As humans prepare their return to the moon, demand for luna-location and communications is pushing American and European teams to design humanity’s first lunar satellite network
The space startup ecosystem is blossoming, led by the wild success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The US is leading the charge, but startups from Israel, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Finland are also putting the right foot forward to get “astropreneurship” off the ground. Despite their small size by comparison to the competition, Finland has made some stunning contributions to the industry in the last year, and one software company has entered the industry with several major goals in mind. Among them? Launching humanity’s first network of satellites around the Moon.
“Constellation size depends on use case: what kind of coverage or data acquisition rate is required,” Reaktor’s Juha-Matti Liukkonen, the company’s director of space and robotics, explained to Geektime. He oversees the company’s space spinoff, the aptly named Reaktor Space Lab (RSL), which is run by CEO Tuomas Tikka and COO Heikki Salokanto.
We first got the chance to chat last December on the sidelines of Helsinki’s annual Slush tech conference. In the haste to cover everything, we only managed to find the time recently to finish our initial exchange via email. That event showed off much of Finland’s space prowess, but could not do the local industry enough justice.
So why is Finland a place to keep an eye on for the space industry? Well, for starters the European Space Agency (ESA – Europe’s counterpart to NASA) has reported that it is expanding its business incubator network (ESA BIC) to Finland this spring (and neighboring Sweden). Helsinki is also home to Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola’s space media company Cohu Experience, which is one of the cosponsors of international astronaut competition Space Nation; Delta Cygni Labs; and micro-welding and materials company Primoceler.
“European investment is seen mainly in Luxembourg, focusing on asteroid mining, but the European investment scene is starting to wake up to space as an opportunity,” Liukkonen comments, and Finland is an outsized contender in the burgeoning sector. “Finland has had a small and specialized space industry for over 30 years, mostly building instruments for ESA and NASA missions.”
RSL previously designed the Aalto-1 and Aalto-2 satellites for the local Aalto University. This July, they plan to launch Finland’s first fully commercial satellite — Reaktor Hello World — with ISRO from an Indian PSLV rocket. Liukkonen expects radio frequency permits for the satellite to clear the month before.
Their near-term business goal is to design and build satellite networks providing large amounts of data for projects like crop monitoring and smart cities. They offer the whole kit and caboodle: mission design, satellite design, manufacturing, testing, launch, and operations.
Liukkonen wouldn’t disclose the names of any prospective clients, but did say Space Labs has started designing basic network packages.
“We are designing one which seems to require between 20 and 28 satellites, and another one which can be operational at 10 satellites but whose capability and supported use cases will increase when more satellites get added.”
The instruments and abilities of those satellites would have to be sophisticated to maintain market share in a booming industry. Liukkonen thinks they are set on that front. “Hyperspectral data are key for many use cases from precision agriculture to mineral prospecting, and RSL can provide high spectral resolution and 10-30m GSD imagers as well.”
Deploying humanity’s first lunar satellite network
By spring 2018, we might be entering a new phase in the modern, entrepreneur-led space race. A handful of teams will compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE in late 2017 and early 2018, trying to land a rover on the moon and get it to travel 500 meters across the surface.
Competitors will inevitably face a challenge from none other than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and possibly (probably?) SpaceX. With companies like that making a push, the Moon is almost certain to start eating into the share of venture capital flowing to astropreneurial startups.
To that end, the ESA has put out calls for several lunar projects. One imagines the construction of a lunar base built exclusively with 3D-printing tech, while another would modify earth-observation (EO) technology by creating better imaging the moon (a description of any more detail would probably not qualify as ‘laymen’s terms’). A third, Lunar Cubesats for Exploration (LUCE), has Reaktor’s attention.
That project wants “to generate a number of cubesat / smallsat mission and system concepts . . . which can support ESA’s lunar exploration objectives and respond to flight opportunities in a timely way.” Lunar surface sensing, volatile prospecting, communications, and localization are all mentioned as desired satellite capabilities in the tender.
They also aren’t the only players in the game. NASA announced last week it would award two proposals for lunar cubesat concepts with resources to develop fully fledged mission schematics: “CubeX” by Suzanne Romaine of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory would map elemental composition of the lunar surface while “BOLAS” by Timothy Stubbs of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center would study the lunar hydrogen cycle and electromagnetic storms.
