How To Make Satellites Cost Like Cars?

Interview with Momentus VP Negar Feher – updates, news, and plans of the spacecraft bus operator

Negar Feher is a VP of business development in Momentus, the California-based startup, developing in-space spacecraft transportation service

Andrey Maksimov: Here we are. Hi, Negar. It’s February 2020 now. Last time we were here more than 8 months ago, so it seems like a lot of things have changed. You had a technical mission last year, fundraised a crazy amount of money, grew your team and made some progress on your main product, which is Vigoride.

We would love to have an update from you into delivering orbital customers. We do it as part of our #knowyouroptions campaign where we basically are building software that helps people understand their launch options, and how to figure out a space mission. So, we’d really love to know what’s new in your shop here and what’s going on.

Negar Feher: Where should I start?

AM: Just tell us a little bit about your first mission happened last year. I think the purpose of that was to demonstrate your core capabilities to move, to raise the orbits of your customers in space. How did it go?

NF: Of course. Our first mission was called El Camino Real. It was the first time ever when a 16U CubeSat was deployed into space. And we did that in partnership with Exolaunch that provided us with the 16U deployer. And we had AstroDigital as a partner for the spacecraft bus manufacturing. The purpose was to demonstrate how electrothermal propulsion works in space. Basically, we are at the TR level of that technology that we plan to fly on our commercial missions. 

We basically took a propulsion system that we had developed, shrunk it down into a 12U form factor, put it on a 16U CubeSat and flew it to space. It launched last July and it went up on a Soyuz mission to a Sun-synchronous orbit. It got dropped off there, it went through a commissioning phase, and we started firing the thrusters in orbit. We successfully demonstrated how electrothermal thrusters can operate in space using water as the propellant. 

AM: What’s the next step in your journey?

NF: After that amazing roller coaster of last year, doing El Camino Real, we have two demos planned for 2020. We have one planned for the August time frame, and we have another one planned for December. Both of those missions are basically meant to demonstrate the capabilities of our Vigoride platform. The Vigoride service is basically designed to provide transportation services for our customers inside LEO – we can phase the satellites, change their altitude and inclination. 

The first mission, which is planned for Q3 of this year, will be flying a smaller version of the Vigoride. We will take some customers up on that mission, SteamJet Space Systems is among them. We’re excited to be doing demos with our customers now, where take them up with us and deploy them. 

At the end of the year, in the December time frame, we’re going up on another demo mission, which is meant to use the same things except on a little larger scale. We will have a larger vehicle, intending to do the same demonstrations: we’re gonna show how we can change altitude, we are gonna show how we can phase satellites around, change the longitude of the descending node. Let’s say if we get launched at 9 a.m., how we can potentially change it to 10 a.m., go up or down. We are capable of doing plus or minus 3 hours, so we’re gonna do some demonstrations to show some of these capabilities in orbit. 

AM: How about what you can achieve with the altitude change?  

NF: With the altitude change, we can start as low as 300 kilometers, which is very hard for a lot of people to start because you can drop back down easily. You only survive there for a week or so, if you don’t have a good enough propulsion system. Luckily, we do, and we have high enough thrust, where we can start as low as 300 kilometers, then we can raise it all the way up to 1,200, potentially even 2,000 km, depending on where we start. And we have delta-V capability anywhere between 1 to 2 km per second, which really just depends on how much payload we’re flying onboard, in terms of how far we go. We can do a 100 km altitude change in a week or less. It depends on where we are dropped off and how far the customer wants to go. 

Render of Vigoride in space

We are designing vehicles in a roadmap. After Vigoride, it’s called Ardoride that can go all the way to GEO. So, we’re not very limited in terms of how far we can go. We can use Ardoride, which is our next platform, to go all the way to low lunar orbit or deep space missions. So, we’re talking like 35,000 km or more. So, it just depends on which platform we’re using, the time frame, where you start, where you’re trying to come. 

Each of our classes of vehicles is designed to cover certain areas. Vigoride, the one we’re doing this year, is designed for the LEO environment. Ardoride is designed for MEO, and GEO and going beyond, things that will require delta Vs of 5-6 km per second. And then we are gonna have Fervoride, which will take things up to 10 tons. So, we have a very exciting product line that we are developing, and we’re excited to be offering services to our customers. In the next year, we are looking to getting up to 1,200 to 2,000 km. 

AM: Where do you feel the product market fits in now? Who is your ideal customer that wants to leverage altitude change or change in the orbit permittance? 

