Space Force and aggressor satellites. Lockheed says LINUSS is a win. Amazon’s new startup cohort. GPT for overhead. ESA preps human spaceflight. And...
“Please write a title for a space podcast about AI-powered satellites.”
Autonomous satellite navigation shows promise. Rosy prospects for spaceport Nova Scotia. Preventing space war. An espionage case. Satcom for cars. And more.
Autonomous navigation systems show lots of promise for growth. Canada’s rosy prospects for spaceport Nova Scotia. Varda Space’s new funding round. Inter-governmental communications may need a marriage counselor. An espionage case. Some proposed space cybersecurity legislation. Satcom for cars. And more.
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Our featured interview today is with Ian Vorbach, Co-founder of Portal Space Systems and SpaceDotBiz, on the new space startup ecosystem and the balance between engineers and business operators at early stage space companies.
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>> Maria Varmazis: I know. I know. You and I and everyone's been hearing all about AI and machine learning for the past months, if not years, and I am not here to tell you that the sky is falling or that AI is holding it up. Rather, let's stick to what we know. AI and machine learning improvements are happening very fast, and with every new iteration of AI and machine learning, we get new benefits for the systems that use them. Combine increased miniaturization of spacecraft with the increasing potential for AI to autonomously navigate and control said spacecraft, and the potential is mind boggling.
>> Maria Varmazis: Today is May 18, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus.
Autonomous navigation systems show a lot of promise for growth. Canada's rosy prospects for spaceport Nova Scotia. Varda Space's new funding round, and message received, China, and my chat with Ian Vorbach, co-founder of Portal Space Systems and SpaceDotBiz on the new space startup ecosystem and the balance between engineers and business operators at early stage space companies. Stay with us.
And now, let's take a look at your intel briefing for today, and we've got a bunch of business news to start off the top of the show. First up, a report from Market Stats PHIL Group that the global space autonomous navigation systems market (whew!) is expected to grow over 15% over the next decade. The report says that we should expect to see higher growth, especially in Asia Pacific markets and in the commercial sector. Autonomous navigation systems lean on AI and machine learning, and capabilities in this vein are getting smarter and more sophisticated and more powerful, and they're also getting physically smaller. So that means it's going to get cheaper to acquire them, easier and cheaper to get them into spacecraft, and then those autonomous systems can do a lot more to operate the spacecraft once they're on orbit. More bang for your space buck so to speak, and from spacecraft to space launch now, in another report. This one is from the Conference Board of Canada, gives a thumbs up to Canada's first commercial spaceport, Maritime Launch Services Spaceport Nova Scotia, which is under construction at the moment and will be for the next three years or so. When it's built, the Conference Board of Canada says that Spaceport Nova Scotia will have a net positive effect on the Canadian economy overall, as well as the region. Specifically, upon completion the new spaceport is expected to boost Canadian GDP by $300 million annually and government revenue by $100 million annually and create up to 1,000 new full-time jobs across Canada. The benefit of this new spaceport to Canadian companies looking to launch satellites are probably pretty obvious. Fewer regulatory hurdles when launching from home soil, and it's much cheaper when you don't have to ship spacecraft abroad to launch it. Right now, Spaceport Nova Scotia plans to be open for operations by 2027. TechCrunch reports that in-space manufacturing startup Varda's Space is busy fundraising $25 million in its new pre-series C family and friends round with Side Door Ventures. If Varda raises this new round by its May 31st deadline, this new cash injection will put the company's valuation at about $500 million. The company is gearing up to send its first autonomous space factories and reentry modules to orbit this June via a Space X transporter ride share. After three months on orbit, 40 to 60 kilos of material will safely make it back to Earth, and it would be one heck of a proof of concept for Varda's long term plans of in-space manufacturing of sensitive materials for pharmaceutical and semiconductor applications that require microgravity. So, keep an eye on that one. Nairobi, Kenya-based climate data startup, Amini, just raised $2 million in pre-seed funding with support from the Europe Climate Technology Fund and Pale Blue Dot, and it has also been accepted into Sarafem Space's Accelerator Program. Amini was founded just last December to address the gap in climate data specific to Africa, and the company aggregates and parses satellite data from ESA Sentinel and NASA Landsat to deliver current and detailed information on droughts, floods, soil, and crop health to customers in Africa. With this new funding round, Amini plans to launch its own satellite constellation which Amini CEO Kate Kallot says will be more optimized to resolving and understanding farm conditions that specifically exist in Africa. Citas Space has entered into an agreement with Leaf Space to expand Citas's access to ground station services. Leaf Space has 13 locations across Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. So, this new coverage access for Citas means lower latency and greater scheduling flexibility. You know, the year is not even halfway over yet but for fiscal 2023 ViaSat said they had a really, really good year. The company reported record revenues in fiscal 2023, in fact, up 6% year over year to $2.8 billion. When looking at income specifically a big chunk of change did come from ViaSat's $1.7 billion sale of its Link 16 Tactical Data Links business line to L3 Harris. In-flight connectivity for aircraft says the company is also a big reason for the solid 2023 performance, and overall, satellite services for the company generated $1.2 billion in revenue. Three companies are teaming up to bolster satellite based remote sensing and Earth observation, both in the Middle East and globally. Yahsat, BIONET, and ICEYE announced that the three companies are working together. ICEYE is a synthetic aperture radar satellite manufacturer. Yahsat has its own growing satellite infrastructure. In other words, it's the upstream, and BIONET processes and parses geospatial data. In other words, it's the downstream. So, you put it all together and each company's different offerings complement the other. A quick business note, Space News is reporting that the UK government maybe thought about it for a hot minute, but ultimately said, thanks but no thanks to the idea of buying Virgin Orbit, in case you were holding out hope there. During her keynote at the Preventing Space War Forum, Lieutenant General, DeAnna Burt, noted a lack of transparency and communication from China's space agencies. While the US has enacted guidelines for open communications about space operations, China has been decidedly less forthcoming. Burt shared her experiences of this communications gap highlighting the lack of any response when the US warns Chinese agencies of potential collisions in space.
>> DeAnna M. Burt: That's a good question. So I'll give you my personal example. So as the Commander of the Combined Force Space Component Command out of Annenberg Space Force Base today until the Department of Commerce takes over is responsible for all the space traffic management across the globe. The two things that we care most about are the souls that are on orbit, not only on the ISS, but also the taikonauts that are on the Chinese Space Station. So, we are sending, every day, if there is a collision, potential collision, with the Chinese Space Station, that is being sent directly to our equivalents in the organization on the Chinese side. So that is put out. It's put out on spacetrack.org. We have the information available to them, as well, to see what we are reporting against. We get no response.
>> Maria Varmazis: Her concern is that this lack of communication could lead to misinterpretation of intentions, potentially escalating into conflict. Transparency, clarity, and open dialogue in space operations should be a focus for all stakeholders in the industry. So, to our colleagues in the Chinese government, if you're listening, and in the spirit of peaceful purposes and reducing conflict, as they say, "Please key the mic," and the rest of the General's keynote was quite good, especially the Q&A portion, and we've included a link for you in the Selected Reading section of our show notes. Definitely go check it out. As the US Air Force plans to retire much of its aging intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft by 2027, it's It's looking to the US Space Force and intelligence community for support. Speaking at a Mitchell Institute event this week, Lieutenant General, Leah Lauderback made it clear that these changes were necessary to prepare for potential conflict with peer competitors such as China. According to Lauderback, the current ISR aircraft fleet is not well suited to survive such conflicts. This move, however, could result in short-term coverage gaps during the transition. The goal is to leverage space-based ISR capabilities to overcome these challenges. Space-based ISR, and again, that's Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance offers advantages and resiliency and persistence. However, there are concerns that these technologies bring their own set of challenges, such as latency, bandwidth, and responsiveness. Lauderback recommends more simulation exercises to help guide the development of tactical space-based ISR over the coming years, saying, "It's just a matter of the scale. We certainly have experienced using those in a tactical sense today, and nothing that stops us from doing that in the future." Rounding out our military space coverage here, the US Space Force has awarded a $55 million contract to Parsons for the development of a ground system for a satellite network aimed at detecting and tracking hypersonic missiles. This system forms part of a constellation known as MTC Epoch 1, consisting of six satellites scheduled to be deployed in medium Earth orbit by 2026. The satellites under development by Millennium Space Systems and Raytheon technologies will integrate into the existing missile warning architecture. As potential threats evolve, this initiative underlines the increasing importance of robust defense mechanisms capable of tackling traditional missile threats, as well as emerging ones like hypersonic ballistic missiles, and the ground station wars as we've been calling them, continue. And the story now filed by our "play stupid games/win stupid prizes" desk, Dutch News is reporting that Nikos Bogonikolos, the Greek founder of a satellite technology company, Aratos Group, has been arrested in Paris on charges of espionage. Bogonikolos is accused of smuggling