Originally published in Via Satellite Magazine
By: Thom Fain/Mark Holmes
Over the last few years, space has suddenly become hip with the likes of Spacebook, Google and Facebook resonating with young Millennials attracted by the possibilities of working on space-based initiatives. In Silicon Valley, there are many start-up companies with lofty goals and big ambitions. But, who are these companies and why should you be aware of them? We take a look at some of the hottest new companies entering satellite and what they are looking to bring to our industry.
RedWorks has the ambition to create shelters that will enable human colonization of the Solar System, starting with Mars. The California startup has taken lessons from ancient architecture, structures found in nature, the micro-home movement, and NASA studies to approach space habitats from a wholly unique perspective that will make the best use of additive manufacturing technologies.
Keegan Kirkpatrick, founder and team lead at RedWorks, says the company is working on a project it is tentatively calling “Brick Zero,” which he describes as the first 3-D printed building material made wholly from onsite resources on Earth. “This is where we see the prime market, where this technology can be entered into — at least terrestrially, speaking. This will allow us to develop the technology that we want to eventually adapt to build infrastructure in space,” he adds.
It is a lofty goal but Kirkpatrick says RedWorks has got a lot of “positive feedback” both from people in the industry and the general public as well. “Whenever we present people with this idea that our technology would make it possible for anyone and everyone to set up a habitat on Mars, or for a company to be able to take advantage of resources in space … the response is always one of excitement at the possibilities that affords,” he says.
Kirkpatrick highlights the shifts he has seen in the past five years toward reusable launch technologies and in-space services, citing what he sees as a grander shift toward what could be an economic boom in space. “[This] really has lit a fire under us to try and develop the technology required to make that boom possible and more accessible for more companies,” he says.
In terms of where he sees RedWorks going, he says in the next two to five years, it will be primarily focused on terrestrial market entry of things, where their technology can have an immediate impact while the space industry continues to develop. “Our terrestrial technologies are really an excuse to run a gigantic open beta for whatever we use to develop in space. That is to say, as we develop technology for building houses and building material on Earth, that gives us more insight where the bugs are — and lets us improve our technology for use in space,” says Kirkpatrick. “And, at the same time lets us capitalize all that technology so that by the time we are prepared to deploy and service the market as it emerges in NewSpace, we’ll have all the bugs worked out and without having to raise additional funds.”
RedWorks’ potential customer base could actually be two of the companies featured in this article: Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. Kirkpatrick also believes that other companies “will come out of the woodwork” as reusable launch technology continues to develop.
“Right now, we are definitely more focused on our terrestrial side of development, but we see ourselves as being able to service space customers by providing them the basic infrastructure tools. Think of us as the caterpillar of space, if you will: the company that provides the basic hardware to be able to build the material these companies need to operate on new worlds,” adds Kirkpatrick.
RedWorks began as an entry into the NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. Having made it to the finals in New York, the team was able to discuss and talk with others about some of their ideas.
“Our idea of being able to build just with on-site materials, to be able to do everything from the moment you got there — and that the only thing you would need to bring with you to build a colony on Mars would be biomass, and the printer. In other words: the people who have to live there, the plants and animals to grow and supply their food supply, and beyond that you build everything else on-site. That resonated with people on a level that we thought was a very ‘oh duh’ moment. And we thought, ‘of course we’re going to do that,’” Kirkpatrick says.
Things really took off for RedWorks from there. As the team prepared to move into the second phase of the competition, they looked to raise the funds necessary to develop their technology further. Kirkpatrick said the company had started to “play with the structural technologies and that led to some spinoff technologies and looked into licensing a few things.”
“And then pretty soon we’re looking at business plans, and then pretty soon we’re talking lawyers, and then pretty soon we’re talking to potential developers out in the Middle East and customers who want to potentially make use of our technology for terrestrial applications,” he adds.
Deep Space Industries
This is yet another exciting company to come out of Silicon Valley. Deep Space Industries (DSI) is getting ready to launch its satellites next year with the plan to do a resource assessment on an asteroid. The company is developing a lot of the technologies it needs, both for advanced spacecraft to work around the asteroid, and for everything to take the asteroid apart and make it useful for other people, according to Daniel Faber, CEO of DSI.
While Faber highlights other companies working on asteroid research, where he says DSI comes into the equation is on the technology side. The company is building very advanced nanosatellites and micro satellites. DSI has commercial products to provide mobility to satellites in orbit, such as orbital thrust systems, some high reliability avionics, and proximity operation sensors — a lot of things that are a really advancing the capabilities of small orbital spacecraft. Faber says this is “the company’s business right now” and is selling these spacecraft and that equipment.
“We have sort of a leadership because we’re driven by our ambitious goals, and we end up building technology that is more capable, more robust, smaller and lighter and just generally aligned with what customers in Earth orbit are looking for in the next generation of satellites in terms of capability, launch constellations or those kinds of things,” he adds.
