LUXEMBOURG — Aerospacelab of Belgium gave proof of the vitality of Europe’s NewSpace and space venture-funding landscape when it raised 11 million euros ($12.3 million) from investors including Xange, BelAero, CMNE Innov&Thic and the Wallonie Regional Investment Co., SRIW.
The idea: a constellation of 50-cm-resolution optical imaging satellites for government and civil applications. You’re thinking: Another one?
Founder and Chief Executive Benoit Deper freely admits that Aerospacelab’s business model borrows from — he says it improves upon — the U.S. Planet constellation and Planet’s higher-resolution SkyBox satellites.
Deper, whose company is building is own analytics platform, thinks he has cracked the code to profitability by appealing to government and industrial markets, keeping capex down and not trying to compete head to head with Airbus Defence and Space in Europe.
Deper plans to launch five demonstration satellites, partly funded by his future hardware suppliers and by the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) starting late this year. The satellites will carry different technologies and will not be identical.
Once testing is done, and following a second round of financing, Aerospacelab will select its supply chain and build its commercial constellation of 15-20 satellites.
Your recent funding round is enough to launch five satellites?
Yes, because on top of that we have public orders. Some of the satellites are being purchased by ESA. ESA is going to check them out as part of an in-orbit demonstration we’ll do for them.
These satellites all have propulsion?
Some of them have propulsion. This first five are not part of the constellation, they’re just to demonstrate the basic technologies and flying the payloads. We fly on these five most of the payloads we want to see on the constellation later on.
Give me an example of the technologies you want to demonstrate on the first five.
The first mission that ESA gave us was the Proba-V vegetation monitoring companion cubesat. At the time of the earlier Proba-V, ESA built three identical instruments that were identical instruments. They asked us to put the third on a 12U cubesat and to fly it alongside the current Proba-V.
Most of the time we take payloads and we integrate the payloads on the platform and we launch it and we operate it for them.
These are all 12U cubesats?
Four of them are. One is outside the cubesat form factor because it is a bit bigger, around 35 kilos. It’s our own.
What kind of propulsion is flying on the first five satellites?
We are benchmarking different kinds of propulsion, including cold gas and electric for now, including ion and small Hall effect.
Have you chosen your providers yet for the commercial constellation?
We want a reliable provider for the constellation. We’re using the five satellites to fly whatever we find on the market, see if there is a good fit for their product and our needs, and if we can work with the company, and see if the company cultures are compatible.
You’re giving them a free in-orbit demonstration?
We mostly do cashless transactions.
So several propulsion sources are going to be on these five satellites?
Yes. And several propulsion technologies as well. Our operational concept is borderline for chemical but still could be done with chemical.
Is your future commercial constellation a 12U design?
No. Those are 35 kilos, not 12Us anymore. Those are ones with electric propulsion.
You haven’t decided on a provider yet.
No. We look at them as black boxes, as mass, volume and power that give us thrust, and that’s it.
You want to see them work in orbit before you make a decision?
Yes, we’re not going to baseline a constellation based on stuff that didn’t fly yet. We have the luxury of doing five prototypes, so we will.
When will they launch?
For the first one, the launch window is December, on an Indian PSLV rocket with Spaceflight. But it seems it’s going to be pushed a bit. So it’s more likely to be more February than December.
Who is your first demo satellite for?
Ourselves. This one is self-funded. It’s a 12U as well. We want to demonstrate the basic platform capabilities, attitude control, performance, onboard computer, system availability in terms of radiation. The propulsion one is cold gas and the other is electric, both from European suppliers.
Are you ITAR free on all this?
Yes. Because the commercial market is not there yet. When you look at the other smallsat players, usually they’ll say that it’s mostly government access. What we need now in Europe is to have European suppliers serving European needs.
Sounds noble, if you can do it. And you also said only European investors?
Yes, insofar as possible. We are already preparing the next round. It seems we could do the next one with 100% European funds as well, but it’s still not done.
This next round would be financial or strategic investors?
It’s a blend. Now we have strategic stakeholders including investment banks of countries, European countries interested in this.
Who supplies your cold gas?
I cannot say, we cannot go public with this until I confirm with them.
So two independent propulsion systems?
Yes, from two independent suppliers.
But neither have been orbited before?
The electric propulsion system was supposed to be launched before us but they will end up with another satellite with the same rocket, at the same time.
Do you need to wait on the other launchers to see how this works?
