6 SmallSat Companies Building and Launching Satellites
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The year is already off to an exciting start if you’re one of those people whose pulse races a little faster when you hear the “final frontier” intro to any Star Trek episode. SpaceX just completed a successful test of its crewed launch system, “piloted” by a mannequin named Ripley, all but ensuring we’ll be sending a crew to the International Space Station this year from U.S. soil. The Chinese dropped a lander down on the dark side of the moon (cue the music) earlier this year, and rumors are they’re getting ready to assemble a space station as well. Virgin Galactic took its first passenger to space last month and is expected to start taking paying customers regularly to the edge of the cosmos soon.
SmallSats are Big Business
We talked about all of these exciting developments and more for our 2019 predictions in NewSpace article. While this is the stuff that grabs headlines, the commercial end of NewSpace, as it propels itself toward being a trillion-dollar industry, is still very much dominated by the satellite business. The satellite industry accounts for about three-quarters of the $348 billion space economy, according to Bryce Space and Technology, a research and consulting firm in the NewSpace sector:
An ever-increasing piece of that pie is in small satellites or smallsats. The definition of what qualifies as a smallsat varies. NASA defines a smallsat as any satellite with a mass less than 180 kilograms (this is science, so we use the metric system) and about the size of a large kitchen fridge. In its 2019 SmallSat Report, Bryce defines a smallsat as any spacecraft less than 600 kilograms, based on criteria developed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Meanwhile, an aerospace engineering and design firm called SpaceWorks produced a 2019 nano/microsatellite report that focused on smallsats no larger than 50 kilograms.
Bryce says smallsat launches really took off beginning in 2012, with about 1,300 smallsats launched between then and 2018. More than 70% of smallsats launched during that timeframe were CubeSats, a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form. One more little factoid from Bryce: The 319 smallsats launched in 2018 is roughly 6X the number of smallsats launched in 2012:
Meanwhile, according to SpaceWorks, 253 smallsats at about 50 kilograms and under actually launched into space in 2018. It predicts that the number will jump by about 17% this year, driven partly by IoT satellites, which we discuss more below.
NewSpace startups are using smallsats in a variety of applications, including basic research, geospatial analysis, and various communication services. The latter includes those companies trying to bring global internet to the masses, a topic of particular interest to our globe-trotting MBAs. In fact, we’ll be sending one into the hinterland of Alaska later this year for further investigation. Below we highlight some of the startups building and launching smallsats that we haven’t covered before and that have taken funding since the beginning of 2018. So, you won’t hear about Planet, which has deployed 60% of all remote-sensing smallsats between 2012 and 2018, but instead six NewSpace companies that have largely been operating under the radar.
Startups Building SmallSats
That definition certainly fits Terran Orbital, a NewSpace company founded in 2013 with headquarters in the greater Los Angeles area. Total funding is $43 million, with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin as a primary investor, along with another familiar name in Goldman Sachs, in a $36 million Series B last August. There’s absolutely no information on the company’s website, but a report in SpaceNews notes that Terran Orbital is expanding its workforce and buying a new 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that will produce as many as 150 satellites a year. It also owns another smallsat manufacturer, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, which is led by the co-founder of the CubeSat, Jordi Puig-Suari. The California subsidiary, with another headquarters in Italy, recently inked a deal with IoT startup Myriota to build and launch three nanosatellites featuring Myriota’s technology.
Founded in 2015, Myriota is a South Australian company based in the city of Adelaide. It raised a $15 million Series A last March, with participation from Boeing, among others. The startup has developed special transmitters and software to collect and process sensor and device data from remote locations around the world via satellites. The low-power transmitters are only about 20mm x 32mm in size (smaller than a baseball for you Yanks), with cloud-based software that can generate multiple messages per day from the polar-orbiting smallsats. One application is for agriculture IoT solutions, where Australian farmers and ranchers are constantly challenged with managing water resources or keeping track of herds of cattle across tracts of land that are larger than some U.S. states. The company is reportedly mulling an IPO on the Australian Securities Exchange, though we’re pretty skeptical about most satellite stocks. Myriota launched its fourth satellite into orbit recently, thanks, in part, to a Seattle-based company called Spaceflight Industries, which we talk about further below.
