While and the U.S. Congress focus on using commercial vehicles to transport cargo and eventually crews to the International Space Station, an international groundswell of less visible but no less ambitious commercial-space concepts is materializing quietly—one idea at a time.
One example is set for launch Oct. 16 to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Progress resupply vehicle. The Canadian-led Urthecast venture plans to mount a pair of high-definition video cameras on a pointing platform attached to the station's Zvezda module, and give the world an astronaut's-eye view of Earth via streaming video over the Internet.
Anyone can take a free look at his rooftop or childhood playground, much as they can with Google Maps now. Paying customers will be able to order up the scenes they want, with 1.1-meter (3.6-ft.) resolution on the model of other commercial Earth-observation spacecraft. Also adding to Urthecast's bottom line will be an application that draws more on Silicon Valley than the traditional Earth-observation model.
“We'll do two things,” says Scott Larson, director and president of the Vancouver-based startup. “One is just a matter of getting as many people as we can to the website, and then looking for revenue streams off that. Of course, there are all kinds of them. And then, secondly, opening up the API [application programming interface], and letting other developers make games, apps and things like that, based on the API. Then you usually charge a certain amount per every time someone uses the API on some other app.”
Impetus for the enterprise came from the Russian government, which wanted a way to ensure it could get Earth-observation data from its investment in the ISS. Working through the Russian space agency, its ISS prime contractor RSC Energia and its own contractors, Urthecast has developed the camera and is training the crew that will install it on the Zvezda pointing platform.
From that vantage point it will not only be able to cover the Earth between 51.6 deg. N. and S. Lat., but peer out into space at targets of opportunity as well. “By this time next year, we'll be in the market and streaming images over the web,” Larson says.
The Canadian venture won't be the first to take advantage of the station's unique position and environment to make money. Nanoracks, which started by renting out a simple set of USB data ports on the station to accommodate paying customers with cubesat-size experiments, has expanded to include a small centrifuge for 1g control in microgravity experiments, and an experiment rack exposed to the space environment on the “porch” of Japan's Kibo laboratory module. Aurora Flight Sciences is planning upgrades to the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage & Reorient Experimental Satellites (Spheres) that fly with puffs of gas inside the station to give customers a place to check their attitude-control, formation-flying and other proximity operations software quickly (AW&ST June 25, 2012, p. 44).
Moving deeper into Earth orbit, with another nascent commercial-space app, is PLANETiQ, which is fund-raising to field a constellation of small commercial weather satellites that it hopes can attract some of the $6 billion the world's weather services spend collecting data for their forecasts each year.
“We represent a new model of public/private collaboration, in developing a network of small satellites for sustained and cost-effective rapid delivery of atmospheric data,” says Anne Miglarese, the PLANETiQ president and CEO.
The concept involves 12 satellites weighing 75 kg (165 lb.) each, spaced around the globe. Using a technique called GPS Radio Occultation, which extracts temperature, pressure and humidity profiles from measurements of how much the atmosphere bends GPS signals as they pass through it, the company plans to market the data as a low-cost alternative to sounders and other weather-satellite instruments, with the fast-turnaround data delivery—3 min. after observation—particularly advantageous in tracking hurricanes as they approach landfall.
“I would argue that atmospheric data is moving in the same direction that brought us the plethora of imaging, both commercial and government, with the failure of the [National Reconnaissance Office's Future Imaging Architecture],” says Miglarese. “It was that burning platform that opened up the commercial opportunities for [Digital Globe] and GeoEye, and allowed them to thrive. We have a very similar situation with weather . . . with the serious delays and overruns that have occurred at[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]; the same with the [Defense Meteorological Satellite Program] at the Air Force.”
The Bethesda, Md.-based company is o't alone in hoping to build a commercial market for satellite weather data. GeoMetWatch Corp. already has started building a hyperspectral imager for weather applications that it hopes to fly as a hosted payload, and is on the verge of announcing an Asian-regional satellite as its host (AW&ST Feb. 25, p. 18). Both companies are aiming to lower the cost of weather observation from orbit.
The first 12 PLANETiQ satellites will cost an estimated $155 million, including launch, Miglarese says. The satellites will also carry two instruments for monitoring damaging high-energy particles from solar storms, to help satellite operators protect their expensive birds from space weather.
Launches could begin 28-30 months after the start of manufacturing, Miglarese says, and it will cost at least $40 million for that to happen by the targeted July 1 date. While the needed technology is straightforward, financing is the real hurdle.
“We've been to two of the major finance houses,” she says. “Both are very interested. But there are some very inherent risks for them, and those risks aren't about technology [or the] launch. The market clearly understands those risks, and can mitigate for them. The risk is in not having a proven market.”
Other new-space startups are going after traditional markets, but in very untraditional ways. Like Columbus sailing off into the sunset to find spices that would fetch a fortune back home in Europe, some experienced space entrepreneurs are talking seriously about mining asteroids and the Moon for precious metals and water. The water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen for the propellant and life support that will be needed to exploit and explore space. The metals are precious for good reason.
“You will be hard-pressed to find a serious piece of microelectronics or structural support inside a human body that does not have a platinum-group element in it,” says Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, an asteroid-mining startup.
Planetary Resources does not expect to find financial backing right away to race off to an asteroid and start digging. Instead, it has mapped a careful path of more and more capable spacecraft—starting with cubesat-based telescope prospectors to study potential targets—and it has a stable of dot-com billionaires willing to fund it, says Anderson. He cut his entrepreneurial teeth sending wealthy space tourists to the ISS on Russian Soyuz vehicles.
Anderson's co-founder at Planetary Resources is Dr. Peter Diamandis, a physician/renaissance man who set up the X-Prize Foundation to promote all kinds of innovation. One of the prizes, backed by Google, is $20 million for a robotic landing on the Moon. Another space-mining operation—Moon Express—hopes to win and use that prize money as its first step toward commercial operations on the lunar surface.
“Moon Express is being held to a Silicon Valley standard of strategy, and of business development,” says CEO Rob Richards, who is one of its founders. “It is an experiment in a way, of merging how Silicon Valley does things, with traditional aerospace, which does things well. So we're at the boundary condition of these two worlds that really haven't met before. We have people from both. We're using what we know is tried and true . . . from our relationships with. But we're also structured financially to develop our value as a company.”