Category: Launch Segment

OHB satellite business doing well, rocket division less so; multiple ESA ITTs stress Europe’s supply chain

Credit: OHB SE
LUXEMBOURG — Satellite and rocket hardware builder OHB SE reported increased revenue and profit for the nine months ending Sept. 30 despite headwinds as its Ariane rocket division manages the rough transition from the Ariane 5 to the Ariane 6 rocket.
It is a problem that is not going away as Ariane 5 heads toward retirement and its replacement, the lower-cost Ariane 6, enters an uncertain market. Its inaugural flight is scheduled for late 2020.
OHB, through its Aerospace and Industrial Products division, has an 11% share of the Ariane 6 work.
“We are on schedule and on budget,” OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs said of the company’s Ariane 6 contracts. “The overall market is something that [European launch-service provider] Arianespace is working on. Of course it’s very competitive. There is price pressure, and new players.
“Ariane 6 has to prove that it is as good as we all hope it will be. As a supplier, noting has changed. Our contractual agreements are the same as negotiated some time ago. We are hopeful that the ramp up on the market happens as planned, but as a supplier we are really not in control of that.”
Arianespace has ordered the first batch of 14 Ariane 6 vehicles from prime contractor ArianeGroup, which is OHB’s customer.
Because it is unclear what the market’s response to it will be — particularly given the tumult in the traditional geostationary-orbit satellite sector — Ariane 6 is being ordered more slowly than what contractors like OHB had hoped. That, plus Ariane 6’s lower-cost design, is making the transition from Ariane 5 more difficult for its manufacturers.
OHB’s satellite business, based on European government programs, is doing well. But the Aerospace and Industrial Products division is where the work on the Ariane rocket work is done. The transition from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 was never going to be easy. How difficult it will turn out to be won’t be known for another year or two. Credit: OHB SE
“We have significant volume decreases,” Fuchs said of the transition’s effect on MT Aerospace, the division that does the work. “We had something like 11,000 production hours on a shipset of Ariane 5. Now we have 7,000 production hours on Ariane 6.”
OHB SE as a whole reported an EBITDA of 8.8% of revenue, which was up 3.9%, to 659 million euros ($735 million), for the nine months ending Sept. 30.
The Aerospace and Industrial Products division, which includes Ariane rocket component builder MT Aerospace, reported a 7% drop in revenue, to 130.8 million euros  and an EBITDA margin of 9.6%, down from 11.1% last year.
“The goal is to make MT less dependent on the Ariane business,” Fuchs said. “It used to be a very high percentage — two thirds. Soon we will have one-third. This is part of the healthy evolution of MT Aerospace.”
OHB’s current largest programs are as prime contractor for Europe’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites; prime contractor for the six-satellite Meteosat Third Generation meteorological spacecraft; and prime for the three-satellite SARah radar reconnaissance mission for the German military. Airbus Defence and Space is building one of the three SARah satellites.
OHB, and the entire European space-hardware sector, is looking to the Nov. 27-28 conference of European Space Agency (ESA) governments to approve multiple new programs. OHB will be bidding either as prime contractor or as part of a team.
Multiple ESA bid requests putting stress on supply chain
Like the other two European space system prime contractors, Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space, OHB is struggling to manage as many as 10 simultaneous invitations to tender from the 22-nation ESA.
The competitions, for Earth observation and exploration programs, have put strains on Europe’s space-contracting ecosystem. It’s particularly difficult for smaller companies, insofar as the ESA tenders require them to deliver priced bids to the prime contractors, which then include them in their bids.
Industry officials said they have never seen so many bid requests coming at the same time.
A small- or medium-size subcontractor will be hard-pressed to handle the wave of bids now facing deadlines. Officials from Airbus, OHB and Thales Alenia Space said it’s not the programs’ production schedule that is the problem — the actual development is stretched out — but the densely packed deadlines for the bids.
Some of these contractors are the sole European suppliers of a given piece of equipment.
Rocket Factory Augsburg AG: OHB’s small-launcher pitch
OHB is a family-owned company. The Fuchs Family Pool has 69.72% of the equity, which gives it the luxury of investing in what might be considered risky ventures without much shareholder blowback.
So it is with Rocket Factory Augsburg AG (RFA), OHB’s small-satellite launcher initiative. Established in 2018, the company now has more than 50 employees designing a rocket to carry a 200-kilogram payload into low Earth orbit. The company is among those bidding for selection by the government of Portugal to operate from the Azores.
“Initial tests of major subsystems have already been successfully completed,” OHB said in a statement to investors. “To market the rocket, RFA can also draw on the resources of the OHB Group, which in OHB Cosmos has a company specializing in this area. Given the expected rise in demand for the transportation of small payloads, the future market prospects for a mini launcher are positive, especially as the OHB Group itself develops and builds such small satellites at several locations.”
Fuchs explained the venture this way:
“We believe in the market for micro launchers. We have our own assessment of the demand. We have always been a space company, not a satellite company.”

Government development spending protects Avio from low Ariane 5, Vega launch activity in 2019

The Z23 second stage is where the July Vega failure originated. Without a specific root cause found, the inquiry board proposed stricter procedures to be in place at Avio’s production facility. Avio produced these images, showing development of the stage to be used in the next flight, in its Nov. 7 presentation to shareholders. Credit: Avio SpA
LONDON — Launch vehicle hardware builder Avio SpA said its 2019 financial results will not suffer from the fact that only two of a planned 4-5 Vega launches will have occurred, and only four of the planned five campaigns for the heavy-lift Ariane 5.
Avio is prime contractor for Vega and a major component supplier for Ariane 5.
Neither vehicle has been as active as was planned early in the year. For Vega, the expected four or five launches including the inaugural flight of the more-powerful Vega-C vehicle did not occur because Vega has been grounded since its July failure.
The vehicle is currently expected to return to flight around March, and its manifest is unclear for 2019.
In a Nov. 7 investor presentation, Avio said it expected the Vega-C flight to occur by mid-year.
The July failure was caused by a still unexplained “sudden and violent” event localized in the forward dome of the Vega rocket’s Zefiro-23 second stage.
It was the first failure in Vega’s 15 flights. An investigation could not identify a root cause and instead said Avio should reinforce production verifications overall. Avio told investors that given the lack of any other explanation, there was a “possibility of an undetected non-compliance in production” of the Z-23 stage.
In his Nov. 7 presentation, Avio Chief Executive Giulio Ranzo displayed pictures of the production of the stage planned for the return-to-flight launch.
Credit: Avio SpA
Much of Avio’s revenue comes not from production of vehicles  and components but from development programs managed by the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA).
In addition, the company’s customer, the Arianespace launch service provider, books batch orders that mean hardware builders may not feel any immediate effects of a failure.
Avio is an Arianespace shareholder but shareholders in Arianespace do not view their investment as a source of funds. For Arianespace, the lower-than-expected activity in 2019 will have a direct effect on its revenue and profit.
At the end of 2018, Avio had been counting on three or four Vega launches and, in addition, the inaugural flight of Vega-C. Instead, 2019 like 2018 will be a two-launch year. Vega-C does not use the Zefiro-23 stage.
Longer term, Vega rocket competitiveness will depend on the rocket’s being launched as often as possible to reduce unit costs as it confronts a long list of competitors entering the market to launch small satellites.
The heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket is being phased out between 2020 and 2022 in favor of the Ariane 6. The Vega and Vega-C first stage serves as the Ariane 6 rocket’s strap-on booster. Depending on the mission, Ariane 6 carries two or four boosters.
Ariane 6, whose first flight is scheduled for late 2020, is likewise facing a highly competitive market among heavy-lift vehicles and will need to fill its manifest in order to reach the production cadence required to keep its costs down.
ESA is preparing a package of support programs to ease the market entry of Ariane 6 and Vega C. Totaling 2.67 billion euros ($2.95 billion), the measures will be decided at a Nov. 27-28 meeting of ESA ministers in Seville, Spain.
It is because of these development support programs that Ranzo could say:
“The Vega anomaly does not change our medium- and long-term growth plans.”
For the nine months ending Sept. 30, Avio reported revenue of 270.3 million euros, up 3% from the same period in 2018, and EBITDA of 23.5 million euros, up 5% from a year earlier.
Avio said the revenue increase “is primarily driven by the development activities of Vega-C and the new P120C that will equip the next-generation launchers Ariane 6 and Vega-C.”