US-origin military and dual-use technologies, including advanced electronics that are used in quantum cryptography, nuclear weapons testing, and tactical battlefield equipment to Russia. While he was supposedly operating as a defense contractor for NATO and other allied countries. Bogonikolos and the Aratos Group were allegedly supporting Russia's development of next-generation weaponry. In cybersecurity news now, a series of bills to bolster the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA's role, in safeguarding the space sector have been proposed by lawmakers in DC. CISA could soon be required to maintain a commercial public satellite system clearinghouse and generate voluntary cybersecurity recommendations for the space sector. A satellite system clearinghouse would likely be a central repository or database for information related to satellite systems. This would include technical specifications, operational status, ownership details, and even potential vulnerabilities or threaten intelligence. The goal of such a clearinghouse is typically to facilitate information sharing, collaboration, and transparency between different stakeholders, including commercial satellite operators, government agencies, and other parties. It could also play a role in coordinating responses to threats or incidents affecting satellite systems. These are all useful capabilities that have worked well in the broader cybersecurity community. And Team ISRO is nearing completion of its final stages for the Chandrayaan-3 Project. ISRO reports that they're in the final payload assembly stage right now and tracking toward their mid-July launch window for India's third lunar mission. Chandrayaan-3 will mark ISRO's latest lunar soft landing attempt. Their last one you might remember was the Vikram Lander aboard the Chandrayaan-2, which, unfortunately, had a hard landing on the moon in 2019. And now, a bit of car news in your space news, but they are related in this case. Former CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, Hinrich Woebcken, has joined satellite communications firm, CesiumAstro, as an advisor, aiming to drive the company's vision of satellite-connected vehicles. Now CesiumAstro, which builds phased arrays for satellites, is working with several car companies on a low Earth orbit or LEO constellation for the automotive industry. The aim is to create an open system not tied to a particular constellation or mobile operator. Now the primary engineering challenge here is to develop a car-side satellite antenna at a price point attractive to the notoriously price sensitive car manufacturers Woebcken is optimistically targeting a first-generation antenna that's less than $100. Satellite connectivity will play a significant role in the future of the automotive industry, enabling autonomous driving over-the-air software updates, redundancy, and emergency response. And finally, we've included a piece in selected reading from cleared for takeoff on medium. The article provides an in depth explanation of the role of the Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA, in the commercial space industry. It details regulatory responsibilities, its transition to performance-based licensing, and its ongoing efforts to ensure public safety amidst a surge in launches. If you're curious to dive deep and learn something new, we recommend you check it out. Go to our website space.ntk.com to read more.
And that's it for our intel briefing for today. Now, stick around for my chat with Ian Vorbach, cofounder of Portal Space Systems and SpaceDotBiz on the new space startup ecosystem. And hey, T-Minus crew, if your business is looking to grow your voice in the industry, expand the reach of your thought leadership, or recruit talent, T-Minus can help. We'd love to hear from you. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a note through our website so we can connect about building a program to meet your needs.
Today, we're talking about revenue generation in the space industry. In this interview, we're going to touch on the rise of venture-backed space startups, industry segments, and the challenges like high cost and talent scarcity. My guest is especially focused on the financial landscape of space. So, let's dive in.
>> Ian Vorbach: Hi, my name is Ian Vorbach, and I write a newsletter called SpaceDotBiz about sort of the startups and investing world of the space industry.
>> Maria Varmazis: Let's just dive in. How do you make money in the space industry?
>> Ian Vorbach: Yeah, it's a great question. TBD in some ways,
>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, simple question, right? Real easy.
>> Ian Vorbach: Yeah, exactly. Well, I mean, the space industry is -- it's new. It's -- I think people would describe the new space industry as sort of kicking off in the early 2000s, officially around the time of SpaceX getting going, and really, over the last 10 years, I think, is when you would say it's really sort of ratcheted up. And what I would say is probably the biggest driving factor of that is the interest of venture capital financing in the space industry. So, a new industry that people think they can make money by taking early bets and companies and hoping that they grow and have exit events through IPOs or acquisitions. And that's kind of a -- the excitement in that is fairly new over the last 10 years and even more recently, over the last like six to seven years, most specifically.
>> Maria Varmazis: How many of these businesses are trying to sort of differentiate themselves from maybe the -- the legacy space players? Can you talk a little bit more about that differentiation?
