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Space Startups: The Importance of Expanding Your Technology Portfolio
In this interview with Dr. Hoyt, we discuss the rapidly changing landscape of the CubeSat industry and the increasing importance of satellite communication encryption to stop satellites from being used by hackers as kinetic kill vehicles.
Space Startups: The Importance of Expanding Your Technology Portfolio.
Today, Blackship One, was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Dr. Robert P. Hoyt, the President and co-counder of Tethers Unlimited, about his 20 + year involvement in the space industry. We have an exiting interview planned for you today where Dr. Hoyt will talk about the changing landscape of the CubeSat industry, advances in satellite communication technology and the increasing importance of satellite communication encryption to stop satellites from being taken over by hackers and used as kinetic kill vehicles. Sound interesting? Thought so. Let’s jump in.
Hi and thank you for joining us today to talk about Tethers Unlimited. Your mission is to build a robust in-space economy that will serve the people of earth and enable humanity to become a spacefaring society. Your mission started back in 1994. Can you kick off the interview by telling us a little bit more about the evolution of Tethers Unlimited? Tell us a bit more about your scrappy beginnings and how you managed to get to where you are today?
Tethers Unlimited started out in 1994 as a partnership between myself and Dr. Robert L. Forward, who was a technologist and hard science fiction author. We incorporated in 1997. Initially we were exclusively focused on space tether technologies, for applications such as end-of-life deorbit of spacecraft for debris mitigation and orbital maneuvering of spacecraft. We wanted to build a ‘railroad in space’ using tether technologies, to make space missions more affordable and support the development of commercial activities in space.
Within the first few years we found that focusing on a single unconventional, early-stage technology was too risky as a business strategy due to the inconsistent levels of funding for R&D on tether technologies. We almost went out of business early on, when one of our tether projects ended.
Fortunately, we found opportunities to apply our skillset to developing other technologies. In 2007 we built and flew a 3-cubesat mission to test some of our tether technologies, which gave us some perspective into the potential for smallsats and the areas where the technology for them was lacking, and so we began working on a handful of smallsat technologies, with a focus on maximizing the performance that we can fit into the small volumes available on those platforms, so they can be useful for real, operational missions.
We’ve successfully developed a family of software defined radios, called SWIFT, a unique propulsion technology called HYDROS, which uses water as propellant, a compact high-precision gimbal mechanism called COBRA, and a low-cost deorbit module called the Terminator Tape. We’ve now got those products on the market, on orbit, and are working to increase our production capability to serve the needs of the smallsat constellations that government programs and commercial entities are building.
What are some of the biggest pivots you’ve made along the way? Tell us more about what inspired you to make those business pivots.
I don’t really think of them as ‘pivots’, as I’m stubborn and never really give up on a technology or a business play, but rather put it on the shelf and work on something else until market conditions are right.
We are still working on the tether technologies we started pursuing 26 years ago, and are just now finding the mission needs to be right for some of their applications.
Developing new space technologies and getting customers to adopt them can take a very long time, so we found that we needed to diversify our work so that we could afford the patience to see these technologies through their life cycle.
As I said, initially we were exclusively focused on space tether technologies, and we had to expand our technology portfolio in order to have a diverse set of products and a diverse set of customers so that we could avoid big ups and downs and continue to grow. So in the 2006 timeframe we started working on small satellite technologies, and in the 2009 timeframe we started working on technologies for in-space services, such as robotics for in-space assembly and 3D printing technologies for in-space manufacturing.
You do a lot of work with small satellite communication systems. What are some of the most exciting advancements you’ve seen (or been part of) in the small satellite communication space?
Last year we developed the first mesh network solution for small satellites, called SWIFT-LINQ. It’s essentially an “app” that runs on our SWIFT radios, which already have flight heritage. The mesh network enables satellites to easily connect to each other and share data and computing resources using standard IP networking protocols. It has huge potential for helping to deploy satellite systems that have communications that are resilient to challenges such as jamming. It also can enable new modes of operating satellites, where any given satellite can have easy access to computing, storage, and data analysis resources on other satellites or on the ground. Ultimately that will enable satellite operators to get their key data products to their customers more responsively.
Currently, what are the biggest limitations or obstacles facing small satellite / cubesat operators and what’s required to overcome those obstacles?
Number 1 is getting a frequency license from the FCC. The FCC is working to streamline that process for smallsats, but my advice is to start that process at the very beginning of your program.
Number 2 is getting a launch slot, and one that actually goes up on time. That situation is getting better now that SpaceX is offering very frequent secondary payload opportunities, but my understanding is that many of the smallsat operators are still buying launch slots on multiple rides just to have a good chance of getting their satellite launched on schedule.
Number 3 is cryptography. Cybersecurity and data assurance are increasing concerns for many programs/customers, and current crypto solutions for smallsats are expensive, slow, and bulky. That’s why we are developing a solution called “CryptoSWIFT”, which will support data rates of up to 1Gbps with a very small form factor and very reasonable cost. A FIPS140-L2 compliant solution will be available later this year, and a Type 1 solution will be available next year.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the required ground station setup (both hardware and software) required to effectively send / receive signals with cubesats?