OneWeb delays 34-satellite launch to late January, moves to dismiss Intelsat lawsuit

OneWeb Satellites’ facility in Florida. Credit: OneWeb
LONDON — OneWeb has delayed the launch of the first batch of satellites built at the new Florida facility to late January to give time for additional checks on the spacecraft before shipment to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Separately, OneWeb and its principal investor, SoftBank, said they would move to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by Intelsat alleging fraud and theft of trade secrets and breach of contract:
The launch of 34 150-kilogram OneWeb satellites aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Baikonur had been scheduled for mid-December.
OneWeb launched an initial six-satellite batch in February from Europe’s Guiana Space Center, on the northeast coast of South America, as part of a 21-launch contract with launch-service provider Arianespace of Europe.
These satellites were part of an initial production run of 10 spacecraft built at Airbus Defence and Space’s Toulouse, France, production facility. Airbus is a 50% owner, with OneWeb, of OneWeb Satellites.
The rest of the 648-plus satellite initial constellation of 150-kilogram Ku-band broadband satellites is being manufactured at a new OneWeb Satellites facility in Exploration Park, Florida. OneWeb said the launch delay was decided to give the company more time to make the necessary verifications on these satellites.
The company has told prospective investors and customers that it would be conducting Soyuz launches with Arianespace on a monthly basis starting in December, and that initial coverage of the Arctic region, including Alaska, would start in 2020.
Arianespace officials have said they are confident that Soyuz launches, from several Russian-controlled spaceports, can maintain a monthly OneWeb launch cadence in 2020.

Northrop Grumman: Our OmegA rocket’s business case can close with just 4 launches per year

Kent Rominger. Credit: Moonandback media
WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman says it can close the business case on its new OmegA launch vehicle with as few as four missions per year, owing in part to the company’s existing space and missile systems infrastructure, on which much OmegA development will draw.
One of four new vehicles competing for a national security space launch contract to be awarded by the U.S. Air Force next year, OmegA is designed to serve the civil and commercial communications satellite markets as well.
“We can go down to just two or three missions from the Air Force and our business case still closes, and that’s planning on only about two additional missions if times really get tight,” said Kent Rominger, vice president and capture lead for Northrop Grumman space launch systems. “Our plan is to fly more than that minimum of four missions, but we can go that low and our business case still closes.”
The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $791 million launch services agreement in October 2018 to build and launch the first OmegA rockets starting in 2021. The company is now vying for the multi-year Air Force block buy that would see the service divvy up 34 launches between just two service providers over a five-year period starting in 2022.
Other rockets in the offing are the new Vulcan launch vehicle in development at incumbent United Launch Alliance (ULA), and the New Glenn vehicle offered by the Jeff Bezos-owned startup Blue Origin. SpaceX, whose Falcon Heavy lift rocket is certified for Air Force launches, is a fourth contender, though the company is not part of the service’s down-select.
Northrop Grumman has designed OmegA to comprise two rockets: an intermediate version able to lift about 85% of U.S. national security missions, as well as civil and commercial satellites; and a heavy variant for hard-to-reach, high-energy orbits. Both vehicles will incorporate Castor boost stages that draw on decades of solid-rocket-motor technology from NASA’s space shuttle program, as well as smaller motors that have flown on the Pentagon’s Minuteman and Trident missile systems.
“One of the ways that we have designed the system to be affordable is to leverage all that existing infrastructure; we need new tooling for OmegA, but we don’t have to put in much infrastructure,” Rominger said Oct 23 at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here. “Because our facilities that are manufacturing the solid rocket motors are not just doing OmegA, we can actually ebb and flow” between demand for national security launches and one or two commercial missions per year, Rominger said.
Credit: Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman test-fired the core stage Castor 600 in May. Although the test gathered a trove of data, an anomaly occurred, resulting in damage to the nozzle of the core stage solid-rocket-motor nozzle and pushing a static-fire test of the second-stage Castor 300 to the end of February next year, according to company officials.
Both the Castor 600 and Castor 300 will comprise the core stages of OmegA’s intermediate variant, which will be capable of lifting over 9,000 kg to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The heavy version, equipped with two Castor 600 boost stages, will be able to place 14,000 kg to GTO.
To augment core stage performance, both OmegA variants can fly up to six strap-on GEM-63XL boosters, which have flight heritage in ULA’s Delta 2 and Delta 4 programs. A similar booster, the GEM-63, is scheduled to fly on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket starting next year, following a successful third test-firing in October at Northrop Grumman’s Promontory, Utah, facility. It is slated to replace Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AJ-60A solid rocket booster.
For OmegA, Northrop is developing two variants of the GEM-63 motors: the baseline GEM-63XLT strap-on for enhanced performance, and a GEM-63XLT that is vectorable.
“For roll control we chose to use a vectorable nozzle rather than an existing attitude control system that’s on it for roll control without strap-ons,” Rominger said. “On the intermediate, you can choose zero to six strap-ons, but the first strap-on will always vector. After that they will be fixed.”
OmegA’s cryogenic third stage comprises Aerojet Rocketdyne’s flight-proven RL-10C engine, which currently powers the Centaur upper stage on ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launchers.
“We designed this system to be simple to maintain a schedule for a tight timeline,” Rominger said of OmegA, which will fly two RL10Cs. “It has separate tanks for the liquid oxygen and the hydrogen. It’s going through qualifications, and it’s a very proven motor, so there’s minimal development on it.”
OmegA’s upper stage is currently being assembled at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Rominger said Northrop Grumman plans by the end of 2020 to have a completed stage in the vacuum chamber at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, near Cleveland, for testing.
OmegA will also incorporate avionics already in use on targets and interceptors designed for the U.S. missile defense system.
“We fly about 16 sets of those avionics per year on our smaller systems, on our targets, and that system has evolved for Omega as well,” Rominger said.
Like its competitor vehicles, OmegA is designed to serve the stringent requirements of national security missions, while simultaneously meeting an Air Force requirement to offer a commercially viable rocket.
However, unlike its competitors, OmegA is not designed to be reusable. Northrop Grumman has concluded that the economy of scale of a larger rocket requires putting as much energy into delivering a payload to orbit as possible, rather than reserving fuel to return the vehicle for reuse. It’s a frequent topic in the reusable-v-expendable debate.
Rominger said OmegA’s Castor motors will use a new electro-hydrostatic power unit for thrust-vector control.
“This size of motor in the past for NASA had a hydrazine-powered hydraulic power unit that gave you the hydraulics for the thrust-vector control, but we have transitioned to electro-hydrostatic by Moog,” Rominger said.
In addition, he said Northrop recently completed the winding of the first flight motor for the first Air Force certification flight slated for 2021.
OmegA also employs advances in solid rocket technology to ensure sensitive payloads have a smooth ride.
“We knew with these very expensive national security spaceflight satellites that could have very delicate instruments on board, you had to provide a great ride quality,” Rominger said. “We designed our motors for ride quality first, performance second. We were very careful in designing our system.”
The May 2019 static test firing of OmegA’s first stage. Credit: Northrop Grumman
With the ability to spread the cost of OmegA across existing production lines, and given the recent Castor 600 static fire test and an upcoming static fire of the Castor 300 expected at the end of February 2020, Northrop officials say the company is likely to continue the launch vehicle development in some form, even if it loses the Air Force tender.
In addition, Northrop Grumman has plans to augment OmegA’s liquid third stage to deliver missions beyond Earth’s orbit, potentially to cis-lunar space, Rominger said.
“With all the interest in trans-lunar now, we’re looking at NASA, who are looking for other spacecraft or launch vehicles to complement their Artemis program, and we know with the system today we can put 12.3 metric tons into trans-lunar orbit, and it’s similar for trans-martian orbits,” Rominger said. “Certainly on the heavy system we will evolve the upper stage to gain more performance to meet some of those demands that we see coming.”
In the meantime, Northrop Grumman is in the process of restructuring its development and production segments to combine space and launch capabilities under a new space systems division. During an Oct. 24 earnings call with analysts, Northrop Grumman CEO and President Kathy Warden said the realignment is a logical next step following the company’s acquisition of the former Orbital ATK in June 2018.
“We expect Space Systems will be the fastest growing sector in our new structure,” Warden said.

