Recently, the editors of Via Satellite got together to debate (and argue) who they felt were the ten hottest companies in the satellite. What is great about our industry right now, is there are many companies that could be put into this category, both start-ups and established companies. In no particular order, we decided to put our list together.
Talking about game changers, one simply cannot ignore SpaceX. They are the epitome of the new space era — the quintessential, disruptive start-up. Introducing ideas that no one has dared to pursue before, SpaceX has long ago silenced its staunchest doubters.
Unlike the troubled Tesla, another brainchild of iconic entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX is now a stable trend-setting force.
Behind flashy announcements about sending people to the Moon and plans to colonize Mars, is a company that has managed to undercut all its competitors — in just six years since its first commercial launch.
Steered by Chief Operating Officer (COO) Gwynne Shotwell, our Satellite Executive of the year 2017, SpaceX has recovered from the June 2015 post-launch explosion of SpaceX CRS-7 and the September 2016 loss of the Amos 6 satellite — and emerged stronger than before.
Following the first successful attempt in 2015, SpaceX now routinely lands first stage Falcon 9 boosters and reuses them for a discounted price. Although Shotwell’s predictions to increase the launch cadence by 50 percent in 2018 didn’t come to pass, 2018 has certainly been a notable year for SpaceX.
Out of the 16 Falcon 9 launches conducted in 2018 at the time of writing, nine have used flight-proven first stages. The rocket’s first stages performed eight flawless controlled landings. In addition to that, the two boosters used during the maiden launch of Falcon Heavy in February 2018 landed in a synchronized manner several hundred meters apart.
The maiden launch of Falcon Heavy with Musk’s Tesla Roadster aboard was one of SpaceX’s highlights of 2018. In addition to the increasingly popular Falcon 9, SpaceX now officially owns the most powerful rocket launched since the Apollo-era Saturn V. Billed by Musk as the rocket that will take humanity to Mars, Falcon Heavy has already won several commercial launch contracts for Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, and a military contract worth $130 million.
But SpaceX doesn’t see itself only as a launch provider; two test satellites of SpaceX’s planned broadband-providing mega-constellation of up to 12,000 satellites were inserted into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in February 2018. SpaceX expects to start deploying its LEO broadband constellation in 2019. They claim they are on track, and will have internet service available in 2020.
2. Blue Origin
Blue Origin, founded by Amazon multibillionaire Jeff Bezos, is another space company which has been the talk of the industry over the last year.
Since 2015, Blue Origin has conducted nine test-flights of its suborbital New Shepard rocket. Designed with space-tourism in mind, the rocket — named after America’s first astronaut Alan Shepard — performed a successful landing in November 2015, one month ahead of SpaceX.
Blue Origin’s promises that it would launch humans to the edge of space in 2018 ultimately haven’t come to pass. However, in 2018, the company performed two successful test flights and flawless landings — both with a re-used booster. Both flights reached the altitude of more than 100 kilometers. The second one, which took place in July, carried a crew capsule with a crash test dummy.
Blue Origin’s orbital New Glenn rocket is not expected to enter service before 2021. The company, however, scored a $500 million contract with the U.S. Air Force in October 2018 that will help fund development of the rocket as a possible future launcher of military and spy satellites.
In September, United Launch Alliance chose Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, designed for New Glenn, as a booster for its future Vulcan Centaur rocket.
New Glenn’s booster is designed for 25 flights, and the BE-4 engine will be able to last for 100 missions, according to Jeff Bezos. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) hopes that through the reusability of its technology, Blue Origin will further slash the cost of satellite launches and reduce waiting times.
Bezos, like SpaceX’s Musk, is a life-long space enthusiast and space colonization advocate. The Amazon CEO, currently the richest man in the world, as well as the entirety of Blue Origin, has a quieter presence in the media than the outspoken Musk and media darling SpaceX.
Talking to Via Satellite in March 2018, Bezos said he believed the future of the space sector is more than bright. “I think this is Day One for the space industry,” he said. “I think we will find new uses for space that people haven’t even figured out yet.”
One of the largest satellite operators in the world, Luxembourg-headquartered SES is not one to rest on its laurels. The company isn’t averse to risk, and likes to think outside the box.
This innovation focus will likely only strengthen with Steve Collar having taken over the reins in April 2018. Collar, formerly the CEO of O3b Networks (which SES acquired in 2016), steered the newcomer on its journey from nothing to ‘the fastest growing satellite operator in history.’
Since 2016, O3b, streaming low-latency high-speed internet connectivity to remote areas from Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), has become an integral part of SES’ business plan. Sixteen MEO satellites currently complement SES’ fleet of over 50 GEOs, but the operator plans bold future steps in MEO. In September 2017, SES announced the next-generation O3b mPower — a constellation focused on global cloud-scale connectivity and high power data services.
The first three O3b mPower satellites, capable of delivering multiple terabits of throughput, will launch in 2021.
In 2018, SES underscored its move toward the cloud connectivity market with a contract with IBM Cloud. The operator is also looking into space-based quantum cryptography applications. In January 2018, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launched GovSat-1, a satellite jointly owned by SES and the government of Luxembourg — an innovative set-up designed to help cover the need of European governments and militaries for communications with higher level of security.
Astranis is one of the many start-ups aspiring to bridge the digital divide with satellites. The San Francisco-based start-up, however, goes a little bit against the tide. Instead of jumping on the low Earth orbit bandwagon, Astranis wants to connect the world’s unconnected from GEO. Sure, there’s nothing new about using GEO for communications and its drawbacks are the reason behind the current LEO gold rush. But Astranis wants to do it differently — using small and cheap satellites that would provide cellular backhaul to mobile network operators.