NF: Our ideal customer right now is, for example, a constellation operator that is trying to optimize cost by flying lots of CubeSats and they need to hit specific targets in terms of hitting like 6 to 20 planes. And they don’t want to fly propulsion systems on board, because if they did, then they’d have to go from a 3U platform to, let’s say, a 6U platform. But they would not only have to add a propulsion system, that would increase their launch mass and volume and cost, they would also have to add operations cost for the propulsion system, etc. And it would take a really long time to distribute their satellites across these orbits and planes that they need. That’s an ideal customer for us. 

Also, it’s a customer who needs to have satellites at a specific location, specific Sun-crossing times to accomplish their mission. We are talking to a lot of customers. We’ve signed over ten, who have specific needs such as that. Another case would be a customer who wants to get to inclinations that launch vehicles just don’t go to. And flying propulsion systems on small satellites to do inclination changes is just not very feasible because it would require a really high delta-V in order to do this kind of maneuvers. With our technology, we can actually accomplish that. So, that’s another use case. 

And we know of examples, if you’re trying to launch a constellation and there are like a 100 without going up to scale, then you will hit 6 different planes, and you have 12 satellites in this constellation that are going to 6 different planes. If you wanted to launch this on dedicated rockets, you have to launch 6 different rockets to hit these 6 different planes with 2 satellites on each. So, let’s say it’s 36 million dollars, 6 million dollars a rocket, 6 – a plane. 

AM: Given that there are so many options available in this field now – you have RocketLab, you have SpaceX, PSLV, and everything, how is spacecraft bus operator solution different, especially since you are also compatible, I assume, with almost all these launch vehicles. So, if I asked you ‘what’s the added value’ and the difference between the customer looking at rideshare launches on Soyuz, PSLV or SpaceX against the solution that you provide initially this year and then next year? 

NF: Let’s say, you have a constellation of large satellites, 100 kg satellites, you have to hit those six planes. So, with RocketLab you would send six rockets, six million dollars each, 36 million dollars. This doesn’t even include adapters, the propulsion system, anything else you would need. With our solution, you can take advantage of the cheap cost of rideshare missions. You can count on Soyuz, PSLV, SpaceX, and of the larger vehicles, such as Ariane

We then put our vehicle and put those two satellites on top. And then with our vehicles, we can put like six on one rocket and launch them all at once, and then take those to all the six planes. Instead of launching on six rockets, we can minimalize that down to two rockets.

“One, you would get there faster, because you won’t have to wait for six launches in a row, and two, you would save half the cost. Our cost estimate for such a mission, instead of 36 million dollars on dedicated rockets, would be 18 million dollars. “

Assuming you launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission and you took up three ports on each of these rideshare missions to hit the different inclinations, then you’re looking to get full global coverage. 

So, that’s really the value we bring to constellation operators and individual satellite operators to be able to reach all the destinations they need. Cause otherwise, the alternative is to go book a full RocketLab, or Firefly, or any small dedicated rocket out there. So, that’s the value we bring. We are really interested also in the larger class dedicated rockets, like Relativity, AVL, etc., because in that class you can still do rideshares and still take advantage of a partially dedicated flight to do a similar concept to the one we were talking about.

AM: I want to touch upon something very important for our customers as well, which is the prices. We understand you guys are quite aggressive with your pricing strategy. Can you perhaps elaborate a little bit on that because we currently see that your solution is even more affordable than most rideshare options? Can you tell us what has driven that decision, what is the strategy behind that, behind your really aggressive pricing?

NF: Yes. Because we use water as our propellant and we build our platforms to be as cost-effective as possible, we can actually afford not to have that additional price tag on top of the launch. And this was designed intentionally.


“Our goal is to make satellites equivalent in cost to cars. There is no reason why satellites should cost millions and millions of dollars. And this is a trend of the satellite industry.”

We are trying to go along with that model and try to minimize the costs as much as possible. We can also afford to make our satellites cheap because they don’t have to last for 15 years. Their mission life is maybe a year, and it’s done with its mission. So that’s another way we can afford to do the cost model we do. Our goal is in our vision and mission statement: to make space transportation as affordable as possible. 

And not just that, but we want to do that using in situ resources. The whole goal of Momentus, what we call our ‘religion’ is centered around water. We can eventually mine in space. We don’t want these vehicles to be disposable. We want to be able to take them to space, complete the mission, have them go into a parking orbit, go to a station, refuel it with water, go to an asteroid, mine water off the asteroid, use it to refuel, then continue to do its missions. So that’s our vision and we see ourselves getting there in a few years. We’re not doing it today. It’s not gonna happen in 2020-2021. But I’m definitely sure that by 2022-2024 timeframe we’ll be there. 