Rumors about Arianespace v. SpaceX launch of small GEO satellite indicates how desperate market could become

Ovzon-3, a Maxar Technologies all-electric SSL-500 Legion satellite platform, is expected to weigh 1,500 kilograms at launch. Credit: Maxar
WASHINGTON — The August announcement by startup Swedish satellite operator Ovzon AB that it had moved its first satellite from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2020 to an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket in 2021 created a big splash for such a small spacecraft.
The Maxar Technologies-built Ovzon-3, an all-electric satellite, is expected to weigh 1,500 kilograms at launch.
Ovzon has said that a direct-go-GEO launch on a Falcon Heavy would have meant starting service sooner than the GEO transfer-orbit drop-off provided by Ariane 5, but Ovzon has said the satellite’s electric propulsion will still give it a 20-year life:
For Europe’s launch-service provider, there is no sweeter victory than one over SpaceX. Because a 1,500-kilogram payload is not always a comfortable fit for Ariane 5 and its need to find two compatible passengers going to GTO orbit, rumors began circulating.
What promises did Arianespace make to steal this customer away from its arch-rival?
Officials affiliated with Arianespace competitors — not just SpaceX, it was also International Launch Services (ILS) — suggested that Arianespace guaranteed Ovzon an on-schedule launch even if that meant flying Ovzon-3 solo on the Ariane 5.
That such a rumor would be believed is a measure of how dismal the GEO-satellite market looks for all launch service providers in 2020 and 2021. SpaceX at least has its constellation of low-orbiting Starlink broadband satellites to fill its manifest in those years.
But even SpaceX, which has always been a price leader, has been offering missions at surprisingly low cost to customers. One prospective customer said it was offered a Falcon 9 launch to low Earth orbit for a 900-kilogram satellite for $40 million, as the mission’s main customer, as an incentive to lure the customer from the PSLV rocket operated by India’s ISRO.
For Arianespace, offering to launch a 1,500-kilogram satellite a dedicated Ariane 5 launch would not be well-received by European Space Agency (ESA) governments, which are preparing a fresh set of Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 support programs as Arianespace transitions from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 between 2020 and 2022-23.
“We would be, let’s say, very surprised if that were the case,” said one European government official.
In an Oct. 22 briefing here during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel dismissed the Ovzon-3 solo-passenger idea.
“I can strongly deny that,” Israel said. “It’s a dual launch, and there is absolutely no ambiguity about that. It’s a classical dual launch, with a co-passenger. I am surprised that people would say that.”
Ovzon-3 aside, the near-term manifest for Arianespace has never been less transparent. The company has scheduled the launch of two telecommunications satellites — the Egyptian government’s Tiba-1 and the Inmarsat GX-5 telecommunications satellites — for an Ariane 5 scheduled for Nov. 22.
Satellite delays make predictions of launches after that impossible, Israel said. Will there be an Ariane 5 launch in December?
“It’s not the most probable scenario, but let’s wait and see,” Israel said. “I can see pretty clearly for November, but December is too far away.”
Arianespace has a mid-December launch planned of a Soyuz rocket from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying around 34 OneWeb broadband satellites to low Earth orbit.
It will be the second of 21 OneWeb Soyuz launches contracted with Arianespace. Most will occur from Russian spaceports, but the first, last February, and several others are also possible from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.
A second Soyuz launch in December, this one from the European spaceport, could carry Italy’s Cosmo Skymed-2 radar Earth imaging satellite along with ESA’s Cheops exoplanet-hunting satellite.
The UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 satellite is shown here in prelaunch preparation at Europe’s Guiana Space Center. The satellite was destroyed in Vega launch failure, putting pressure on Arianespace to launch the identical Falcon Eye 2 as soon as possible. Credit: Arianespace
Arianespace’s Vega rocket has been grounded since its July failure carrying the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces’s Falcon Eye 1 optical reconnaissance satellite. An identical Falcon Eye 2 is ready for launch, but Israel said it remains uncertain as to when this will occur.
The Falcon Eye spacecraft were built by Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space, with Airbus acting as Arianespace’s formal customer for the launch.
Vega is expected to return to flight in March. But whether the launch will carry the second Falcon Eye, Spain’s Seosat-Ingenio optical Earth observation satellite, or the 42 satellites sharing the inaugural Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) is still not certain.
Arianespace and ESA are eager to fly the first SSMS mission given the remarkable growth in demand for smallsat missions, especially at a time when the market for large satellites is in a prolonged slump.
“We have different options and we want to discuss with customers to see what their best scenario is for them,” Israel said. “SSMS is a possibility.”
“for Falcon Eye 2, our direct customer is Airbus, and the UAE is their customer. We are 100% mobilized to offer the best solution for the UAE. Falcon Eye 2 is a very important mission and it is obvious that we have to offer different options to the UAE. They will choose the one in their best interests.”