>> Ian Vorbach: Yeah, so, I think that also fits into the relationship with venture capital, because so traditionally, I think how people would describe sort of legacy aerospace, they would typically put sort of the aerospace and defense prime developers of technology like the Lockheed Martins and Raytheons and the Boeings in that category. They're typically selling products to the government, whether it's civilian government like NASA or the Defense Department, and they're developing a capability that those organizations have asked for and have offered funding for the research and development of those capabilities. And that defines a lot of the relationship because there's less risks taken on by the legacy aerospace companies, because some of that R&D is primarily funded. And so, the sort of newer approach that a lot of these new space companies are taking is they're going to raise capital from venture capitalists and take on the risk of developing a product and funding it themselves, and then trying to offer that as a product, either to commercial customers, to NASA, to the Defense Department. And that enables them to develop -- to sort of develop the products in a way that they would prefer to because they're not necessarily doing that to answer to requirements that are placed by their customers. And it also introduces new, like efficiencies around costs, and that is probably one of the biggest complaints of this sort of legacy way of doing things.
>> Maria Varmazis: Do you see the space businesses sort of segmenting themselves in new ways compared to legacy providers or just completely inventing new segments entirely or what are you seeing there?
>> Ian Vorbach: Yeah, I would say if at first, actually, it was not necessarily different segmentation. It was just trying to introduce a new cost effectiveness, a way of providing solutions or different solutions that were innovative. But so, I would say that the biggest sort of segments in the space industry are typically thought of as launch. So, the rocket side of things where you're providing access to space, there are companies that -- and then on the other side of it, there are companies that have different segments along the satellite capabilities. So, some companies that build the satellites and sell them, some companies that operate satellites or build them all internally and sell the data that's provided by the satellites. It's typically two types of capabilities from satellites, whether it's Earth observation or remote sensing. So, you're taking pictures of the Earth from various forms of like -- of the spectrum, whether it's like radar or like typical visual parts of the spectrum or hyperspectral information, and the other side is like moving data around in space. So that's providing internet capabilities, satellite radio, satellite TV. So, there are companies that operate that, companies that, you know, provide that data. And then, I would say even a third sort of segment of that is like the analytics and information on top of all of that data. And that's kind of the traditional ways that I think you would typically segment the industry. And so, the innovation that's come from the new space side of things has often been actually just like attacking those different segments and providing them in a more cost effective way, a better customer offering that you're making. So, with SpaceX being the first, it was like providing a more affordable access to space with their Falcon 9 vehicle. You have other companies that are attacking the Earth observation market. Planet Labs is often considered the one that was the first kind of bigger disrupter of Earth observation, and by taking venture capital financing and developing that capability first, it's different than a legacy sort of prime contractor, building a capability that has requirements set apart -- set aside by the Defense Department or by, you know, a customer, that's writing those requirements for them.
>> Maria Varmazis: Okay, since we're talking at really high level, I figure I'll ask some really high level questions on along those lines. So, challenges facing a lot of the businesses either that are especially startups. Is it things like launch capacity? What are they seeing? What walls are they hitting typically?
>> Ian Vorbach: Clearly, like it's a highly capital-intensive industry. So you -- it takes a lot of money to put things in space. Yeah, it takes a lot of money to build a rocket. And so, you have a lot of costs upfront, and that's a challenge, because you have to raise a lot of capital at first. And historically, the biggest challenge, I would say, is there haven't been a ton of examples of exit events where by that I mean, a company raises capital, and then goes public or gets acquired. So, there's not a lot of examples that a founder can go to an investor and say, "I'm going to return your money at a magnitude higher than you gave it to me in 10 years." And so that's probably, actually, the -- one of the bigger challenges, and I would say that that's actually starting to be overcome a little bit. We're starting to build some examples of exit events that have taken place in the space industry. There are smaller ones that existed previously. But it's starting to become a situation where you have examples of that. And so, that's slowly starting to be sort of beaten down that challenge, but it continues to be one that -- there's a there's another challenges. There's kind of a labor shortage in the industry. There hasn't been a significant overlap, because the industry is so young, of people who are -- have a lot of experience building aerospace technology and people who have scaled venture-funded startups. And that's also sort of being resolved every year as there's just more experience in this industry in figuring out how do you take money from the venture capital industry, put it into a space startup, and scale it and sort of fit it into a venture investment model that's traditionally been built around software companies.
>> Maria Varmazis: Talent pipeline is always quite a challenge to overcoming capital, obviously. But talent pipeline is an interesting challenge, and hopefully, one that resolves in time. And do you see other industries as examples that, perhaps, space industry can follow in that regard?