No. We have this one, which is self-funded, then we have three for ESA, where the timeline is a question mark with ESA. But I am confident.
So three of the five going up next year, and the fifth one?
So there is one for tech demo, then three for ESA, then the last one is the 35-kilogram one, which will use the same kind of cubesat class hardware.
And the ultimate goal here is your own constellation?
Where are you on data analytics, do you have a team doing that?
Yeah, we have 10-11 people doing that now.
Your own platform, then?
Yes. Just to shed some light on this, my first job was at NASA Ames, back in the days when Pete Worden was doing experiments there. Then I was trained by NewSpace stuff, and basically I ended up in a lab. I was part of the original PhoneSat team that became Planet.
I was working with Google on software aspects of Phonesat. It led to work with the 3U cubesat that became the Planet Dove. Basically my first contact with New Space was there. I was inspired by them.
We are doing basically version 1.1 of Planet’s business plan, with modifications. We believe we can implement this in a better way.
BlackSky is saying the same thing, but with bigger satellites.
And working with Thales Alenia Space. We are kind of pushing away the big players and saying, Come back two years from now.
Once you have these satellites proven out, what’s the next step?
The next step is to put roughly 10 of those in space. Maybe we will have to do another in-orbit demonstration before the series of 10. Since we are a small company and in Europe, we don’t have great plans of thousands of satellites. We tend to be skeptical about this in Europe.
About speeches that don’t deliver, basically. NewSpace suffered from that. That’s why I’m reluctantly doing this kind of exercise [interview]. We try to stay low-profile because we haven’t delivered anything yet.
Your investors are patient?
Yes. Ex-Ange is a French VC investing in DeepTech. We have a very good relationship with them. They are there for the long game. At least they are not there for the six-month convertible exit.
You don’t have to have something up in 2022, there are no fixed dates?
We give ourselves milestones because we need to do another round of funding to go beyond the five prototypes. Interestingly enough, since we raised 11 million, we have been solicited by five or six big funds in Europe. So we are making contact with them but we are not ready to start into the whole negotiation process.
You advertise a 50-cm resolution on a small satellite. Who’s making the mirrors?
We’re not allowed to say. And those are the guys that are making mirrors for Sentinel, so they know what they’re doing. We are past CDR. The mirrors are being polished as we speak. Part of the development is overseen by ESA.
How is that?
We use ESA as a kind of consulting agency for technical aspects. It’s amazing to see there are a lot of whole skills there that are, maybe not used 100% in the classical ESA way of doing stuff. And we go there, and being former employee of Estec I know how to navigate the corridors. You have senior people there willing to share their knowledge, especially if you trigger them with some almost impossible project.
What are the key markets you see?
Like my competitors, like government market is number one. Most of their revenues are there, and we’ll stay there for some time. We share the vision that someday, at a point to be defined, real commercial market might overtake the government.
And there’s enough room in the government market in Europe?
Yeah. Basically, the Belgium internal market is super small but enough to keep us afloat if we need to.
Your cost basis is that low? What is the estimated capex for a 15-20-satellite constellation?
I won’t share my estimate now. Because it will blow back when I will talk to my investors.
But you don’t need to conquer the world.
No, no, it’s very small, and we have a PPP being drafted to reduce the amount of dilutive money that we should intake for the next round.
A public-private partnership with the Belgian government?
With the Belgium government, among others. Belgium is even more complex than ESA. We don’t all agree on how much the market will be and when, but everybody seems to agree it’s going to be big in the future.
So how can we attract investors? By lowering the risk, and lowering the amount of money they need to give you. We’re keeping the cost structure super small and doing PPPs to get them to the point where they say: Yes, it’s super high risk but why not, we don’t need to raise 200 million.
You don’t think the market is saturated?
No, not if you look at the market niche where we’re aiming, which is cheap and frequent revisit with high-resolution imagery. With 10 satellites, we can have one picture an hour. Not global coverage but on certain targets. There are no European companies providing this.
Governmental users for this kind of service is the market we have less uncertainty about.
Airbus is providing a separate service to this market.
Yeah but they don’t do that, they have two Pleaides [high-resolution optical satellites], they will get four more. Even with six, we may put up 20. The idea is not to compete against them. That’s a dead-end game. We’re not going to fight against Airbus. The idea is a system that could be intertwined, where we augment their revisit services with ours.
These are things that can be imagined. If we have to play alone, we’ll play alone, but we are not seeking confrontation in every business niche.