Satellite boom attracts technology giants

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Satellite boom attracts technology giants

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Space rocket company has entered a growing group of private businesses that can deliver satellites into orbit.

Earlier this month, 10 payloads were placed on the Virgin Orbit rocket, which was launched from under the wing of one of the company’s former 747 jumbos.

Sir Richard aims to tap into the rising demand for small, low-cost satellites.

Traditionally, space has had a strong barrier to entry. Today, only seven companies make up 75% of the market, according to Scott Campbell, head of Deloitte Ventures.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Space rocket corporation has joined a growing community of private companies capable of sending satellites to orbit.

Earlier this month, 10 payloads were mounted on the Virgin Orbit rocket fired from under the wing of one of the company’s former 747 jumbos.

Sir Richard aims to tap into the increasing market for lightweight, low-cost satellites.

Traditionally, space has a high barrier to entry. Today, only seven businesses make up 75% of the business, according to Scott Campbell, head of Deloitte Ventures.

The satellites weighed up to six kilogrammes, were the size of a vehicle, and will be sent to the geostationary orbit-35,786 km (22,236 miles) above Earth.

But today, you could put a so-called nanosat weighing just 25-50kg into a low-earth orbit (160-1,000km above Earth) for between $100,000 and $1 million.

Launch rates are also declining because technology companies are driving demand, says Mark Boggett, Chief Executive Officer of British venture capital group Seraphim Capital.

“Because tech firms need to launch their own satellites in the thousands [for space internet networks], this further drives down the cost of launch and storage for everyone else,” he said.

“Whole new industries of businesses can benefit from using this data, essentially democratising space.”

And, of course, if more data is being sent back to Earth, someone would have to handle it.

As a result, Deloitte’s Scott Campbell saw “an explosion of businesses around space” In 2011, there were 234 space-related businesses in the UK, up to 948 companies in 2018.

As for the spacecraft, there are less than 9,000 in space currently, according to Seraphim.

OneWeb, SpaceX, Planet, Spire and Amazon have accounted for 10% of these satellites since 2016, but there are 200 smaller corporations behind them that are expected to launch 25.000 satellites within the next four years.

Satellites have historically been used for messaging, TV networks and weather forecasting, but new cheaper options are attracting large-scale tech giants.

Microsoft revealed last year that it was teaming up with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Their alliance, Azure Space, plans to merge Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure services with a worldwide satellite network.

Tom Keane, Microsoft Azure’s corporate vice president, told the BBC that space makes it possible to “move computing to the edge” which means processing data far closer than ever before to users’ devices.

“The edge could be anywhere – on a device… you’re wearing, it could be something you’re carrying, it could be in your car,” he says.

“Space allows you to connect all of that infrastructure together, and then you can use artificial intelligence [like] predictive analytics to gain insights over things that were previously not connected together.”

Land stations, which receive satellite data, are also future revenue makers for IT giants.

Tom Keane, a Microsoft Azure venture, aims to revolutionise ground stations that are currently “expensive and often monolithic devices” and connect them to Microsoft’s data centres.

“Today, in many cases, data [from ground stations] may not be used, or it’s certainly not used as broadly as it could be. By connecting that ground station, you take the data from space… to solve problems that you can’t solve today.”

Many firms will aim to make money by gathering data from nanosats, analysing it with artificial intelligence, and using it in creative ways to solve problems.

Firms are looking to gather Earth observation data such as temperature, heat signatures and atmospheric gas composition to help farmers, for example, and to track such topics as flood defences, traffic and building sites.

Yet not everybody believes that constellations of satellites orbiting near Earth are a smart idea.

Alex Gellman, President of Vertical Bridge, the largest privately held telecom infrastructure firm in the US, says there are latency limits to broadband space.

Latency calculates the amount of time it takes to get a response when you file a data request.

In order to transmit data through a 4G cell network, the latency would be 3.3 microseconds/km, while the data transmitted through fibre cable, as the signal moves through glass, will have a latency of 5 microseconds/km. In contrast, nanosats are a lot further away.

“If the satellite has to communicate with a ground base station to compute, [the data] has to go back to the satellite, and then to your device, so it could be four round trips before it gets to the device,” he says.

“Satellites do bring internet to places that don’t have it, but it’s not a service comparable to 4G or 5G ultimately.”

And then there’s the matter of space trash, alerts Paul Kostek, a senior member of IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional association.

“We’re talking thousands of small satellite launches and there’s a traffic management problem that people have not really encountered before,” he says.

“What happens if one satellite gets hit by space debris, breaks apart and goes into the orbit of another constellation? You’ve added more debris in orbit around the Earth.”

He doesn’t believe geostationary satellites would become redundant, but the heritage of space firms is cautious.

“Everyone’s trying to work out where they fit in. There’s going to be a shake-up going forward,” says Mr. Kostek.

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