HawkEye 360 booth at new space conference in August 2018. Credit: Shen Ge
With the abundance of new small satellite companies, HawkEye 360 stands out as one that detects radio wavelengths instead of visible light (what your eyes can see). HawkEye 360 plans to create a constellation of at least eighteen satellites in clusters of three that will map and analyze RF signals coming from communications and transportation services. Its applications include identifying transportation activity and logistics tracking, emergency response and rescue efforts, communications interference detection, and spectrum mapping and use.
HawkEye 360 has gathered an impressive team for their initial Pathfinder mission including a university research laboratory, an asteroid mining company and a space communications payload company. University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) has a specialty lab called Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) which has developed and refined microspace technologies for 22 smallsats in the last two decades. Though UTIAS-SFL has been contracted to develop the satellites using the Nemo-V1 satellite bus, the lab is actually a subcontractor for asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries (DSI). In addition to being a prime contractor, Deep Space Industries (DSI) is also providing an innovative water-based propulsion system. Meanwhile, HawkEye 360 has collaborated with GomSpace on the RF payload.
A CAD model of a SAS satellite in low earth orbit. Credit: SAS
There are over 5 billion unique mobile subscribers (as of August 2017) in the world. Despite this prevalence, there’s a considerable proportion of the population which lacks this access. The global sphere sees three billion people without access to affordable communication services. Connecting such populations through terrestrial means is a monumental challenge in geographically dispersed regions – Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Sky and Space Global seeks to address the challenge of global communication.
Sky and Space Global (SAS) plans to close the gap in the market between existing satellite communications operators, such as Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar, and land-based mobile networks such as Vodafone, Telefonica, Airtel and Safaricom. Affordable mobile services are critical for the economic and social development of many developing countries.
Sky and Space Global is working on a constellation of 200 nanosatellites of the 3U configuration in equatorial or near-equatorial low earth orbit (LEO) for narrowband communications. The total cost of all the satellites is expected to be $150 million. SAS is the first company to consider using nanosatellites for communication.
Firefly Space Systems is a new space company based north of Austin, Texas. At least 25 companies have announced plans to build rockets to meet the growing demand for small-satellite launches since 2014, but Firefly Space Systems does not plan to blend into that pack. Thomas Markusic, Firefly Space Systems chief executive, said, "Think of this as the Model T of rockets, a simple widely used vehicle for getting from point to point, or in this case getting to space."
“When you are riding as a secondary payload on a large launch vehicle, you sometimes have to wait a couple of years and you are subject to the technical specifications of that launch,” said Amir Blachman, Space Angels Network managing director in Los Angeles. “Whereas if you can pay to get a custom launch for a smaller payload, you can tailor the timing and all the other elements of the mission to your specific needs.”
Markusic, a propulsion engineer who worked at NASA, the U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin before founding Firefly, plans to build a family of simple expendable rockets offering dedicated rides for small satellites (under 1000 kilograms) to low earth orbit (LEO). Markusic left his job as Virgin Galactic’s vice president for propulsion in December 2013 to found Firefly because he saw a dearth of launch options for the burgeoning small-satellite market.
Firefly’s initial launch vehicle, Firefly Alpha, is designed to send 400 kilogram payloads into low Earth orbit or 200 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit. The cost of a full vehicle to LEO is currently set at $8 million, and includes features that typically cost extra, such as the separation system and a full re-ride guarantee. Customers will not have to insure the launch, because if the first fails the second ride is on Firefly. Satellites will still need insurance for their own performance. Other launch options include delivering a 120-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit for $4.95 million, and orbiting 3U CubeSats for about $240,000.
In October , NASA announced the award of fixed-price contracts to Firefly, Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic of Long Beach, California, to provide dedicated rides into orbit for the CubeSats NASA transports under its Cubesat Launch Initiative. CubeSats are small cube-shaped satellites typically sized 10 by 10 by 11.35 centimeters and has a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms. NASA plans to pay Firefly $5.5 million, Virgin Galactic $4.7 million and Rocket Lab $6.95 million for launches scheduled to occur by April 2018.
PJ King, cofounder and COO of Firefly, said the initial target is to field about four vehicles in the first year. If business goes well, King said the number of launches the first year could be up to seven. Assuming continued success, the goal for year two is to produce about 12 vehicles.