Both of those projects would deploy a 12-strong lunar satellite constellation. That means there are at least three complex proposals for building such a network right now, with several more probably being drawn up as you read this.
“Combining two cases that we are working on translates perfectly to a lunar application to support lunar operations,” Liukkonen conferred to Geektime.
Despite that and efforts by companies like would-be lunar-mining company and XPRIZE participant Moon Express, he does not see ‘lunarpreneurship’ happening without major pushes from governments.
The role of NASA and ESA in growing the lunar startup ecosystem
Various satellites have been put into lunar orbit historically, but only four are currently active: NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, China’s Chang’e 5-T1, ARTEMIS P1 and ARTEMIS P2. Getting more up there necessitates NASA’s and ESA’s continued involvement, Liukkonen argues.
“We don’t see an immediate business opportunity in the Moon so these kind of missions need to be space agency initiatives. The space agency projects are needed to establish the necessary infrastructure on the Moon to enable later commercial operations.”
What kind of missions? Before anything like moon mining becomes sustainable, using the Moon as an interplanetary gas station is the most practical way to give industry a firm footing on Big Gray.
“In our view, one of the primary business opportunities in the Moon is to produce rocket fuel for the US, Chinese, and Indian Mars missions. Once we have an infrastructure to fuel spaceships in orbit, the economics of interplanetary flight changes and the solar system opens up.”
“Another interesting long term track is in-orbit or lunar spacecraft production so that we can avoid the expensive launch phase and related structural requirements for satellites,” he suggests. That means avoiding the excessive fuel costs of blasting out of Earth’s atmosphere, instead mechanizing ship production (or at least small-sat production) on the Moon or from a space station.
“This of course implies that we need to find and harvest most of the necessary materials from the Moon. Hyperspectral imagers help, but we’ll also need significant advances in robotics and 3D printing,” he says, dovetailing with the aforementioned feelers put out by ESA and a similar contest developed by NASA (watch the video) that gave out prizes last year and has a second iteration in 2017.
With the Lunar XPRIZE hanging in the air (in orbit?) and never-ending discussion about a mission to Luna as a stepping stone to Mars, the timeline for developing infrastructure is actually shorter than you might imagine. Building any sort of facilities will require ‘LO’ — lunar-observation satellite data — to inspect landing sites, possible base sites, and any area of the lunar surface that might be of interest for material exploitation in 3D construction.
“ESA wants to have humans back on the Moon by 2030,” Liukkonen. “That means we need to have the first rounds of infrastructure, such as radiation measurement satellites and other operations support systems appearing there around 2020.”
Coming in spring 2018: the ‘New Space’ race’s second wave
It might be better to separate space ventures over the last few years from what might happen from now on through the end of the decade. SpaceX has led the way in deploying reusable rockets and Planet (formerly Planet Labs) runs the gauntlet on large constellations of nanosats. But new players will definitely emerge as astropreneurs reach beyond LEO, or low-earth orbit.
“There is in fact a significant round of consolidation going on right now, the first wave of New Space companies are being acquired mostly by Planet,” Liukkonen posits, referring to their acquisition of companies like Terra Bella from Google. Satellite companies with an emphasis on data have been the focus of investors and incubators like ESA BIC. “World wide, there are many space companies bubbling under and on surface too, starting from the obvious OneWeb and Planet and ranging to smaller companies such as AstroDigital and RSL.”
Going forward, especially with the culmination of the XPRIZE battle, projects tied to the Moon are certain to grab some share of venture capital devoted to space startups.
One of the contenders for that prize, Moon Express, is looking to create a long-term moon-mining business focused on natural resources like Helium-3. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, which pulled out of the contest late last year, is planning a top-notch delivery service to the lunar surface. Members of Synergy Moon, Team Indus (India), and HAKUTO (Japan) might all seed space startup ecosystems of their own in their home countries. The Israeli non-profit team SpaceIL will assuredly spur a generation of Israeli astropreneurs with strong links to the local investors.
Some but by no means all moon-bound projects will be to build lunar satellites, but orbiters will be essential for data transmission, ground communication, and all the other possible use cases described above. Reaktor may very well win a contract from ESA. In the interim, true space enthusiasts and venture capitalists should maintain close eyes on the race back to the Moon for the moonshot that might be the next SpaceX.