology, Intelligence gathering “situational awareness missions

The Launch Cost Revolution

Virtual Capitalist - Cost of Space Flight
Virtual Capitalist - Cost of Space Flight

In just a decade, launch costs have been reduced by over a factor of 10 (See graphic). SpaceX was the original pioneer in the commercial space launch, starting with the Falcon 1 at ~$12,000 per Kg placed in orbit to the soon-to-be-launched Starship at $200 per kg.

SpaceX is not alone. Over 100 companies are attempting to succeed in the small commercial satellite launch service business. Each of these companies is optimizing its technology to service a specific launch segment in the market. Here are a few examples from the symposium starting with Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit uses a Boeing 747 as a reusable first stage, and an expendable rocket launched from under the wing places the satellite(s) into orbit. SPAC-funded Rocket Lab has already placed over 100 payloads into orbit based on its low-cost reusable ELECTRON launcher, and soon-to-be commissioned heavy-lift NEUTRON launcher.

RFA - Rocket Factory Augsburg display
RFA - Rocket Factory Augsburg display

European start-up Rocket Factory Augsburg is in technical trials with its staged-combustion engine and preparing for full-scale launch trials. Finally, Canadian launch company SpaceRyde uses a stratospheric balloon” to take a “custom-designed, ultra-light rocket to high altitude, where it is launched in near-vacuum conditions, avoiding the stress and costs of high-speed travel through dense layers of the atmosphere.” SpaceRyde advertises a $250,000 cost to launch a 25Kg satellite package into orbit.

Maturing Scalable End-to-End Supply Chain

Launch vehicles aren’t the only game in town. Satellites systems have a complete life cycle of operations, and an array of companies have formed to support all aspects of launching a single mission to a constellation of satellites; this includes:

  • Mission planning – launch and orbit planning, post-launch orbit transfer, and station keeping.

  • Satellite components – solar cells, batteries, attitude control, thrusters, CPUs, communications, and sensors

  • Satellite integration – integrating and testing the satellite, ensuring it is ready for launch

  • Ground stations and management – So you launched a satellite, how are you getting your communications or sensing data to your customers?

  • Data storage and intelligent data processing for customer consumption – see my conference presentation Optimizing Machine Learning for Earth Observation Data

Over the last decade, satellite integration and satellite components have come of age, especially bespoke 3D printed metal RF antennas, rocket engine components,

Velo3D Titanium 3D Printed Ramjet
Velo3D Titanium 3D Printed Ramjet

and spacecraft mechanical parts. A decade ago, metal 3D printing was limited to a small set of aluminum alloys. Today stainless steel, titanium, and an array of mixed alloys can be fabricated with 3D additive printing systems. Innovation is not just limited to metals; composite plastics and carbon fiber printing are now possible. The 3D manufacturing revolution has drastically reduced component costs and complexity for the satellite industry. Optisys metal RF antenna printing, Airtech International large scale composite plastics, Velo-3D high-temperature titanium rocket engine components, and Burloak Technologies were among the companies represented at the conference.

Designing and building a satellite used to take years to integrate and test with most of the sub-assemblies requiring custom design. Today, using off-the-shelf CubeSat components, third-party satellite integration companies can integrate and test a satellite from concept to launch in months, not years. A new company can focus on satellite and ground segment software and operations without having an extensive RF, hardware, and mechanical engineering department. Have a satellite concept? Here are a few of the companies that can turn that concept into reality:

  • ACC–Clyde: a one-stop-shop for small satellite development and integration combined with full mission lifecycle support

  • Blue Canyon Technologies: Small satellite components and integration

  • Nanoavioics: Turnkey source for Satellite Buses, Payload Integration, Launch Provision, Mission Operations

  • UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory: a University of Toronto offshoot, this cost-effective company has a 20-year history of integrating and supporting small satellite launches.

Blue Canyon Technologies SB3  3U CubeSAT
Blue Canyon Technologies SB3 CubeSAT

To get a feel for the cost of a viable small satellite mission, I spent some time with Nanoavioncs and SpaceRyde. In about two hours, I created a draft mission plan to collect LoRA IoT signals from earth-based sensors which would be stored and forwarded to a single ground station collection site. The estimated cost of the satellite ran $250K, with a launch cost of $250K from SpacRyde. So for about $500k, you could set up a space-based IoT business. Ongoing operations and ground station services costs would still need to be worked out, but you could crowdfund this mission at that cost. That is incredible!