You’ll need access to a satellite antenna, and a ground station modem. CubeSats typically have rather low power levels available, so their transmitters are relatively low power, so they can require a large antenna on the ground to close the link.
For ground station modems, one of the exciting developments is that companies such as AMERGINT Technologies are taking much of the waveform processing and data analysis that traditionally would be hosted in hardware within a modem and putting them ‘in the cloud’, so the hardware solution is essentially just a digitizer that collects and digitizes the whole radio frequency signal and sends that to the cloud, where software running on many servers can pull the data out of the signal and quickly do key analytics on the data.
Let’s talk about cameras and visual access to space. Can you give us a 10,000 foot overview of what’s required for both sending and receiving high end visual data from small satellites?
You’ll need a camera system, a C&DH (command and data handling) computer to control the camera and pull the image data from it, and a radio to transmit the image data to the ground. Image data can be very large, so imaging satellites typically will use a higher frequency (X- or K-band) radio for their mission data downlink. Those radios will work best with a high-gain antenna that can be pointed towards the ground station, so either the satellite needs to slew to maintain pointing of the antenna as it goes over the ground station (requiring good attitude control and maneuverability) or a steered antenna, which involves mechanisms and motors.
You also have a heavy focus on small satellite propulsion systems. Your HYDROS-C propulsion system is sized for cubesat spacecraft. Can you tell us a little bit more about the main benefits of propulsion on cubesat spacecrafts? What extra technology is required to be able to control a cubesat propulsion system?
Small satellites such as CubeSats typically ride into orbit as secondary payloads, which means they get dropped off in an orbit that is determined by where the big primary payload satellite needs to go, not necessarily where the smallsat ideally would operate.
Propulsion capability on the smallsat can enable it to maneuver to its ideal operational orbit. Propulsion capability can also enable smallsats to maneuver to avoid close passes with other spacecraft or orbital debris, a concern that is growing rapidly as the skies become increasingly crowded.
Propulsion also enables smallsats to perform new kinds of missions, such as flying in formation with other satellites to do coordinated observations or staying near a larger satellite to serve as an inspector or ‘guardian’ satellite.
When choosing a propulsion technology for a secondary payload, safety of the primary payload is of utmost importance, so using many traditional propulsion technologies, such as hydrazine thrusters, is difficult or impossible to get approved. That’s why we developed the HYDROS thruster, which uses water as propellant, so it’s completely safe for personnel during integration and safe for other satellites riding on the same rocket. HYDROS uses electrolysis on-orbit to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen and then burns those gases in a traditional bipropellant nozzle. So it’s sort-of a hybrid between chemical and electric propulsion, and it ends up providing both very good specific impulse and very good thrust levels. So it’s ideal for missions where a smallsat gets dropped off in a non-ideal orbit and needs to maneuver quickly to its operational orbit but then maintain that orbit for a long time.
Another consideration that is becoming increasingly important is that any smallsat that has maneuvering capability should have good encryption on its communications, because a maneuverable smallsat could become a kinetic kill vehicle if a bad guy were to hack into it.
That’s why we’ve built cryptography capabilities right into HYDROS, so smallsat operators can lock down control of their maneuvering without having the considerable expense and additional mass of a dedicated cryptography unit.
HYDROS also includes integrated avionics to help simplify the commanding interface and integration on the host spacecraft. Can you tell us a little bit more about how this command interface works?
The HYDROS unit’s control electronics actually use the same processor board we use in our SWIFT software defined radios, which have flight heritage. So the command interface is essentially the same as for our radios, and is very easy to implement. We provide a C or Python software library called ‘SwiftLib” that can be integrated into the satellite’s flight software, and it implements all the functions needed to command the thruster. We are also working to integrate SwiftLib into the KubOS flight software. The thruster control electronics handle all of the complexity involved in controlling the electrolysis and operation of the thruster, so it’s really a point-and-shoot operation.
Recently, satellite development and launch costs have been dramatically reduced. What’s the typical price range you see now for a cubesat launch to space?
SpaceX is now offering secondary payload launches of 150-kg class satellites for $1M. That’s under $7K per kg, which is astounding. At those costs, we’re seeing a lot of programs migrate from small cubesats towards larger nanosat and microsat class vehicles, because it’s so much easier and cheaper to fit your mission capabilities into that larger volume that your total program costs can be lower even if you’re paying a little more for launch.
Typical costs for a 6U cubesat bus are on the order of $2-3M from the ‘established’ smallsat prime integrators.
Lastly, what do you see on the horizon for small satellite operators that excites you the most?
We are working with our sibling company, AMERGINT Technologies, to put together an integrated satellite command and data handling package that “just works”. So small satellite operators who don’t want to bear the cost of supporting dedicated satellite RTF communications teams can come to us and we can take care of the systems engineering for all of their communications needs, provide the satellite side radios and the ground station modems. And with AMERGINT’s cloud-based ground processing and data handling capabilities, we can really streamline the experience for the satellite operator, making it very easy for them to command their payloads and get their data delivered via the cloud.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with us today Dr. Hoyt. It was fascinating to learn more about Tethers Unlimited. To our audience, If you’d like to learn more about Tethers, you can head over to their website or follow them on Facebook here.
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