Update 04/06/2020: Myriota has raised a $19.3 million Series B funding round to expand its IoT satellite constellation. This brings the company’s total funding to $34.3 million to date.
Another NewSpace startup in the IoT smallsat niche, Amsterdam-based Hiber has raised about $22 million, including about $5.65 million in a Series A last October. Founded in 2016, the Dutch company is attempting to develop a global IoT nanosatellite network for transmitting data from remote corners of the world. Its Hiber modem and antenna connect to numerous devices and can last for up to 10 years without needing a charge, operating in tandem with a fleet of nanosatellites. The company is reportedly already working with more than 25 customers, including the British Antarctic Survey, which needs to send data from Antarctica so we’ll know when the end is near as all the ice melts and Oklahoma suddenly becomes oceanfront property.
Update 03/30/2021: Hiber has raised $30.9 million to expand “the world’s first global IoT (Internet of Things) satellite network”. This brings the company’s total funding to $43.9 million to date.
Startups Launching SmallSats
Founded way back in 1999, Spaceflight Industries has raised about $203.5 million, including a $150 million mega-round last March. The company is sort of a cross between Uber and Expedia, providing rideshare services for smallsat spacecraft. In December, it launched 64 spacecraft into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. In order to handle that kind of volume, Spaceflight built its own launch vehicle that deployed the satellites over the course of five hours once it had reached Low Earth Orbit (LEO), including that smallsat for Myriota.
Last month, Spaceflight completed its first rideshare to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO), a type of orbit required to reach a geostationary orbit. The mission carried the first private moon lander. Spaceflight publishes a schedule with costs for those customers wanting to take a ride into outer space, with prices starting at $295,000 for a cubesat in LEO. The company has a separate division, BlackSky, that delivers business intelligence using geospatial analysis, a recurring theme we hit on recently with RS Metrics and commodity pricing.
A company still developing its own launch system, Tucson, Arizona-based Vector raised a $70 million Series B in October, bringing total funding up to $102.8 million. Founded in 2016 by some former SpaceXers, Vector has attracted investments from premiere firms like Sequoia Capital and Shasta Ventures, among others. The funds will help Vector build a new rocket manufacturing facility in Tucson, an interesting development given that Arizona is one of the newest states angling to build a spaceport. Vector is developing two types of rockets, Vector-R and Vector-H. The former is for the truly small smallsat market, with payloads of up to 60 kilograms, while the latter is designed for the heavier end of the smallsat market at 290 kilograms.
The company is also offering satellite software as a service. GalacticSky is intended to “virtualize” the satellite development process, as the software puts concepts to the test without the need to build and launch a spacecraft.
Founded in 2015, London-based Orbex recently emerged out of stealth with a $40 million venture round last July. Orbex is developing an orbital launch vehicle called Prime, which the startup says will be 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than any other vehicle in the small launcher category. The rocket itself will be relatively eco-friendly, using a “single renewable fuel, bio-propane, that cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to old-fashioned hydrocarbon fuels.” The rocket also features a zero-shock staging system called Magic that leaves zero orbital debris and that will be designed to be reusable like SpaceX’s Falcon rockets. On top of that, Orbex plans to 3D print the rocket engine, something like competitor Rocket Lab is already doing.
Orbex has an ambitious schedule, with plans to launch as early as 2021 out of a new spaceport in Scotland, followed by a deployment of nanosatellites for an IoT network.
Update 12/11/2020: Orbex has raised $24 million in funding to further their 2022 target for first commercial launches. This brings the company’s total funding to $63.8 million to date.
Market research firm Northern Sky Research forecasts that smallsat manufacturing and launch services will reach $37 billion in cumulative revenues by 2027, with 6,500 smallsats set to launch during this time. That means this is probably not our last list of smallsat companies building and launching satellites – and this one is far from comprehensive. In theory, however, many of those satellites will be part of global constellations for communications, whether it’s for
surfing porn checking email in Mongolia, tracking cows in the Outback, or monitoring giant chunks of ice breaking off from Antarctica. And our ability to miniaturize sensors and other technologies like radars will only make smallsat platforms more viable and valuable in the future.