No longer a startup, Rocket Lab’s in the enviable position of not needing any money, for now

Lars Hoffman. Credit: Rocket Lab
WASHINGTON — With a solid backlog and plans to expand its offering to include a small-satellite bus, launch services provider Rocket Lab says it no longer needs to raise capital.
The Huntington Beach, California-based company has raised $288 million in venture capital following five rounds of funding, with the final round closing in October last year. Its current showcase position in the smallsat launch business has enabled it to raise prices, with the latest funding round giving the company a billion-dollar valuation.
“We are not seeking any additional rounds of funding at this time,” Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services, said Oct. 24 during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here. “We have a full manifest of launches and are looking to continue growing our business to be profitable and cash-flow positive; we have a solid financial foundation and it’s growing.”
Since January 2018 Rocket Lab has sent its two-stage LOX/RP Electron vehicle on eight successful missions to low Earth orbit from its New Zealand spaceport. With launches currently paced at roughly once a month, Hoffman said the company expects to increase the cadence to as often as once a week, if market demand for cubesat launches should grow.
Powered by 10 Rutherford engines printed at Rocket Lab’s Huntington Beach factory, Electron recently launched a 16U cubesat to an orbit of 1,200 kilometers altitude. Early next year, the company expects to inaugurate a new pad at Wallops Island, Virginia. The site is slated for completion and activation in December and includes a classified payload processing facility.
“Launch Complex 2 is tailored for government missions,” Hoffman said, though it also designed to launch commercial missions as well.
Rocket Lab has modified its Electron rocket’s kick stage to serve as a satellite bus. Credit: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab is also preparing to unveil the new Photon vehicle, a small satellite bus comprising Electron’s third stage, to be launched in early 2020.
“We’ve taken that to a new level,” Hoffman said, adding that the vehicle can serve as either a kick stage or a satellite platform. “All the components have been upgraded and it will be launched early next year with solar arrays”
Later versions of Photon will incorporate deployable solar arrays, S-band communications, high-precision pointing and positioning, and data storage on board. It has been designed to deliver small satellites well beyond LEO, including lunar orbit.
“We will tailor the sophistication of the bus for a customer,” he said. “If you have an idea for a payload but no bus, come talk to us.”
Rocket Lab has also announced a partnership with Norwegian ground station provider Kongsberg Satellite Services.
“This is the ground station network, an opportunity to tie in the other large piece of your total mission success and tailor the whole mission solution,” Hoffman said. The partnership will see Rocket Lab deliver a complete solution for small satellite operators, including satellite design and build, launch, and ground-segment support leveraging an existing global network of ground stations.
It will also enable Rocket Lab to launch within 24 hours of demand, with only a few weeks between launches and, ultimately, within a few days, Hoffman said.
Between the two launch sites, Rocket Lab will be authorized to launch 132 missions per year, including 120 at the New Zealand pad and 12 at Wallops Island.
“Once a month is about right, but we expect twice a month on a few months next year and want to see that trend continue,” Hoffman said. “We are prepared to build and launch a rocket once a week and are prepared to scale to that number if the market demands.”
He said the company has heard from customers interested in 24-hour launch, including some with plans for large constellations in LEO, where rapid replenishment of smallsats will be imperative. Hoffman said Rocket Lab is authorized to build a second and third pad at the New Zealand complex in order to enable such rapid mission operations.
“We wanted to show we’re on that path right now and able to meet that very stringent requirement,” he said.
In addition, he said Rocket Lab is now flying an autonomous flight termination system.
“We’re using it, implementing it in a shadow mode up to this point but we’re about to transition to primary mode for autonomous flight termination,” he said.
Although Electron is not designed for reusability, Rocket Lab will begin gathering data for a potential reusable first stage booster beginning with its next launch in November.
Announced in August at the Small Satellite 2019 conference in Logan, Utah, the initiative aims to see the core stage reenter precisely to stay intact, deploying a balloon for deceleration, followed by a parafoil chute to further slow the vehicle.
“Then we’ll go out with a helicopter and catch it and bring it down to a boat, without touching saltwater,” Hoffman said, adding that the upcoming November launch will incorporate upgrades to the vehicle that will enable an attempt to bring the core stage back intact into the atmosphere. “We’ll be gathering a lot of data on that flight.”

Virgin Orbit says its light footprint enables it to launch outside the US without ITAR tech-export issues

Credit: Virgin Orbit.
WASHINGTON — Small-satellite launch startup Virgin Orbit said its plans to use spaceports in Japan and Britain will not be stymied by U.S. export regulations because the launches will not involve the transfer of American technology, according to a company official.
“In terms of the regulatory side of this, we will need to go through certain channels to enable taking our system over there, but there will be no export of U.S. technology,” said John Fuller, advanced concepts director at Virgin Orbit.
Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, Fuller said the LauncherOne system, designed to deploy from under the wing of a Boeing 747, will be fielded in a manner that leaves virtually no footprint on foreign soil. The mobile launch service, which in addition to LauncherOne includes a Class 8 clean room and kerosene and liquid-oxygen fuel trailers, can be shipped worldwide.
“I can take this entire system, deliver it to an airport, keep our staff and security staff there, run through the launch of one mission, two missions, eight missions, and then once we’re done we pack up and leave and you wouldn’t even know we were there,” he said. “That’s really how we approach the regulatory framework.”
LauncherOne is designed to launch 300-500 kg to low Earth orbit, with 500-kg-payload missions to equatorial orbits expected to fly from Guam or other equatorial sites.
“We’ve been working with these spaceports closely and we’re also developing a suite of tools to make it faster to analyze all the inclinations we can access from the sites,” Fuller said. “In some cases, for a particular ground site, we could fly near that ground site and greatly expand its inclination access just by going a little bit further out into the ocean, and we’re analyzing that in a parametric sense and we’ll probably release a paper on that in the next three to six months.”
Meanwhile, the company recently unveiled a new Virgin Interplanetary (VIP) service that incorporates a high-energy third stage aimed at delivering small satellites to deep space.
“We take that third stage and bring the overall impulse of the vehicle up to a point where we can reach very high energy launch to cislunar, interplanetary and even asteroid targets,” Fuller said, adding that the capability aims to deliver up to 50 kg to Mars and 70 kg to Venus.
The air-launched LauncherOne system is especially suited to interplanetary smallsat missions because it allows the launch-service provider to tailor declination — the angle of a vehicle’s escape when leaving the Earth system and transferring somewhere else in the solar system – to accommodate mission windows that might not be possible using ground-based launch systems.
“We can use that same air launch capability to increase availability, the launch window availability, the payload capability, or a combination of all three to really serve interplanetary launch,” Fuller said.
With an agreement to launch a small satellite to Mars in 2022 for Warsaw-based SatRevolution S.A., Virgin Orbit is now in the process of down-selecting a third-stage offering “in the next month or two” from among two or three options, Fuller said.
“We’ve really well understood what third stages can offer LauncherOne, we just didn’t have the appropriate market and customer reaction for servicing interplanetary smallsat launch yet.”
The company has said it expects to conduct the inaugural launch of its two-stage LauncherOne vehicle this year. Fuller said the first flight hardware was recently delivered to the company’s Mojave, California facility, where it is undergoing propellant-loading tests.
“We’ll be mounting it to the 747 aircraft in the coming weeks and we’ll be running more wet dress rehearsals on the aircraft immediately preceding our first launch to orbit,” he said.

