Ok, so those who know me well know that I am a huge space nerd (any founders working on space startups that want to be featured on Talkin’ SaaSy shoot me an email, we would love to discuss what you are working on). But the startup race for space is on! In 2019 alone there were $5.4 billion in venture funding that went into space startups and 2021 is off to a SPAC attack with several prominent space startups going public through this now popular method. As in the Web 1.0 & 2.0 era, there are many opportunities to build and enable this budding sector as we push more and more into private companies driving commerce in space. Today we cover a few of the key opportunity areas that are emerging and a few startups that are tackling these problems.
There are A LOT of satellites in space with even more scheduled to join them over the next 5 years. The function of those satellites is to gather data and transmit it back down to earth. As the data collection tools become more and more sophisticated these satellites are carrying more and more data. The challenge is that satellites are currently only able to pass that data back down to earth when they are over a data downlink site (which they are only over one about 30% of the time) meaning that critical data is delayed getting back to earth. We need a data transport layer (DTL) in space to provide an always-on connection to data up/downlink locations to power continuous data transfer from satellites to the ground.
One startup tackling this challenge is Analytical Space. Analytical Space is building the in-orbit data communication infrastructure to help power the future of continuous data transmission from critical satellites. Analytical Space will launch a network of smaller “relay satellites that will orbit in a series of orbital planes (essentially make several continuous rings around the earth). So that one of their satellites is always over a data up/downlink location. Think of it like a phone line wrapped around the earth in space. When other satellites are in need of data transmission and they are not over a downlink location, they can transmit their data to an Analytical Space satellite which will relay that transmission from satellite-to-satellite until it hits one that is above a downlink site where the data can be sent to earth.
This is an amazing opportunity space in space (no pun intended) as the ability to provide data transportation infrastructure includes two of our favorite trends of the next decade, infrastructure and usage-based pricing. Enabling other entities to pay based on the volume of data transmitted could have major upside as the number of satellites in space and the sheer volume of data they will generate is expected to exponentially grow over the next several decades.
We have all seen tugboats moving massive container ships in and out of ports. This system enables these massive ships to come and go from ports that are tight on space allowing for a large volume of these ships to come and go and make sea transportation economically viable. Well, what if I told you that the same approach could unlock tremendous value in space. Launching various types of satellites requires achieving different levels of orbit, the higher the orbit typically the more expensive it gets to launch into, plus rockets can only deliver satellites to one orbit per trip meaning that you cannot mix and match orbit types in the payload.
Atomos Space is here to solve that problem with a network of space tugboats or their more technical name, Orbital Transport Vehicle. Their OTVs are built to help pull satellites from one orbit and inject them into another which is a far more complicated maneuver than you might think. What this will unlock is a more affordable way for satellite operators to get their crafts into space and then into the right orbit. Instead of scheduling multiple launches to insert a variety of satellites into various orbits, providers can schedule a single launch into low earth orbit (the least expensive way to reach space) and then an Atomos OTV can sync up with the payload and pull each unit into its proper final orbit (space tugboat!).
It might not be the sexiest of business, but tugboats are a crucial component of a major economic vehicle here on earth. There is no reason to believe that won’t be the case as we continue to unlock the value of space.
To keep up with demand and to continue to support the growing volume of crafts in space in the future we need a better way to launch more rockets into space on a more regular basis. This challenge opens us up to two main opportunities, quicker rocket manufacturing, and assembly/and the ability to launch using smaller rockets that require less infrastructure to do so (we have all seen the launch pads at Cape Canaveral, bulky). There are two real interning startups tackling these challenges.
First is Astra, which just announced it is going public with everyone's new favorite financial vehicle, a SPAC. Astra is building a new generation of smaller rockets that are capable of launching from spaceports with far less infrastructure to make low-earth orbit injections a more regular occurrence. Astra recently completed several successful test flights, a major milestone on their path to regular launches that will vastly improve our ability to more regularly service vehicles in space.
The second is a company that is 3D printing rockets. Yep, you read that right, 3D printed rockets. Relativity Space is leading the charge to make rocket manufacturing and assembly faster, simpler, and cheaper using 3D printing and manufacturing techniques. Relativity’s rockets require 100x fewer parts to assemble and are able to be built 10x faster than traditional methods. They also have greatly simplified the supply chain for assembling a rocket making the process more consistent over time.