The African space industry is projected to be worth over $22B by 2026. SDA satellite launch gets delayed. Amazon sued for launch provider choice. And...
The UK is licensed to launch.
SaxaVord Spaceport gets its launch license. Blue Origin scrubs its New Shephard launch. US Space Command declared as fully operational. And more.
SaxaVord Spaceport has received a license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority making it the UK’s first licensed vertical launch spaceport and the first fully licensed vertical spaceport in Western Europe. Blue Origin scrubs its first New Shephard rocket launch since September 2022. HawkEye 360 has acquired RF Solutions from Maxar Intelligence, and more.
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Our guest today is Dave Sterling, CEO of Royce GEO.
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>> Alice Carruth: I know it's cliche, but as a Brit, when I hear that someone is licensed to do something, I automatically think of Bond, James Bond, and images of Timothy Dalton as the iconic spy chasing down the drug lord with Gladys Knight crooning in the background. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, then check out A License to Kill. It's a classic. But today, we're talking about another iconic British moment in history. The UK is fully licensed to launch. It held its first horizontal launch in January and now is set for the first vertical launch from the Shetland Islands.
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Today is December the 18, 2023. I'm Alice Carruth, and this is T-Minus.
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SaxaVord Spaceport gets its license to launch. Blue Origin scrubs its first New Shepherd launch since 2022. U.S. Space Command has declared it's fully operational, and I'll be chatting to Dave Sterling, CEO of Royce GEO, later on in the show about the use of Earth observation data and AI. So stay with us for that chat.
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We start our show this week full of Christmas cheer and good news for our friends at SaxaVord in the UK. The facility on the north coast of the Shetland Islands has received a license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, making it the UK's first licensed vertical launch spaceport and the first fully licensed vertical spaceport in Western Europe. The CAA says that SaxaVord has been assessed by the space regulator to verify that appropriate safety, security, and environmental criteria are met to operate a spaceport, and that it has suitable infrastructure, equipment, and services to accommodate vertical space launches. There are a number of launch operators from the UK and around the world currently developing rockets to launch from SaxaVord who are at various stages of the assessment process with the Civil Aviation Authority. The spaceport license permits SaxaVord to host up to 30 launches a year, allowing the facility to grow as the UK and European space sector continues to expand. The first suborbital launches from SaxaVord in Unst are expected from German rocket firm, HyImpulse, in August, with possible launches from Scotland-based Skyrora as soon as next year. Full orbital launches are expected to take place from 2025. Maria spoke with SaxaVort's CEO, Frank Strang, on this show about the importance of this license for UK sovereign launch capabilities. In the CAA's press release, Frank was quoted as saying that, "The award of our spaceport license is both historic for Shetland, Scotland, and the UK, and places us firmly in the leading edge of the European and global space economy. Our team is very proud that the government has entrusted us with operating a complex, multidisciplinary and multi-launch spaceport, and we all take this responsibility very seriously. There is much to do still, but this is a fantastic way to end the year and head into Christmas." We couldn't agree more, Frank. It was a disappointing start to the day for Blue Origin as their first New Shepherd rocket launched since September 2022 resulted in a scrub. The team took to the social media platform X to say that, "We're scrubbing NS-24 today due to a ground system issue the team is troubleshooting. We'll provide a new launch target for this week soon." Now 33 science and research payloads, along with 38,000 postcards from Club for the Future, were due to be flown on this mission. We hope they figure out the issue soon and return to flight." U.S. Army General James Dickinson, Commander of U.S. Space Comm, has declared that Space Command has achieved full operational capability. The 11th Combat Command reached initial operation capability in August 2021. The declaration comes after demonstrating several capabilities, such as accomplishing the Unified Command Plan mission and having the infrastructure in place to back command and control across mission and business functions. Dickinson said, "Since the establishment in 2019, U.S. Space Comm has been focused on delivering exquisite capability to the joint force to deter conflict, defend our vital interests, and, if necessary, defeat aggression." U.S. Space Comm delivers space capabilities to combat and commands across various operations, including space control, missile warning, satellite communications, and position navigation and timing. The U.S. military's X-37B space plane, which was due to launch on December the 10th, is now targeting December the 28th for lift off. The space plane is hitching a ride on SpaceX's Falcon Heavy from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. We hope to learn more about the space plane's missions and what experiments it will be taking into orbit after the completion of the mission. And speaking of delays with SpaceX, their first Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capability were due to launch on Friday and are now expected