Astranis’ satellites, weighing only 300 kilograms each, would cost a fraction of the price of regular GEO satellites and unlike LEO constellations, would provide stable patches of connectivity with every single launch.
Astranis launched a prototype satellite this year and conducted a successful test sending a High Definition (HD) video file to the spacecraft and back. The company hopes to launch more satellites in 2019.
5. Audacy Space
Silicon Valley-based Audacy Space describes itself as an enabler for everyone with plans to deploy assets in space. Their aim is to create the first commercial inter-satellite data relay system with global coverage. As the company says, the number of satellites in orbit is steadily increasing but ground-based infrastructure is reaching its limits. Operators are frequently forced to erase valuable data due to limited downlink opportunities. Audacy’s envisioned “internet in space” would allow operators to maximize what they can get out of their assets. The system would provide real-time connection between satellites and ground-based infrastructure, allowing anyone to download anything anytime.
Audacy has already secured spectrum authorization from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and won commercial agreements worth more than $100 million.
The company says its ground teleports and a space-based data relay system will become operational in 2019. Commercial operations are expected to start in 2020. Audacy’s three data relay satellites will be positioned in MEO with a constant view of the teleports. Fast-moving LEO satellites will have a constant view of one of Audacy’s spacecraft, and therefore a constant connection to the Earth.
Dubbed the “Airbnb” of satellite communications, Tokyo-based Infostellar is trying to address the same problem as Audacy (the limited availability of the ground infrastructure) by enabling efficient sharing of existing assets.
Just like on Airbnb, where house owners and those looking for accommodation can meet, Infostellar brings together those operating ground stations and antennas with satellite operators looking to extend their communications window. Thus antennas are not lying idle, owners generate profit, and operators get more data from their spacecraft.
The company, backed by Airbus, currently offers a software product called StellarStation, which it hopes will reduce barriers to entry for start-ups. The user will get an instant access to a network of ground stations without needing custom integration.
The company’s CEO Naomi Kurahara sees a $300 to $500 million market for the company’s service by 2022. She hopes Infostellar itself could help the market grow even bigger by bringing down the cost of communications.
7. Isotropic Systems
Limits of existing antenna technology dim the enthusiasm over the upcoming omnipresent satellite connectivity utopia. Traditional mechanically steered dish antennas are not fit for many purposes including mobility applications such as fast travelling aircraft.
To fully unlock the potential of high-throughput geostationary satellites and upcoming LEO mega-constellations, new technology is needed.
Everyone’s eyes are therefore on a handful of companies developing next generation antenna technology that would offer the right performance for the right price in the right shape and size.
John Finney, CEO of London-based Isotropic Systems believes that the firm’s terminals, based on optical beam-forming technology, can usher in the new era of omnipresent satellite connectivity.
The firm, officially launched in 2016, has signed multiple high-profile contracts in 2018 including with SES, Inmarsat, and Avanti. Isotropic Systems also announced that they would be developing ultra low cost consumer broadband terminals for the awaited OneWeb constellation.
OneWeb, steered by visionary founder Greg Wyler, is synonymous with the new era of mega-constellations. Wyler, who says he is motivated by the greater good of the world’s unconnected, spent the early 2000s laying fiber-optic cables in rural Rwanda. It was a tedious endeavor. Eventually, he turned his gaze to the sky and founded O3b, a medium Earth orbit constellation named after the “other three billion” — the less fortunate part of the global population that lacks internet access.
When O3b didn’t fully bridge the digital divide, Wyler founded OneWeb. The company’s soon to be launched constellation of several hundred LEO satellites hopes to close the connectivity cap by 2027. By 2022, Wyler says, even the most remote school somewhere in the middle of Africa will have internet access via OneWeb’s terminals.
OneWeb, considered the absolute front-runner in the mega-constellation race, saw its schedule slip this year and lost their perceived lead over rival SpaceX. SpaceX already has two demonstration satellites in orbit, while OneWeb is waiting to have the first batch of ten test satellites launched in February 2019.
An intensive launch campaign is expected to follow from mid-2019 and continue throughout the first half of 2020. OneWeb is clearly not intimidated by Elon Musk’s plan to build a constellation of 12,000 satellites and wants to upsize its fleet as well. In March 2018, OneWeb asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to authorize further 1,200 satellites in addition to the current nearly 900.
9. Made in Space
They made headlines when they sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014. Their first “made-in-space” products were simple tools for astronauts and strange pieces of art — one would say they were a little more than media gimmicks.
But these were just the small steps leading to a major leap. California-based Made in Space has bold plans. The company envisions that its space-manufacturing technology will free the Earth from polluting industrial installations and enable humankind to colonize space.
The company is moving from 3D printing simple tools to next-generation optical fiber. Together with Northrop Grumman, Made in Space is building Archinaut — a space-born robot designed to assemble and repair spacecraft in orbit. The robot could, for example, print large solar arrays for small satellites that would give them a huge power boost and enable new applications.
In 2018, Speedcast continued with an acquisition spree it commenced in 2012 and cemented its position of the world’s largest remote telecommunications service provider.
The Australia-headquartered firm currently relies on a network of 40 teleports and more than 70 satellites providing C-, Ku-, Ka-, and L-band connectivity to customers in the maritime, energy, government, and enterprises sector, and emerging markets.
The acquisition of Globecomm in August 2018 was Speedcast’s 16th in six years and followed the purchases of UltiSat and Harris CapRock a year earlier.
Steered by CEO Pierre-Jean Beylier, Speedcast saw its revenue more than double in 2017 to $514 million from $218 million in 2016, and expects to reach $1 billion in annual revenue by mid-2021. Since 2012, the firm’s revenue has grown more than 15 times.
The acquisitions of Globecomm and UltiSat helped Speedcast build up its position in the government sector, which is expected to rise.