Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Slingshot Aeropsace, SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have raised billions of dollars to create new vehicles to launch payloads into space, but as the private space industry develops in the U.S. investors are beginning to back enabling technologies boost the next wave of innovation.
Whether it’s satellite manufacturers, new propulsion systems for satellites, antennae for data transmission or actually building out the networks themselves, the new space race will be building the next generation of services that the increasing access to space provides.
Last year, investors put at least $2.3 billion into companies angling for their own corner of outer space.
By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates that the space economy to be worth more than $1 trillion in 2040 — as well as for SpaceX to double, or even quintuple, its valuation — “are significantly tied to the developments related to satellite broadband.”
For the moment, the next wave is still focused on terrestrial applications.
Already, landmark deals are being signed to provide new space-based internet networking services like the agreement between the startup company Astranis and Pacific Dataport to provide high-speed, lower-cost broadband services to Alaska.
With only around $14 million in financing, Astranis has managed to sign its first deal to provide high speed internet to Alaskans by 2020, while OneWeb (which has raised over $1.7 billion) expects its networks to come online by 2022. SpaceX will launch the first Starlink satellites this year, with service coming online in the following years.
Astranis’ decision to work directly with a single customer rather than deploying a massive network points to the fact that companies can start generating real revenues relatively quickly — without the need for global ambitions off the bat.
Indeed, some space investors note that there are significant questions that remain unanswered for both SpaceX and OneWeb.
In a blog post earlier this month, Josephine Millward, the head of research at London-based space investment firm Seraphim Capital wrote:
After years of development, OneWeb and SpaceX will begin to deploy their Low Earth Orbit (LEO) mega-constellations in 2019, albeit their full constellation targets will take several more years. Both are planning global coverage to provide internet broadband to the billions of unconnected. Crucially both still need to define their “go-to-market” strategy and solve the ground segment element of their proposition ahead of commercial roll-out.
Astranis’ satellite-based service is expected to triple the amount of capacity that’s available to Alaskans for internet services and, with a price tag worth tens of millions of dollars, represents the largest contract signed by an early stage startup in the space business to date.
But networking services aren’t the only space-based applications that will gain additional traction in 2019. Using satellite imagery for data analysis, already a big pitch from companies like Satellogic and Planet — and newer companies like Capella Space and Iceye — is an industry that will come into its own, according to Seraphim Capital’s Chief Executive Mark Boggett. Meanwhile, companies like Cloud Constellation are pitching satellite-based data storage as inherently safer than their earthbound cloud computing counterparts.
“These satellite networks are now in place and they’re gathering massive amounts of data,” says Boggett. “What we’re going to start seeing is companies start using this data.”
Boggett says stay tuned for big fundraising rounds across the board, not only in the satellite networks themselves, but in the services that enable them to refine their data collection techniques and increase the efficiency and power of their transmission capabilities.
These would be what Boggett calls “downlinking” companies and companies that manage satellite mobility in space. Startups like Kymeta, Bridgesat, Ansur, RBC Signals and the Japanese startup Infostellar are all focused on downlinking — taking data from satellites and transmitting it to receivers on earth so the information can be used effectively, or optimizing data collection and transmissions in space.
It’s a market that’s attracted the attention of one of the largest tech companies in the world — Amazon. Viewing the data collection business as an extension of its cloud services, late last year Amazon partnered with Lockheed Martin to announce a base station as a service business called Amazon Ground Station (no one accused them of being branding geniuses) that would integrate with Lockheed Martin’s Verge antenna network.
“Customers said that we have so much data in space with so many applications that want to use that data. Why don’t you make it easier,” said Amazon Web Services’ chief executive, Andy Jassy, at the time of the new service’s launch.
Propulsion technologies for satellites once they’re in space are another potential area for increased investment in 2019, according to investors.
Companies like Momentus, which raised $8.3 million in November; Tesseract, a company backed by the English investment firm, Seraphim, which is also developing propulsion technologies; and Phase Four, the El Segundo, Calif.-based developer of a plasma-based propulsion system, are all bringing products to market.
Phase Four, which is in the middle of raising a new round right now, has actually inked its first supply deals with Capella Space and Tyvak, a division of the startup Terran Orbital, for its thrusters.
“It is an infrastructure arms race to get things efficiently built and deployed into space,” says M. Umair Siddiqui, the chief technology officer at Phase Four. “Now the next companies are racing to own who can manufacture the hardware that is going to generate the revenue in space.”