to launch on December the 28th. According to SpaceX, the new service will, "Enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling, and browsing on land, lakes, or coastal waters." The Falcon 9 carrying the satellites is due to lift off at 9:00 p.m. local time in California in 10 days. Hawkeye 360 has acquired RF Solutions from Maxar Intelligence, a provider of secure, precise, geospatial intelligence. RF Solutions was formed by Aurora Insight acquisition that Maxar Intelligence completed in January 2023. With this acquisition, Hawkeye 360 gains ownership of two existing RF satellites known as Charlie and Delta. The two new satellites bring Hawkeye 360's total constellation to 23 satellites and facilitate the detection, characterization, and geolocation of radio frequency signals from a broad range of emitters used for communication, navigation, and security. The acquisition value was not included in the press release. A Princeton University and MSBAI partnership has been awarded a $1.25 million phase-two contract from Space Works in the small business technology transfer X22.D cycle. The partners are working on GURU, an autonomous system that drives expert workflows in software to space flight mission training, scenario generation, and visualization. MSBAI and Princeton will work closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles, Directorate Defense Readiness Agile Gaming online network known as Dragon to hyper-enable their White Cell Trainer group to set up comprehensive mission design, analysis, and training scenarios in minutes. And we finished with what could be a solution for ground-based issues delaying launches like Blue Origin Experience today. ViaSat is working with Safran Data Systems to jointly bring a solution to market. So launch providers and spaceports can relay launch vehicles' telemetry in flight through their trajectory and without having to rely on ground networks. The companies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which will see their product, called InRange, using Viasat's global L-band satellite fleet, to provide real time telemetry data for launch missions. The companies say that using space-based communications will allow launch mission controllers to monitor the performance of missions beyond the line of sight, without the need for ground communications infrastructure. We will certainly be keeping an eye on this, as it comes to market.
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That concludes our briefing for today. You'll find links to further reading on all the stories I've mentioned in our show notes, and I've included a few extra for your enjoyment, one on NASA's commercial partners progress on new space stations and an opinion piece from Greg Autry on the mineral supply chain and the new space race. Hey, T-minus crew, every Monday, we produce a written intelligence roundup. It's called Signals in Space. If you happen to miss any T-Minus episodes, this strategic intelligence product will get you up to speed in the fastest way possible. It's all signal, no noise. You can sign up for Signals in Space in our show notes or at space.n2k.com.
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Our guest today is Dave Sterling, CEO of Royce GEO. Dave and I spoke about the importance of the commercial Earth observation market in tech, and I started our chat by asking Dave to explain the work they do at Royce GEO.
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>> David Sterling: Well, we are an advanced analytics firm that is focused on how to implement rapid world-collected data, either from terrestrial satellites, satellite-based systems, and being able to distill down that one unique point to make a decision off of that. In the last two years, we've pivoted from primarily looking at national-level systems to then building commercial capabilities to work with the commercial ecosystem of geospatial data that is has come online in waves in the last two or three years. And we've been able to harness, directly, a lot of the power of that intel and that information and be able to use it to support our customers who are becoming very quickly aware of the speed and utility of commercial space-based data.
>> Alice Carruth: So you obviously use Earth observation satellites to gather a lot of this information. Can you talk me through the process of what it is that you're doing and how you're interacting with commercial satellite operators, for example?
>> David Sterling: Yeah, so our primary focus is in commercial space imaging. So electro-optical and SAR-based imagery. So we do a lot of work where we are directly involved in military training operations and then looking at some things from a larger, more phase-two sort of standing back and watching approach for meeting customer demands. So they're very interested in, hey, what's going on in this part of the world, this mining activity in Central Africa? What we can do, just like we've done for years working inside the Mission Center, we work directly with a multitude of commercial satellite imagery vendors to where we can build organic tasking plans against their capability, collect on that, that target, that location; and then, provide pretty in-depth analysis of whether it's a broad area of change or whether it's specific point-target adjudication, really looking at and reporting on using a lot of AI and ML technology, letting the machines do what machines do best sometimes. And that is, denote that change that's happening at a pixel level and then being able to report all of that information out in very real time. I will say with a caveat on the real time, once the satellite imagery hits the ground, running the analytics and getting the reporting out is typically fast. Where we are seeing the delay, but a lot of -- there's been a lot of focus and effort on looking at that latency piece.