It’s Still A Business: No Bucks-No Buck Rogers!

I want to close with a primary theme underlying all aspects of the conference: It’s a business. You need a full-lifecycle business plan along with a well-defined identified market with paying customers, be it remote sensing (e.g., SAR radar satellite images), space-based IoT, or a massive worldwide communications service like SpaceX StarLink. Venture and SPAC-based financing can only go so far, and success requires self-sustaining profitability.

Profitability has notoriously eluded the satellite industry. However, with the dramatic reduction in launch and satellite costs, this generation of investments may finally create a significant number of profitable satellite businesses. That is the bet that everyone attending the SmallSat Symposium is making.

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Here on Earth, 2022 marks the year that 5G cellular becomes ubiquitously deployed, and all the technology buzz will turn to next-generation 6G cellular. That’s how it goes. By the time a major technology rolls out, it's already obsolete, and the next generation is already in design and development.

StarLink satellite deploying and fully deployed
SpaceX StarLink Satellite

Enough about cellular technology. The important news is that SpaceX will field enough satellites in its StarLink Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communications system to transition from the beta phase, with intermittent service, to full operational phase with 24 x7 connectivity.

Space X is not alone; Telesat, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Kuiper have secured funds to deploy their own LEO satellite constellations systems. Funding does not mean success. The satellite world is littered with financial failures. Motorola’s Iridium system, the original “satphone” company, lost billions of dollars as ground-based cellular deployed far faster than expected. These new LEO satellite systems are big bets, and like Iridium, the available market of customers may not big enough for all of them to be successful.

LEO Satellite System Summary: Telesat, OneWeb, StarLink

SpaceX is making a bet that StarLink will generate enough revenue to fund both the rocket launch business and LEO communications operations, along with a few missions to Mars. The rocket launch business will feed off the deployment and replacement of StarLink LEO satellites, creating a virtuous circle of revenue generation. Jeff Bezos’s Kuiper LEO system and Blue Origin launcher investments will create a similar virtuous circle. Amazon has a distinct advantage over other LEO satellite operators– a number of financial evaluations show that Amazon’s connectivity needs for its vast delivery and warehouse business could fund Kuiper and Blue Origin while reducing costs. As for the other LEO systems, time will tell if they are economically viable.

In short, 2022 will see the dawn of the first self-funded integrated commercial space operators, with Starlink leading the way.

James Web Space Telescope

The other big space news in 2022 is the James Webb Space Telescope. The Hubble Space telescope is over 30 years old and still provides an amazing view of our universe. Telescopes, in a way, are time machines. The further out in space they

Viewing the birth of the first Stars and Galaxies
James Webb Space Telescope: Looking Back in Time

peer out, the farther back in time they observe. However, as we look further back in time and further in the distance, the faster the stars and galaxies we observe are traveling away from us. This velocity imparts a spectrum shift deeper and deeper into the infrared spectrum of the light a telescope captures. If we want to see back to the birth of the first stars and galaxies in our universe, we need a larger telescope that can see deeper into infrared frequencies of light. We also need greater magnification.

Enter the new James Web Space Telescope (JWST). As I write this blog, this marvel of technology, ten years in the making, has successfully launched, reached its orbit position at the L2 Lagrange Point, and deployed its heat shield and mirror array.

size accurate view of the James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes
James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes (side by side)

Here is a quick breakdown of the improvements in the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) over the Hubble Space Telescope (HST):

  • ·Wavelengths of light detected: HST views only a small portion of the infrared spectrum, 0.8 to 2.5 microns. JWST covers 0.6 to 28 microns over 10x further into the infrared spectrum.

  • Mirror size (magnification): HST mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter and roughly 4.5square meters in area. JWST is 6.5 meters in diameter and approximately 33 square meters. Greater than 5x the light capture and magnification of the HST.

  • Orbit: HST is in Low Earth Orbit ~570 Km above the Earth. JWST sits at the L2 Lagrange point, 1.5 Million Km from Earth with both the Earth and son positioned behind the telescope.

  • Sun Shield: HST does not have a sun shield. This limits the depth of the infrared range for HST. JWST, by contrast, has a football field sized sun shield which blocks both sunlight and Earths Albedo (reflected sunlight)

James Webb orbits earth at the L2 Lagrange Point
James Webb Space Telescope Orbit at L2

In short, the James Webb Space Telescope represents a quantum leap over the Hubble Space Telescope. You can find further details and additional mission updates at the NASA site – HERE

In 2022 we’ll see the first images from James Webb and peer back in time to when the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe. My prediction is that, like Hubble 30 years ago, the world will learn something amazing within months of full operation. You can bet I’ll be blogging about the significance when we do.