DSI has adopted what it calls “a very rational approach” to financing. Faber says in order to execute its business plan, the company does not need extremely large amounts of capital up front. Where it needs capital is to help build the capability of its team and products to sell into the marketplace, creating revenue growth and momentum. Faber says DSI is now “well along” this path.
“As we move into some of the larger parts of this endeavor later on, developing large space craft and the mineral extraction equipment — processing and manufacturing equipment — there’s going to be a larger demand for capital. But that’s going to be on the back of a highly capable and growing company, that’s already showing revenues of profits,” says Faber. “It is going to be on the back of engaging with customers for those future technologies and products. So, we don’t see that there’s going to be a serious challenge. It’s not like we have a blank sheet of paper and we’ve asked for a billion dollars. That doesn’t work.”
The initial ambition is to get its first missions to asteroids. Its likely customers are companies operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), doing things like remote sensing, signal detection, communications, etc. “So it is really companies that are building new, small constellations that are testing out things or scientific experiments and whatever in LEO. So we’ve started building those products and shipping them. We’ve sold several spacecraft, several thruster systems. We are already in the marketplace winning business,” says Faber.
So, how does Faber see the business developing over the next 10 years? He believes in 10 year’s time, you can expect to be returning materials from the asteroid to Earth orbit, and making that commercially available as part of a growing space-based supply chain industry. DSI is going to be developing the technologies we need to realize this and also to use those materials.
“Without the kinds of technologies to make use out of a large amount of nickel, or hydrocarbons for refueling satellites on orbit or supplying the ISS with consumables like water, for example, there’s not going to be any market for it. So a lot of the work we do is in market creation and the utilization of these technologies,” says Faber. “We are working with partners on that. A lot of people have pieces to this puzzle, and all we have to make sure is that they all work together. And have that bootstrap strategy that really shows how one product that we build leads into the next product, leads into the next, which is then useful in that 10-year timeframe.”
Made in Space
Made In Space, is developing additive manufacturing technology for use in the space environment. By manufacturing space assets in space, as opposed to launching them from Earth, the company plans to accelerate and broaden space development while also providing unprecedented access for people on Earth to use in-space capabilities. The biggest thing the company is working on right now is Archinaut, an on-orbit manufacturing and assembly system. Archinaut can additively manufacture parts, extended structures, and then it has the robotic capability to assemble them together. “This provides, if you think of building imaging systems, large dishes or connecting two large structures on orbit or, maybe repurposing some existing satellite systems,” says Spencer Pitman, head of product strategy at Made in Space.
Pitman says Archinaut’s phase one is set to be complete late next year, probably in November. “Archinaut is a capability; it is a set of technologies. Some of those technologies we’ll demonstrate on-orbit, some of them we’ll demonstrate here,” he says. After 2019, Pitman expects Made In Space to launch Free Flyer, an integrated system of the basic mix of these technologies.
Developing an interesting range of technologies could lead to Made in Space having a diverse customer base among the satellite community. Pitman says the main customers for Archinaut would be satellite operators that own assets that are looking toward the end of their life. “We think that if they have a system that gives a billion dollar asset that’s falling down a new reason to live — another 10, or 15 years — then that’s a pretty compelling thing, rather than them having to create a new billion dollar asset,” he says.
And then there are a number of nascent space technologies that are on the horizon when you talk about commercial space stations and further usage of the station that would benefit from having these large structure capabilities on board.
Pitman sys the company is “confident” there will be a strong customer base for Archinaut, saying it offers “a good play for resiliency.”
“You have these assets that a tremendous amount has been invested in already, and this is a way for designers or space companies to think about life-extending use cases for their assets. So we just think that’s a pretty unique value proposition, and in our customer research we’ve gotten pretty good responses from that,” he says.
Pitman believes Archinaut has the capability of “unlocking a new type of space system design.”
“The largest structure we have ever built in space, the International Space Station (ISS), is the size of a football field and took 16 countries, $100 billion and 20 years to achieve. And that’s awesome, an amazing piece of engineering, but if we want a lot of space stations then obviously we have to think about developing different construction pathways. So that’s kind of what Archinaut is,” he explains. “And I think the fiber is cool, because it’s an existing market that has proven market value but it’s made in a subpar environment. So somebody is saying, ‘Oh cool, if we can do this in space in a way that’s cost-effective, we can offer a really good product to an existing market.’”
Planetary Resources is focusing its efforts on sensors that are able to detect the composition and presence of resources. This ranges from thermographic infrared, to hyper spectral imaging. The company is developing these sensors and creating what it considers a very low cost, deep space platform that will allow it to get out to near-Earth asteroids and measure their resources.
“We have the opportunity today with things like the CubeSat standard, and other small satellite opportunities to test these technologies out in Earth orbit and use new manufacturing techniques, new technologies, innovations from other industries to create capability in space,” says Chris Lewicki, president and CEO at Planetary Resources. “We launched our first satellite last year, which represented a new computing architecture. This year we’re deploying the first thermographic sensor into space, which has been for commercial purposes. And we’re making progress toward that goal.”