>> Alice Carruth: So you've all touched a little bit on the customer base that you work with being DoD and a little bit of commercial. Can you tell us a bit about the companies and the agencies that you're working with that really like to buy into your abilities?
>> David Sterling: Yeah. So you've got the greater U.S. Department of Defense and all the different elements that fall underneath of that. So what we have found over the last handful of years is that we became really good at doing machine-driven tasking and collecting. You know, a thing happens in a part of the world. It emits a signal. It emits some sort of detection or an event. That event is collected, and then, we are able to kick off collection strategies as a result of that event occurring and doing that with complete man out of loop. What we are finding across the military and in other parts of national security, we -- we're seeing a lot of the folks with the same question, the same concern, the same, "Hey, we want to really figure out how to get this resolved." So our common thesis has been, hey, let's take the years of experience we have built and accelerated in tasking orchestration. And how do we take that and replicate that from a complete commercial standpoint, commercial technology for, you know, U.S. military customers to where, hey, it provides them quicker, faster insights on things that are happening around the world that's of interest to them. In terms of, you know, particular customers, can't go into much detail there, but I'll let your imagination run wild that it's -- we're -- it's all of our friends in the U.S. here that, you know, are doing what they do day-to-day and the greater globe.
>> Alice Carruth: So I did read that you had a contract with the National Geospatial Intel Agency that was the Economic Indicator Monitoring Program. Could you tell our audience a little bit about that program or what it is you guys did for them?
>> David Sterling: Yeah, sure thing. So a lot of what I've just explained, the lessons learned, a lot of them, came out of this program. So this program, as implied, looks at a lot of economic factors, things that are happening around the world and being able to use commercial space-based imagery to provide a level of understanding. And so, if you look at an organization like the NGA, they're doing a lot of activity inside the wall behind a, you know, a skiff. We, through this program, with several other partners on the on the program, have been able to look at traditional activities like monitoring land change or monitoring commercial port activity or commercial airline activity. In looking at it through space-based imagery approach, how are you really reporting on change? There's other systems like AIS for ships and ADS-B for aircraft that can do some of the, you know, similar things. But we really, through this program, wanted to test how do we do that purely from a machine learning, computer vision standpoint? And that's been core for us through the program. So we've done projects where we're looking at 11.5 million square kilometers and reporting on that monthly looking at large-area change in pretty remote places in the world that, quite frankly, don't get a lot of collection. All the way down to hey, let's monitor XY number of airports, airstrips, and economic centers, you know, could be manufacturing, whatever. Just looking at what's going on in terms of growth, no growth, retracted growth, and being able to report on that using primary-sources' commercial imagery, putting that through an ingest process where we are actually driving the tasking. We are receiving the image. We're running the computer vision algorithms against that, and then taking those detects and reporting those out in real time back into the customer environment. So creating that -- really, that closed-loop system. And that's been the main thrust of the effort.
>> Alice Carruth: What do you predict is going to happen over the next few years when it comes to that AI market? What do you think it's really going to offer to people that maybe don't think that they're a space company or maybe space isn't for them, that this could really open the doors to?
>> David Sterling: Yeah, I mean, if you had asked me two years ago, we weren't a space company. You know, we were an advanced analytics firm that kind of -- that was really focused on national security. In the last couple of years, we took the commercial tech stack, along with, really, bringing in some very competent AI and ML practitioners, really up-gunning our own internal tech, using things like Amazon and other, you know, cloud stacks and other technology stacks to really turn machine learning in AIML to a really integrated part of our firm. So I think I told somebody before we weren't trying to become roycegeo.ai. We were trying to become Royce GEO who happens to do AI and ML pretty well. It's one of the things that we use in our toolkit to, you know, help us solve problems for our partners. I think you're going to see a lot of other companies kind of following suit if they haven't already. Quite frankly, I would dare say that, you know, all babies being adopted inside the government, they're driving a lot of this from our customer requirements. And this is -- these are the things they're asking for. We still see it's happening in these like little centers of excellence. It's still not the commonplace application. You think of machine learning, you don't have to be a machine-learning expert to appreciate it. If you have a smartphone, there's probably, you know, 50 applications on there that are using AI, right? So our goal as a company and what we're seeing others really kind of doing, as well, in real time is let's turn the application of machine learning, and in our case, for our customers, computer vision as we're looking at commercial space-based imagery, let's not make that a novelty. Let's make it commonplace. And to do that, there's a little bit of trust and verify. How do you know that the pixels and the information that you're getting off a commercially captured image is going to be of the same