That’s how we can really pull this off. We have partnerships with a lot of large vehicles, they really see the value in our services, some of them are even our customers because basically we enhance their offering.

“If you’re talking about SpaceX or the Soyuz launch vehicle, they can only get to a certain destination and they don’t want to continue to turn their engines on and off. What we add is the possibility to be able to aggregate more customers on each launch.”

They may have customers that want to go to 9 a.m. or they have others who want to go to 11 a.m., somebody that wants to be at 6 a.m. or noon, etc., we enable them to be able to aggregate all of these onto the same launch vehicle because we can then go and transport these customers to various longitudes of descending nodes they want to achieve.

AM: Because that puts a lot of thoughts into understanding the needs of the customers, not only now, but also a few years from now. 

NF: And you’ll see today that most of these constellation operators have kind of been crippled by the fact that we don’t have to pay a lot of money to get their constellation on orbit, which would delay our return on investment, which is not a feasible solution, or we go on these rideshare missions and just compromise on performance. So, we’re hoping to solve that problem by allowing them to be able to design ultimate constellation deployment schemes that will really meet their goals. If, for example, they need their constellation to be at 50 degrees to cover a certain populated area, we want to enable them to be able to do that affordably, so they can meet their mission, and fast so that they can get their return on investment.

AM: And also, you touched upon an important topic here, which is about returning investments. Obviously, you are very innovative in your approach here in space logistics, and a lot of concerns of our customers are about reducing the risks for their inaugural missions, and that’s something that we are being asked very frequently.

Can you talk about an equation between the earlier adopters that go on your inaugural missions this year and next year and the risk profile of those missions? So, when can a customer expect to have insurance for the satellite mission? Again, this is very important for our customers, especially if they have commercial or defense missions, or just common missions, this is a big concern for them. 

NF: I agree 100%. And this is actually a concern for us too. We want to make sure all of our missions are insurable. Let’s say if you launch on a SpaceX mission, you can get insurance for all of the missions we are flying. Our customers can book that directly for the launch. We are also looking at options to offer insurance ourselves, where we book bulk insurance that includes transport, cause there are different insurances.

There’s transportation insurance that covers from the point it leaves your office to the point it gets to the launch site. There’s insurance that covers the duration of launch integration and another one that covers the launch. So, we are looking and working with brokers right now to come up with options for our customers to get coverage for our missions before the end of this year. 

AM: Do you think the separation event could be insurable as well?

NF: We are working with the insurers right now to get coverage for those types of things. Because we are using standard off-the-shelf deployers like ISIS or Exolaunch, ones that have been proven in space for years. For example, the ISIS deployer that we plan to fly has flying heritage since 2014. We are not adding any risks for the customers in those situations. We do believe that you can obtain insurance quite easily and we have even insured our first mission, El Camino Real.

We intend to offer insurance for our services too. So, we are working with both our customers and the insurance underwriters and brokers to make sure those options are available for our customers on all of the missions. If any customers have specific requests for insurance coverage, if they want to go through us, we intend to offer it as an option. 

AM: Great. And also, last but not least, we often help our customers with very early stages of their mission planning. That’s where we help them research all these launch options. And what’s really disruptive here is that all these engineers are used to a traditional way of thinking about their launch strategy. What should the customer come up with when they start working with you, what information do you need? What stage of the customer is a spacecraft bus operator looking at? How early is it going to be?  

NF: It is a whole new way of thinking. It’s a service that never existed before, so ideally our customer, even before they’ve designed a whole new constellation deployment scheme, we want to start working with them at that phase. We say: ‘Hey, have you considered all these other options to deploy your constellation’. And open the door to a whole venue of launch options and give flexibility to them. So, ideally, we talk to the customers very early on. 

But also, because we’ve booked all these launches, or planning to do them and we have a whole launch manifest of quarterly launches going forward, our customers can come to us later to hop on the ride as needed for replacement vehicles, etc. But when it comes to truly add value, we would love to talk with the constellation providers and operators really early on in our architectural phase. 

We have a whole staff of people who are orbit analysts that can help provide advice and make consults, and provide proposals on how we can get the full coverage that they need to other planes, to spread them all out, phase their satellites as efficiently as possible. And it basically just adds to their trade matrix and adds more options for them and gives them the flexibility to look at options, to fly propulsion systems or not, etc. 

AM: Thanks! This has been very helpful. Looking forward to an update on your missions. 

NF: Thank you! 


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