Germany’s DLR: Heading into ESA ministers’ conference, France & Germany agree on launchers’ strategic importance

Walther Pelzer. Credit: DLR
WASHINGTON — Does the Franco-German agreement on launch vehicle strategy announced Oct. 16 by the two nations’ heads of state mean that the two nations are in agreement on a broader space policy?
Taken together, France and Germany account for 50% of the budget of the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA). When they agree, they are all but unstoppable.
But they don’t always agree. Historically, France has focused more on launch vehicles and Germany more on human space flight and the International Space Station cooperation with the United States.
Each has generally supported the other’s favored program as part of an implicit pact to avoid paralysis at ESA, but that has not prevented heated disputes when it comes time to raise fresh money.
The Nov. 28-29 ESA ministerial conference will call for votes on numerous new programs. But the financial support for Europe’s new Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets — — could have been a flashpoint insofar as it concedes that neither rocket can survive without substantial aid in today’s commercial market.
The German Aerospace Center, DLR, has long viewed launchers as a commodity, not a strategic necessity. That has now changed. What’s unclear is whether France in return has moved more closely to Germany’s view on other topics.
Walther Pelzer, head of the DLR Space Administration, outlines Germany’s position going into the ministerial conference.
France and Germany appear to have reached a broad consensus in the sunup to the ESA ministerial next month. True?
People who attended previous ministerial conferences tell me that the positions among the big four nations [France, Germany, Italy and Britain], and especially between France and Germany, seem more aligned. That does not mean we are on exactly the same page.
The French would like us to be doing different things and we would like them to be doing different things. But this is known, and when you understand each other’s position you can reduce the friction. There are topics we do not need to discuss because we do not have common ground. But we have identified so many topics where we have common ground that we came up with this joint understanding last week, signed by Chancellor Merkel and President Macron. We agreed on several topics, and there are some topics we have still to discuss.
We are in constant discussion. This is one reason it appears to be less stressful. But I don’t think it is going to be an easy ministerial conference.
There is the E3P exploration program, the level of resources including science, and space transportation — in total, a good bit of money. The program is quite ambitious. If you take all the risks into consideration, you can question whether this is in line with the ability or affordability of the member states.
Is the 2.662 billion euros for launchers an issue?
Yes, but that’s only one topic. I think exploration will also be challenging.
Let’s stick with launchers. There is now an agreement that the Ariane 6 will need more support than was assumed when it was approved. Is Germany OK with that?
Germany has a very clear picture of how the launcher program should proceed. First, there is the strategic element: Launchers are a strategic instrument. So yes, Germany has committed itself to independent access to space, which means we want a European launcher to assure our access to space.
In addition to that, we are also in discussions over some form of regulation that we, as Germany, will use European launchers for institutional payloads. This is a key commitment. We have never had that before.
But would that bind the German BND [Federal Intelligence Service] as well?
We are in discussions with BND on whether this is sensible for them. It’s not only the pricing issue, it’s also a matter of security. No one wants to put very expensive payloads on a rocket’s maiden flight. So whether BND is using Ariane 6 is not just a matter of price and the commitment to use European launchers, it also has to do with timing.
Nevertheless, it does not mean that Germany will invest in all these launcher programs to be discussed at the conference. In our view, the issue with Ariane launchers may be in the structure, not the technology. And if you put more money into the structure, that puts less pressure on the structure to become more efficient.
We want industry to come up with a more efficient structure. This is something that only industry can do.
The only way we can become more efficient is if we do not put so much money in the structure to improve the product. Of course there is no doubt that the black upper stage [carbon composite, for Ariane 6] will increase the payload capacity. More payload is good for the product. But there is a question over whether we should do this now, because they should focus their resources on other things.
So Germany accepts that Ariane 6 will need government support because of the changes in the market?
And you agree to provide that support because Germany sees launchers are a strategic priority?
Yes, that is exactly the reason. We see there has been a decrease in the market and that we would like to maintain the industry, so we have to come up with some the costs.
Even if it’s ad eternum?
This is not something we would like.
What do you think of Space Rider, a reusable orbital glider for microgravity experiments that Italy has proposed?
Germany is a leader when it comes to microgravity programs. We are committed to the International Space Station. We are the biggest contributor [in Europe] to it. So we are very focused on ISS and we are putting a lot of effort into the commercialization and utilization of ISS by industry. With Bartolomeo [an external ISS experiment platform] we have a wonderful tool to offer an opportunity for industry to use the station for microgravity.
Q: I asked about Space Rider and you answered with ISS…
I think that answers the question.
The Bartolomeo experiment platform, being built by Airbus Defence and Space Germany, is scheduled for launch in early 2020 to the International Space Station. Credit: ESA
In the new ESA spending category called space security, Germany has recently decided to support the Hera mission, and not the mission to L5.
Yes, we decided to have a different approach on this for the ministerial. On Feb. 13, I made a presentation on the first setup for our agency for the ministerial. It included our priorities and we invited all the stakeholders, — science, industry, SMEs [small- and midsize companies], and government officials — to get their feedback.
A couple of weeks ago, they said they would prefer Hera to L5. That was the reason why I said, OK. The SMEs are the most important part of our stakeholder group for our government right now. So we decided to move in this direction as well.
ESA’s science budget got zero increase, with no inflation adjustment, at the last ministerial in December 2016. You’ve seen the graphic showing the increase in ESA governments’ GDP in the past decade and how science has not kept up.
It’s a pretty stupid graphic. The problem is that the decision makers wanted to spend more on something else. Who cares about the GDP comparison? The question is why we are not able to persuade the decision makers that space is so valid that they should invest more.
ESA wanted a large increase but has since reduced its proposal.
And this is what we recently agreed on. Would Germany have supported a larger increase? We think that science is the backbone of ESA. Nevertheless, we are happy with the agreed increase because we all agreed to it. It’s still a lot of money. The bottom line is that all these nations agreed on an increase for science despite the fact that we have very ambitious optional programs that we have decided.
What are your other priorities?
Earth observation for one We are a leader in Earth observation and we want to remain a strong participant in it. The second is telecommunications — this is where we are trying to be strong.
The exploration package depends a lot on NASA’s plans for ISS, Artemis, Mars and so on. Is it clear to you?
My understanding is that, on exploration, NASA and the USA have a very clear ranking on exploration. There is the [European-built Orion] Service Module, and then more service modules, and then there is the rest. Germany wants to make sure that for the first time in history, Europe is on the critical path. Germany covers more than 50% of the value add on the service module.
The European Service Module (ESA) in testing at NASA’s Plum Brook. Credit: NASA
We want to be seen as a very valuable partner for our friends in the US. We do not want to give NASA any headaches. That means making sure we provide enough budget, based on the current agreed-to numbers of course,  so that the most important element coming from Europe is satisfactory for the NASA customer.
From a US point of view the ministerial might be seen as a little risky. They may think a government could put new money into a program and then, based on GEO return, that government could force ESA to redraw the program’s value chain under the idea that if someone puts in more money, they should get more value.
We have reassured NASA on this.