The company has had Research and Development (R&D) support from the likes of NASA and DARPA, among others. Yet, Lewicki points out Planetary Resources is actively developing capabilities for the commercial market, so this could be Fortune500 companies. In the remote sensing area, the company has the opportunity to measure the Earth from space and that’s taken the interest of companies like Bayer crop science and others in that area, according to Lewicki.
“Our mission and vision ultimately though, is the mining mineral energy and resource industry. And this is an area where we’re seeing increasing interest for doing what that industry has been doing for its entire lifetime, which is prospecting and developing resources and making those available both for the commodity itself, as well as all the financial environments surrounding that.”
In terms of how the company is being financed, it now has a relationship with the government of Luxembourg, which has invested 25 million euros into the company as well as further funding for R&D activity related to the company. “That along with all of the other investment that we’ve had in our institutional financing round really sets us on good footing to continue to grow and develop and deploy the company’s capability,” says Lewicki.
Lewicki admits Planetary Resources is fully aware that creating an asteroid mining business is perhaps one of the greatest challenges that a business could undertake today. “But that is what is so inspiring about it to us. Our team really sees the opportunity, and this is the team that is not just the employees, the founders but also the investors — of being able to make progress on this with each satellite launch, with each contract, with each new technology — of doing activities that push closer toward this long-term goal of an economy that benefits from having access to resources in space,” adds Lewicki.
It seems like many of the jigsaw pieces are falling into place to help Planetary Resources become a success. “And with the development of the technology with the support of country-level activities … whether it be space policy and the U.S. passing laws recognizing the ownership of property rights from asteroids, or the development of space resources initiative in Luxembourg,” says Lewicki. “All of these are strong steps toward making this industry happen. Like all overnight successes there are many, many years of quiet work that put them into place. But this is how we’ve built the company, and really the only way that these sorts of things ever happen is through just a steady focus on the goal.”
In terms of what he sees happening over the next 10 years, Lewicki says, “the progress that we’ll see with all the different companies and interests working on that I think is going to bring this evermore into a kind of ordinary operation in space, where we are starting to see the beginnings of reusable boosters and an incredible commercial activity in space. And at Planetary Resources we’re proud to be contributing to something that we think is important to everything that we’ll be doing in space.”
Defining New Space
There have been many healthy discussions as to whether we should use terms like “New Space” and “Old Space.” So, we asked executives of these exciting new companies to define what “NewSpace” means to them.
“As satellite networks continue to grow with the Earth imaging boom, there is a growing need for in-space servicing technologies. Not just for repair, but essentially to refuel, maintain, and keep hardware flying much longer than has been able to be achieved beforehand. And part of what’s going to help make that possible is the shift toward asteroid mining. To keep all those satellites flying, we need to take advantage of fuel and resources available on the near-Earth asteroids. That is the immediate future of New Space,” says Keegan Kirkpatrick, founder and team lead at Redworks.
Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries, believes there are a lot of different interpretations as to what New Space means. “Some of the New Space companies would like to put themselves forward, as perhaps breaking with the mold of being a government supplier, with all of the checks and balances that that requires. They end up morphing into companies that work mostly for the government anyway, and having to implement those checks and balances themselves. So, to me, it’s not really a very useful naming of a company or a category to put around a company,” he says. “I think what we have here, is a business like any other business. We’re trying to be at the forefront of things, we’re trying to be thought leaders, we’re trying to develop new capabilities, we’re trying to develop new business models — but then every company is trying to do that, whether they’ve been in existence for a long time or not, or whether they’re a large company or not.”
Spencer Pitman, head of product strategy at Made in Space adds, “My exposure to the idea of New Space versus Old Space, or maybe “Traditional Space” as a nice way to put it, is that New Space is the young startups that are coming in and bringing new life into an industry, but I think that’s actually kind of a mischaracterization,” he says.
“Culturally, the way see it, is that we are entrepreneurs that have developed a lot of expertise in space-based manufacturing systems. That’s something that most of the other space companies that existed for maybe 20 years or more didn’t have. And so, we’re just moving into kind of another, more industrial opportunity in space industry. And we’re really excited about working with some of the pillars of the old space industry; we like working with NASA and we like working with the government in general.”
Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources, believes the term New Space is not the greatest of terms. “It started out as a way for young startup companies to distinguish themselves from entrenched traditional aerospace businesses. It was a term that, when it was permanently used in the defiance perhaps — we’re not the old dinosaurs, we’re the new young teams doing exciting work. But I would say more accurately what it is, is it is the definition of a standard business. So, it is about companies that are organized to provide a valuable service for commercial market space. And even a manufacturer of pencils will sell many of them to the government, but of course there are many other outlets for the products and services that are available today. So I think that, in a lot of ways, where the industry today is moving toward is providing something to where your government isn’t your only customer.” VS