>> Ian Vorbach: Yeah, there are other industries that have similar challenges. I'm not an expert in it, but the sort of biosciences industry has significant upfront costs. And then, you often have like, very large, positive outcomes, if, you know, if a medicine you're developing has the impact that you're hoping it does. I would say, actually, the climate industry has a lot of overlap right now in the space world. There is one advantage that is really unique that space actually does have, which is that there's a huge amount of buying power that exists in the government for the space industry, whether it comes from the Defense Department or from civilian government organizations like NASA that are trying to do scientific and experimentation in space are the other things in that area. And it creates, actually, a certain amount of customer base that really never goes away even in challenging financial periods like we're in right now.
>> Maria Varmazis: We're -- yeah.
>> Ian Vorbach: And so, yeah, so it actually ends up being an industry that's fairly -- that has some amount of anticyclical behavior, because even now, those two organizations remain huge customers. I actually recognize that they have to be customers, if you want all these space companies to survive financial periods, like we're experiencing. So there's actually a huge, very unique benefit space industry has that is a little differentiated from other sort of capital intensive, what people call like frontier or deep tech markets.
>> Maria Varmazis: Right. Sounds like a great opportunity there. Who are you most excited about? Like who are you watching going, "I can't wait to see what they're going to do next?"
>> Ian Vorbach: Oh, that's a good question. You know, I have friends at a lot of these organizations and --
>> Maria Varmazis: I'm making you choose a child, right?
>> Ian Vorbach: Yeah, it's tough in that way. But I would say, in terms of what is going to be disruptive. I think, and I'm a little biased, because I have a background in the rocket engine development and launch side of things. I think that the more you can have innovation in the launch side of the industry and access and the cost of getting into space goes down, that continues to be a hugely enabling factor. And so, you know, I have friends who are at SpaceX, obviously, being one of the most dominant, you know, sort of players in the industry and friends who are down at Boca Chica in Texas working on the Starship Program.
>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, yeah, yeah.
>> Ian Vorbach: I'm very hopeful and optimistic that that has the impact that we all kind of hope it will. So, you know, that's exciting, and all the sort of launch companies that are hoping to actually add some competitiveness to the market, whether it's Blue Origin with their new Glenn Vehicle, Relativity, ABL. So, that there's a handful of those kinds of companies that I think we're now seeing as the market sort of transitions away from benefiting companies that can focus on massive market sizes, like theoretical market sizes, that there's a new emphasis on execution. Every one of those companies is really trying to introduce a new launch capability over the next few years, and that execution is going to be like really the critically differentiating factor, and the more all of them can sort of bring their products to market and sort of expand the access to space, I think it's really just going to help everyone. And so, I think, the more we can all sort of be enthusiastic around those organizations, the better.
>> Maria Varmazis: What is your advice to anyone looking to break into this industry? Maybe they're making a move into it, perhaps not fresh out of school, but they're experienced in another field, and they're looking to maybe move into the space industry. Any advice?
>> Ian Vorbach: It's a more accessible industry, I think, than most people would think. And so, just talk to people in the industry and I believe you will find a way to get involved, and as these companies mature from very early stage to more growth and scaling stage companies, and some of them even being public now, there's not just engineering talent that's needed. There is business development, talent, strategy, sales roles. And so, I think there's room for a larger sort of swath of people. Ultimately, it's a business just like if this industry is going to succeed, it's going to need to make money, and we're going to need to have products that have positive margins. And so, you know, all the talent that's come from highly competitive other mature markets where people have figured out how to build great, you know, economic businesses, is going to need to be relevant in the space industry, and we could actually, I think, really use that talent. So, I think there's a need and I think we'd be benefited by those individuals figuring out a way to get over it.
>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back.
Welcome back, and for our final item for today, this one's a shout out, and it goes out to the Student Rocketeers at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University on their incredible accomplishment. Last month, the team called the Cygnus Suborbitals, set a record with their rocket, The Deneb, for maximum altitude achieved by a small rocket launched by a US undergraduate and collegiate amateurs. They hit an altitude of 47,732 feet, or 14,548 meters, and that is 1.6 times taller than Mount Everest. After more than 4,000 hours of work and then three scrubbed launch attempts that forced the Cygnus Suborbitals to have to camp out an extra night in the Mojave Desert in California. The liquid-fueled Deneb's 26.1-second-long flight reached Mach 1.5 and nearly doubled the previous flight record for highest undergrad and collegiate amateur liquid rocket launch in the US.
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And if you're thinking, "Wow, I bet these students would make great future aerospace engineers," yep. So did SpaceX Blue Origin and Firefly Aerospace who have all already recruited a whole bunch of them.
And that's it for T-Minus for May 18, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. 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. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tré Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our Chief Intelligence Officer is Eric Tillman, and I'm Maria Varmazis: Thanks for listening.