Firefly-Aerojet: Firefly gets access to US government, GEO-orbit market; Aerojet gets vehicle for AR1 engine

Jim Maser of Aerojet and Tom Markusic of Firefly. Credit: Firefly
WASHINGTON — Start-up smallsat launch-services provider Firefly Aerospace‘s decision to team with veteran motor-maker Aerojet Rocketdyne will see the startup commercial launch company debut its Alpha cubesat launcher in early 2020 before embarking on development of a medium-class rocket powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine and aimed at the small-GEO market.
The partnership is not the first example of a New Space company seeking to gain quicker acceptance in the U.S. government market — somewhere between important and crucial for the many U.S. launcher startups — by partnering with an established player with all the right connections.
“Although we have Alpha well in hand as far as the engines that are built to fly on the first flight, there is room for improvement, and Aerojet’s history of building high-performance rocket engines could be lent to make our engines even higher performance,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said here Oct. 22 during the International Astronautical Congress, IAC. “But perhaps an area of weakness in Firefly is that while we’re a very innovative and fast-moving company, we’re clearly not a mature company because we haven’t been around very long. Aerojet Rocketdyne is a mature company and they can really add a lot of help in the areas of mission assurance and reliability and other processes associated with that.”
Markusic said that just as Firefly settled on Alpha to target a niche in the smallsat market, the company sees opportunity for a medium-lift rocket following the retirement last year of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 2 rocket.
“ULA and SpaceX and Blue [Origin] have the heavy-lift area covered, but the small- and medium- areas have growing business and a need for these vehicles,” he said of Beta, which is expected to lift roughly 8 metric tons to orbit at a price-point that could best the Delta 2.
Markusic said a medium-lift rocket based on the AR1 could also reduce U.S. reliance on non-U.S. engines for lifting some civil and national security payloads to space.
“To date we’ve been relying on foreign sources for those sorts of engines, so I think it’s in the interest of the United States not only to need that medium launcher, but the AR1 is also something that we need, and it just turns out it’s ideally sized to do the kind of mission that we want to do with Beta,” he said.
Aerojet Rocketdyne has been searching for a partner to help develop the AR1 for a medium-class launch vehicle since September 2018, when ULA passed on the LOX-RP engine to power the second stage of its new Vulcan rocket in favor of Blue Origin’s BE4 LOX-methane motor.
“What we like about Firefly, through all the experiences you’ve gone through, is not being so enamored with the technology but being focused on successfully launching satellites and customers into space,” said Jim Maser, senior vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s space business unit. “As we work together and collaborate, that’s how we’re aligned, really how can we best collaborate to have a successful Alpha launching a successful business, and wherever that fits with capabilities is how we want to leverage off the strengths on both sides.”
Markusic said Firefly has already qualified the Alpha launcher’s integrated second stage, but still plans to conduct individual and quad-configuration tests of its four Reaver core stage engines in November. After that, the company will use Alpha’s qualification hardware as a pathfinder for trialing launch processes and ground systems at Vandenberg air force base, California.
“In December you’ll see us starting to integrate and roll out a launch vehicle that looks ready to go out of Vandenberg,” he said, adding that the plan is to conduct a static fire with the qualification rocket on the launch pad.
Firefly has been testing Alpha’s qualification hardware in parallel with assembly of the rocket’s first flight stages.
“If there are minor problems, this will get us ahead and there are probably things we can tweak pretty quickly, driving ultimately toward our first flight in the February-March timeframe.”
Following a successful first launch of Alpha, the medium-class Beta rocket could come on line within two to three years, he said.
“The only way we’ll be able to meet that kind of timeframe is to have a drop-in propulsion option for the first stage,” he said. “That’s where the AR1 can allow us to meet that kind of schedule.”
Markusic said the choice of a single-stick design for the Beta launcher was market-driven.
“Just as we did a lot of rigorous analysis in picking 1 metric ton for Alpha, we’ve been doing a lot of analysis in the medium-lift market in the intervening years, and what we found is we think the sweet spot is north of 5 metric tonnes” to low Earth orbit, he said, rather than the 4 metric tons that a triple-core Beta based on Alpha technology alone could afford. “That configuration comes short of optimally serving the market, which makes us pick up our pencil and go back and look at single-core configuration.”
Although the partnership with Firefly for use of the AR1 is not exclusive, Maser said he does not see Aerojet competing with the Cedar Park, Texas-based launch-services start-up.
“Strategically, we like Firefly where they are in the marketplace,” he said. “We’ve been a merchant supplier of propulsion and we’d have to just look at the various opportunities and see; I don’t think we want to necessarily compete directly with wherever Firefly is going.”
Markusic attributed Firefly’s ups and downs to financial difficulties in the past, but he said the company now has the resources necessary to complete and fly the debut launch of Alpha. Noosphere Ventures is Firefly’s principal backer and has invested more than $100 million into the company.
“The biggest challenge going forward is keeping the team focused,” he said. “Right now there are at least 100 companies like Firefly talking about going to space, and we’re in that crowd of talkers; it is my focus for this company to get us out of that crowd of people talking about it as soon as possible and into the elite crowd of people that are actually flying spacecraft to space.”
Amy Svitak is a Space Intel Report contributing editor.

Satellite geospatial imagery startup Satellogic: We’re funded to cash-flow breakeven; 16 more satellites by H2 2020