quality as a national system and is going to provide that same level of confidence in what you're reporting? The more and more we do that, the more and more that we're educating, you know, our customer base on this is completely possible. In the past, we used to throw, hey, we've got a big area that we need to really observe and interrogate, and it's going to take 200 people, and this and that. We're showing them a very not, hey, this is a whiteboard drill. No, this is an actual -- this is actual. We can implement this today of how you can cover down on the that same area with 20 people, some commercial data, and some AIML and some Amazon Cloud stack, where we could do it for a fraction of the price much faster and give you that same confidence of reporting, compared to a national system. I'm a little biased, obviously. I'm speaking specifically to that realm. But, you know, from a space application, there is a lot of other stuff coming into play. Really, where we're trying to find ourselves in the nexus now is implementing, and we're doing it. I think doing it at scale becomes very costly for a business our size. RF, radiofrequency integration, really getting that up to speed with the commercial imaging constellation to where they're now tipping and queuing and reporting in real time, that's happening in pockets. I'm sure there's other folks that have been doing this for years like us. We're trying to get to the point, though, where what companies like ours can do from a technology implementation today, the customer demand is catching up to it. So we're still not seeing -- this gets back to my point earlier. This isn't a commonplace approach. This is still being looked at as a novelty approach to really helping solve, you know, matters of national security. Not we as a company, but we as an industry, and really understanding the power of commercial space, and space imaging, to be exact, we're really just getting started. There are a multitude of sensors and companies that are getting satellites in orbit in '24, '25, that are bringing more and more redundancy capability, new exquisite sensor types. We, as the kind of the integrators, the analytics guys, need to get smart on those. But the point I want to make is that I don't see this being a one-off capability. This is going to become what we do as a business. Really being able to interrogate what's going on in the world through commercial space, and being able to report on that fast, is going to become the commonplace. You know, it's been our goal as a company to really get ahead of that demand signal so that when it finally grows, we're there waiting for it. And that is what we are spending a considerable amount of time on. I think one piece that is still missing that we are working behind the scenes with several key partners on today, both from the commercial world and the government world, is looking at latency. How fast are you getting that image collected to getting down on the ground to -- so you can interrogate and then make a decision. Because, as you know, our government military partners are becoming more educated and have more complex, harder problems. They're fighting wars with data now. We have to be able to meet that demand, and it's kind of hard to do that when something is collected, and you can't really see the end result of that until five, six hours later, because that issue has moved on. So our goal is to be able to report in minutes instead of hours, and we see a lot of tech that's helping enable and drive that. What we're hoping to see over time is there's going to be a consortium of standards or something that's going to collectively get gathered as a forcing function to really make this happen, not just for the one or two folks that are able to do it today, but starts to, again, become commonplace. That's really, I think, where we want to see the trend, at least in our business sector, go.
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>> Alice Carruth: We'll be right back.
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Welcome back. Would you pay $20 for a trip to space? I know. It's a no brainer, right? Well, how about $20 for a scratch-card ticket by the Texas Lottery that, upon losing, enters you into a second-chance lottery for the opportunity to join the second-chance promotion? Four lucky losers will win a trip to space on Starship Neptune by Space Perspective. The vehicle uses a hydrogen balloon to bring people to the edge of space, some 100,000 feet above the Earth's surface to experience the overview effect. The six-hour flight includes two hours to reach space, two hours up there, and then, two hours descent, all while travelling in a luxurious capsule complete with bar and restrooms. Imagine that view. They say everything is bigger in Texas. Even the losers get the Earth. Now, if you're not fortunate enough to win a seat, a ticket on Spaceship Neptune costs a mere $125,000 with a wait-list deposit starting at $1,000. With more than 1,650 tickets sold and increasing demand, the company expects to raise prices next year as operations get underway. I think the lottery may be the way forward.
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That's it for T-Minus for December the 18th, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit the survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. We're privileged that N2K and podcasts like T-Minus are part of the daily routine of many of the most influential leaders and operators in the public and private sector, from the Fortune 500 to many of the world's preeminent intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. N2K's strategic workforce intelligence optimizes the value of your biggest investment, your people. We make you smarter about your team while making your team smarter. Learn more at n2k.com. This episode was mixed by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our Executive Producer is Jen Iben. Our VP is Brandon Karpf. Maria Varmazis is stuck with no power today, so I'm Alice Carruth. Thanks for listening.
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