20+ ways to get to space and beam the data for your business

Why so many entrepreneurs are secretly dreaming about starting a business in space and so few are ending up with building a company? Our guess – wrong thinking ruins many of the great ideas: those who never tried to launch anything to space tend to think that industry barriers are still enormous, launch options are limited to direct injections and a few American, Indian and Russian launch vehicles exist. While the reality is blooming with options and opportunities. 

A little outdated for the year 2019 “Rockets of the world” poster by Tyler Skrabek

There are at least 20 different means of transportation available today to launch a satellite. The majority of them are focusing on working with the small payloads that are relatively cheap to build. According to SpaceFund reality rating, there are more than 140 launch vehicles in service or in development today. Add to these various brokers, resellers, hosted payload providers, and companies working on the International Space Station, that number can easily reach 200. 

Actually, the options are so different that it’s already getting hard to navigate through them, figure out what suits your business the best, and to find credible launch partners. Considering that access to space is still the most expensive expenditure for a space company, a wrong decision on launch strategy can be an end of your business even before it reaches space.

That’s why we in Precious Payload decided to build not only the platform where people can book a launch but a space navigator for those who are ready to bring their ideas to the space industry but don’t know how to do it yet. In this article, we want in broad strokes to sketch the modern space business as we see it in 2019. 

Ways to benefit from the space domain

As for 2019, all companies that want to benefit from the space domain can be divided into 2 big groups:

  • Those who want to create value out of the data they beam down to Earth for communication and Earth observation 
  • Those who want to serve other space companies making in-space relay satellites, space tugs, tech demo missions, and others meant to create a reliable environment for satellite operators

In all cases, companies do care about the actual payload — an instrument, an antenna, a camera, or a subsystem that needs to be tested and demoed. Everything else — satellite bus, propulsion, comms, attitude control, even rocket itself and a ground antenna — are there only to support the payload operation. The demand for data is what makes the industry grow rapidly. 

Let’s figure out what the ways to get your precious data to your office exist.

The very first question you have to ask yourself is whether you really need to launch and operate a satellite to get to the desired result. No matter how sexy having your own hardware circling the Earth (on the Moon) is, it is also hard and very expensive. We strongly encourage you to try the existing data providers. You can either: 

Rotterdam by the Planet’s SkySat with 72 centimetre resolution

If you decide that you are not satisfied with the data quality or frequency the exiting sources have and you need to test out a particular piece of hardware like a camera, or an antenna, or expose your hardware to the space environment, first look into suborbital rockets and balloons. It is much less expensive and more time-efficient:

If you know for sure that you need to launch your payload to orbit and have it there for a while, even then building the whole satellite is not the easiest way for your first tech demo. You might consider choosing to save time and effort required for building your own spacecraft and dedicate these assets to working on the business model for your dream company. Hosted payload options are for you then:

  • Look into various options available for hosting a payload on board the ISS: you can fix your payload on the outside of ISS or even inside the ISS if you need human access to it
  • Look into hosting your payload on someone else’s satellite; there are plenty of these opportunities, and we at Precious Payload track all of them, but sometimes companies do announce them themselves like Spire or GomSpace
  • There are companies that have chosen hosting other companies’ payloads as their main business models, such as Loft Orbital and In-Space
  • Finally, some of the upper stages of launch vehicles can host payloads on themselves; look into Cygnus/Antares, D-Orbit
Northrop Grumman’s cargo spacecraft Cygnus on the way to the International Space Station

Finally, if you know for sure that even a hosted payload is not an option for you and you don’t want to depend on other’s engineering skills and schedule, you want to build and launch your own satellite, these are your options:

  • Rideshare on a medium or a heavy-lift launch vehicle
  • Rideshare on a venture class launch vehicle (a small one!)
  • Dedicated launch on a venture class launch vehicle
  • Using a space tug to get better orbit parameters

Next week we will be talking about particular ways of transportation in space. Stay tuned for a cover story about one of the most promising space-tug companies that are aiming to make in-orbit transportation affordable. 

Useful links: 

Check out our interview with Pixxel – these guys are doing impossible turning their childhood passions into an Earth observation company with their own hardware. 

The most recent overview of space industry investment

Check out the Space Angels’ quarterly reports to see what companies are recognized and supported by investors.

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