Emiliano Kargieman, founder, CEO, Satellogic. Credit: Euroconsult
PARIS — Many New Space companies shy away from talking about costs as though it’s an inappropriate topic. Emiliano Kargieman, founder and chief executive of geospatial data provider Satellogic, thinks it’s not just appropriate, but essential.
Satellogic has eight 1-meter-resolution optical observation satellites in orbit and another 16, with 70-centimeter imagers, scheduled for orbit aboard China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC) Long March rockets by mid-2020.
The company has raised slightly more than $100 million, enough to reach cash-flow break-even based on the orders booked so far and those expected once the new satellites are in service. From there, it’s on to a 90-satellite constellation that Satellogic says will offer a combination of low-cost, high resolution and revisit frequency to unlock a much larger commercial market beyond the initial government customer set.
You are building your own satellites, as is Planet and Spire. Isn’t the supply chain now sufficiently developed to outsource that?
We consider ourselves to be the only completely vertically integrated high-resolution Earth observation company. Spire and Planet are essentially building cubesats in house. I would argue that for cubesats today you probably have the supply chain to do that. There might be not necessarily a lot of gains.
We chose to be vertically integrated for two reasons. One is economic. To reach the unit economics we need to transform this industry, we need to squeeze every cent out of the cost of satellite building and mass manufacturing. Vertical integration has allowed us a 10x lower cost than we would have if we had to buy pieces outside in the market.
The other part is that vertical integration gives us the flexibility to solve the issues where they need to be solved. This is particularly clear in the payload part, such as the camera, where we chose to solve issues at the adaptive optics level in our camera where we could have chosen to solve those issues by software later. We picked the one we think is more efficient.
Our camera technology and the adaptive optics we’re building gives another 8x efficiency advantage compared to any other satellite in our class. If you put both things together, you can solve the problems where it makes more sense. Plus there is a cost advantage when you integrate vertically and can really push to build the right technology for the mission.
I’m not saying it’s not worth paying 10x more for a great product on the market. I’m saying that product might be well-fitted for a variety of reasons of different missions and we just need it to do one specific thing. So when you’re building technology that’s good enough for what you’re doing, there’s a lot of efficiencies there.
Credit: Satellogic
So if you put both things together for us that gets us 80-100 times better cost-efficiency than anybody else trying to build high-resolution imagery satellites today.
You talk as much about cost as about performance.
Delivering low-cost data and both high resolution and high frequency to customers is the key to unlocking the market potential.
To do that, you need to put a lot of high-resolution imagery satellites out there. To justify that infrastructure investment you need to lower the cost to the point where the market can support it.
Reaching those unit economics has been the driving principle since the start of the company. We were finally able to prove that technology in orbit over the last few years. Now we’re starting to scale it up. The vertical integration and the fact that we were able to solve the problems at the right technology layer are really the things that give us the differentiation that will build our company.
There are multiple Earth observation constellations now being built by New Space startups. It’s hard to see how they all survive.
When you have a new wave of technology companies like this ,you get investors excited early on. But they don’t really have the capacities to discern what a good investment looks like compared to a bad investment. They don’t have the track record or the technology experience.
You see money going in a little bit indiscriminately. What you find is many of these companies of the first wave don’t survive. They don’t have the right product, they aren’t aiming at the right markets, they haven’t made the right decisions.
This is true in the EO business but it’s also in the wider satellite world. I’d be more concerned today about the failure of some of the larger LEO communications constellation and the effect that might have on the market than I would about any other player on the EO market, which has received comparatively little investment and little notice from investors so far.
If any of these big bets fail, that will pull investors down, but it’s also healthy. It means money will start to learn to follow the quality deals, and think more about the fundamentals. It’s also healthy as a discipline for companies in the industry to execute better, to focus on creating real value, not so much on selling big pie in the sky missions but to focus on delivering true value to customers.
So I’m not only not afraid of that, I’d welcome it in that sense.
What is the status of your orbital infrastructure and what’s the service life of your satellites?
We’ve got eight satellites in orbit now. We’re building 16 that we’ll be launching in the next eight months. We designed them for a three-year lifetime in orbit, we’ve been operating some of them for over five years now. So you could say we’re over-engineering a little. But 3-5 years is a reasonable lifetime for our business model. I’m more comfortable renewing our fleet and renewing our technology in orbit completely every three years than operating a longer-lived infrastructure.
There’s the capex-refresh rate that is built into our business model. In our case, because of unit economics, that capex refresh rate is significantly lower than anybody else’s.
That’s a strong argument for why we can support vertical integration. The satellite sector is still too small to really reap the advantages of the economies of scale that come with a diversified supply base. If you’re going out to buy reaction wheels for a satellite, there’s just not a large enough market that you’re going to have really a lot of economies of scale with a company that only does reaction wheels that can survive and innovate.
So for the time being, vertical integration is what makes more sense in this industry. It’s going to change. With more and more satellites being built, there’s going to be room for specialization and for successful satellite component companies. But we still don’t see that. We still see that vertical integration is really the way to go. It makes things more complicated from the execution standpoint, but the advantages are very significant.
So the ecosystem isn’t there for sustainable expertise that can maintain high quality in different components.
This is in flux. We’re constantly looking at opportunities where we can develop some of our suppliers into taking larger parts of our component or subsystem level stuff. We push more things to our suppliers, sometimes we take more things from our suppliers. We understand that’s an advantage for us. But the driver for how we make decisions about supply chain is mainly about cost, quality and reliability of that supply chain. When you have the right combination of these, it’s doesn’t matter if it’s us who is doing it or someone else. It’s just hitting those numbers.
Where are you on financing?
Since the beginning of the company we’ve raised a little bit north of $100 million and we’re well funded for this next stage of our business. We have not been required to make announcements on funding rounds, so we haven’t done that. But you should hear something from us before the end of the year, clarifying a bit of that. But it’s safe to say that we’ve raised a little bit north of $100 million over the last few years and we’re well-funded for what comes next for us.
Was the last big tranche the June 2017 Series B?
No, we closed some funding since.
How far does the cash you have now take you?
It will be enough to put our company at cash-flow break even and good enough to continue to execute on our plan — launching the next 16 satellites we’re building now, starting to serve customers and growing our dedicated satellite constellation business.
We’re seeing a lot of traction in the market. If it came to it, we could continue to grow the company organically based on cash-flow. We do expect that we might want to accelerate the deployment of the constellation of satellite and may be looking for additional funding next year at some point. But we’re in a solid position where the funding we have now is good enough to get to cash-flow break-even and to help us to continue to grow based on our own revenues. It’s a first, I guess for the EO industry, or at least for the new wave of EO companies.
A couple of the eight you’ve got now might be nearing end-of-life by then. But that will give you say 20 satellites to operate for a bit. Can you start revenue generation then?
We expect to end this year with around $80 million in bookings and a very healthy pipeline for our dedicated satellite constellation product.
We recently announced a $38 million contract to partner with a Chinese imagery analytics company, Abdas, to support them with monthly remaps of the province of Henan for their own analytics.
For us it was a validation of the dedicated satellite constellation business model and a great first step into the very interesting Chinese market.
We see a strong traction for a dedicated satellite constellation product in Latin America, in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, in Africa. Essentially it’s a product that allows a country, or a state government, to kick-start their own Earth observation program for a fraction of the cost it would take to buy a single Earth observation satellite. Its a turnkey solution with no upfront capital investment, without the technology or project risk.
Credit: Satellogic
We really see our revenue growing strongly based on this product over the next 24 months. The satellites we’re currently building and launching in the next eight months will allow us to serve all of the customers that we’re in conversations with for this period of time, so I think that’s a strong part of the outlook we have.
At the same time, we’ll grow this constellation, from the roughly 19 satellites we’ll be operating from mid-next year to the 90-satellite constellation that will give us weekly remaps of all of the surface of the planet at 1-meter resolution.
For us, this is the big strategic turning point. We’ll will be in a position to start opening this new data set for a wider market and really start going after some of the more mainstream applications for high resolution Earth observation that we believe have not yet been served because the cost, and frequency and quality of data is just not there yet.