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Updated: Feb 16, 2022

The tablet smartphone has been with us for almost 15 years. It has been an incredibly successful paradigm for communications and mobile computing, spawning an expansive support industry of APP developers and arguably was the driving force behind the rise of cloud computing.

Every dog has its day, and all technologies face disruption from new technologies. In 2022 we’ll be hearing a great deal about augmented and extended reality glass as the up-and-coming replacement for our smartphone, and a segway into the METAVERSE.

Facebook concept image for AR glasses
Facebook concept AR glasses

Augmented Reality is an interface where media, information, and interfaces are prismatically projected in our field of view from a set of AR-equipped eyeglasses. We interact with voice, eye movement, eyelid movement (blick sequences), and gestures (like taping our fingers on a 3D projected keyboard).

Original Google Glass circa 2012

Believe it or not, Vuzix and other early pioneers in augmented reality glasses launched several years before the first iPhone. While conceptually compelling, every aspect of technology was too immature and rudimentary to be practical. In 2011 Google introduced its first generation of google glasses available to a limited set of developers - you remember those lucky few “Glassholes.” That being said, Google was on to something. Despite their limitations, the glasses were stylish in their futuristic way, and more importantly, they had the basic functions we would expect in all future AR glasses:

  • Prism based image display overlying the direct line of sight (limited cover single eye prism for google glass)

- Advanced AR glasses will have a display for each eye and extend across the entire field of view

  • Outward-facing camera

- Advanced AR glasses will have two cameras for stereoscopic vision to measure the depth of objects

  • Bone conductive microphone and speaker – voice recognition and commands

- Google Glasses uses a touch bar for input

- Advanced AR glasses eliminate this “touch” feature

  • Advanced AR glasses add the following:

- Hand and finger gesture tracing (e.g., for typing on a virtual keyboard projection)

- Inward point cameras to track the user’s pupil and vector of vision - AN Incredibly important feature for immersive AR experience – what is the user looking at!

Magic Leap AR glasses

For the last decade, Microsoft, with its holo lense program, and Magic Leap, developed the components and algorithms to realize the vision of a fully immersive augmented reality interface. So far, however, the form factor and price point are a non-starter for any consumer applications. In the background, working in “skunkworks mode,” the world’s largest cell phone makers, Apple, Samsung, and Huawei AR glass projects are coming to maturity. Have they solved the size, weight, and battery life issues inherent in the Microsoft and Magic Leap glasses?

Microsoft Hololens AR glasses

I predict that we’ll see prototypes this year and working products from 2024 to 2025.

I also predict three unintended consequences from AR adoption supplanting the smartphone. First, the “always-on capture” of the environment inherent in AR will accelerate the budding dystopian Survalience State that smartphone cameras and 4G/5G connectivity incubated. “I have seen Big Brother, and he is Us!” My second prediction: AR image processing in the cloud will dominate 5G and follow-on 6G cellular data traffic. AR will be a boon to cellular operators. The third and final unintended consequence will be the rise of advertisement-free curated information and image classification paid by the end-user subscription. – the death of the free ad-driven internet. (hint – this is a great time to start a company providing curated AR data – the danger, Apple, Microsoft, and others may beat you to it) Why? Can you imagine endless streams of ads popping into your field of vision all the time? You will ask for the information you want, when you want it, and how you want it displayed. Fortunately, self-driving cars are coming, so pop-up ads in AR won’t cause accidents!

Mojo Vision AR contacts

As a final note, what about “bionic” AR contacts as opposed to glasses? Research is steadily making working toward a practical working prototype. Power will be provided wirelessly, as will processed images for display. Flexible OLED display material can bend and fit the convex shape of the lens but currently lacks pixel density to match the image quality of AR glasses. An alternate CMOS imaging display technology is also under investigation (e.g., Mojo Vision). A 9-axis motion sensor will provide viewpoint tracking. However, the motion tracking accuracy of current technology needs further refinement. Outward-facing camera integration still needs to be addressed without impacting the field of vision. Finally, Bluetooth earbuds, as a separate accessory, provide audio communications. We expect commercial AR contacts to follow AR glass by three to five years and may become more popular as AR contacts will be less obtrusive than glasses. Time will tell.

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