Airbus has offered a similar service, so does the PanGeo Alliance a nation buys one satellite and then gets access to a full constellation.
In our case, the customer gets essentially complete control over a fleet of satellites on top of their area of interest. They don’t have to rebook capacity or go through a vetting processes or agree to any kind of shutter control.
They don’t have to compete for capacity in their area of interest with essentially anybody else. They get complete exclusivity of control over a number of satellites on top of their territory. They do their own scheduling and tasking and the data is end-to-end encrypted and downloaded into their own private cloud where they can do whatever they want. This capability today is unique. No other service provider in the world is in a position to provide this to customers.
The Abdas contract starts in 2020 and covers how many years?
It’s a six-year contract. What our customers tell us about the advantage of the service that we’re offering, it really gives them for the first time complete control, the privacy of tasking and processing the data and it comes at a small fraction of the cost of the direct access service of DigitalGlobe or Airbus, a significant selling point.
China is becoming more self-sufficient in EO data. How were you able to crack the market?
In this case it’s not at the national government level, it’s at the province level. It gives the province autonomy so the do not have to compete for resources with neighboring provinces or with anybody else in China.
The sheer volume of data that they’ll be able to collect is something that was not previously available to our partners there. Those were some of the important differentiators. They couldn’t get enough high-resolution data from existing satellites. Above all, they couldn’t get the guarantee that they would get the frequency and resolution of data that they needed. They can count on this data at the right frequency and at the right resolution. For services it’s really paramount.
When you’re competing for resources with other stakeholders, and that applies also to direct-access programs from Airbus and DigitalGlobe, having the guarantee that you’ll have the data you need at the frequency that you need is something people are willing pay for. And when the cost is right, it makes it easier to make the decision.
Is this kind of deal unique to the Chinese market?
I think you will find a similar thing happening elsewhere if you look at different government agencies, and different groups trying to access capacity in a given nation. It’s a similar conflict conflict — multiple groups trying to access the same resources and wanting guarantees that they will be able to access the resource. So there are other market opportunities besides China, maybe not marketed in quite the same way.
Looking out 3-4 years, you’ll have next-generation 30-cm Legion satellites from Maxar/DigitalGlobe DG, the 30-cm Pleiades NEO from Airbus and maybe others. A 1-meter ground sampling distance is a good place to be but will you need to go to sharper imagery fairly soon?
For the applications most people are interested in, 1-meter resolution has been the sweet spot. The cost of the infrastructure to get to high frequency and low-cost of distribution for the data is right.
We’re pushing into higher resolution in the next generation of satellites we’re building for next year, going down to the 70-cm range.
Sub-meter gives you an increase in capabilities at a relatively small price to pay in terms of swath and coverage. I don’t see us going into 30 cm or anything close to that in the next 3-4 years. Again, there’s a lot to be said for data acquisition and distribution at the right combination of frequency and cost.
We’ll build our first constellation that gives us the data at 1 meter and slightly submetric resolution over the next couple of years. Then we’ll continue to grow this constellation to get daily remaps of the planet in that resolution range. We think that’s going to be a game-changer for the commercial industry and the demand for high resolution will probably come a couple of years after that.
What’s the difference between the swath width at 1 meter and at 70cm?
If you use the same center it’s linear, so you lose 30% of the swath.
What’s the swath width of the satellites in orbit now?
It’s around 5 km for the 1-meter resolution satellites.
Do you do image resampling for your customers to produce sharper images or is that not something they want?
We capture 1 m resolution natively in every spectral band. We don’t have to do panchromatic sharpening.
Our spectral resolution it’s actually better than [DigitalGlobe’s] WorldView-3. That satellite offers 30-cm panchromatic images, but when you go through the spectral domain, it’s 1.2 m in resolution. We actually have a 1-meter native spectral resolution. When we talk about our 1-meter- resolution data, we’re not considering any super resolution or post-processing on the data.
Is that something customers care about?
The structure of what we call customers is changing a lot. If you’re thinking about distributing images for customers to look at with their own eyes, I think you’re correct. The new generation of customers for EO you’re talking mostly machine learning to derive some knowledge about what’s going on. To that extent, the information that exists in the raw data is more important than the tricks you can play in post-processing. That changes the equation.
Will government be the dominant market for commercial EO for the foreseeable future?
It’s really about the markets at any particular cost of distribution. The explosion of value-added services based on EO that came after Landsat Imagery because it was widely available and free gives you an idea of how markets can grow once you hit the right distribution cost.
High-resolution data continues to be extremely expensive. There is no way but to task satellites for the imagery targets you want, and tasking a satellite carries with with it a huge opportunity cost. You are aiming your satellite at a given place and not somewhere else.
As long as this is the case, you are going to be building your market case based on what applications support your data acquisition and distribution cost and not on what value you can add to a customer and how much they are willing to pay based on the value that you add.
Until we break out of that problem, the commercial market for high-resolution data will not grow to reach its full potential.
I believe we’re in a position to solve that problem for the first time. The constellation we’re building will be the first one to allow us to tap into mainstream applications for Earth observation based on high-resolution, high-frequency, low-cost of collection and distribution of data when we have enough satellites that customers don’t have to pay that opportunity cost.
What are the technical characteristics of the 16 70-cm satellites launching next year?
The satellites are 38.5 kg dry mass and go up to maybe 40-42 kilograms launch mass, depending on how much propellant we use.
And the orbit?
We fly them around 470 km.
You can get five years’ service life at 470 km?
W can, yes, keeping them there with their propulsion systems.
Who owns the IP for your satellites?
We own our own IP. We design our own adaptive optics and we design our own cameras and we have patented technology around our camera design.
In addition to governments, what are your biggest commercial verticals for the 19-satellite constellation to be in orbit around H2 2020?
We have some traction for the dedicated constellation product in the insurance and reinsurance industry, but that’s the only case on the commercial side for this particular product.
We have been working with commercial customers in the oil and gas industry for infrastructure monitoring, in the agricultural sector for supply chain management and in forestry for operational management and in some cases for cartography.
Given our constellation now and going into next year we will continue to work with those customers but on a limited capacity. To really serve them at the right price point and at scale we need to launch more satellites and that’s what we are doing.
You selected China’s CGWIC as your launch service provider. What criteria did you use? Price, schedule assurance, other factors?
It is 95% price. We are really, really focused on creating value for our customers. We believe the only way to achieve the potential for this industry is to achieve the right unit economics. We are all about unit economics.
Satellogic has contracted with China Great Wall Industry Corp. to launch its 90-satellite constellation. Credit: CGWIC
Launch is a significant part of our capex expense. So cost is the main driver, by far, of our decision to operate with one launch provider or another, and then availability would be the second.
The combination of cost and availability is driving the decision for us and the truth is, availability is significantly more important when we start scaling the constellation. It becomes less of an issue when we have to replace satellites that are in orbit. Cost will always the be the most significant driving factor.
Your contract with CGWIC was all for Long March 6 or for a mix of vehicles?
It’s a mix of both Long March 6 and Long March 2D.
Are your investors going to be looking for exits in 6-8 years or are they more patient capital?
Our strategy that we picked when we thought about partnering with our investors has always revolved around thinking about the time horizon of the project. When I started the company back in 2010, I knew that to accomplish what I wanted to do with Satellogic it would take me around 15 years.
When you have the time horizon in your mind, you don’t go after venture capital. You don’t go after institutional investors on a seven year cycle. You try to surround yourself with investors who are a lot more patient than that.
In our case it’s a combination of strategic investors and family offices and wealthy individuals — groups that can think in a longer time horizon. That has been most of our investor base over the last few years, Tencent being one of our investors but there are also many others.
When we picked our partner that was a significant factor.
Who’s another noteworthy investor?
[Fondo] Pitanga in Brazil, a family office that has been backing us since our Series A and is taking a bigger and bigger position over the years. They are a strong supporter fo the company. Family offices in general, from agriculture and oil and gas industries.
You really had a 15-year time horizon when you started?
I did. I think we’re on the cusp of a really big transformation in this industry and with the potential of space, as a market, to help some of the big problems we have here on Earth. For me it was a career-defining moment. I decided I would spend the rest of my life building technology for this opportunity. I took a long-term view and I still have that view.
If it takes 20 years or 20 years instead of 15, that’s fine. I’m here for the ride.

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