Leveraging Space 1.0 capabilities to support Space 2.0
The traditional space industry is a place where products require high reliability and extensive testing; companies that have already established heritage and expertise dominate the industry. The recent emergence of Space 2.0 (as the emerging private or commercial spaceflight industry is often referred to now) provides even more opportunities. Contractors interested in pursuing opportunities in the Space 2.0 market should seek to partner with established Space 1.0 component manufacturers who can leverage their experience and expertise with traditional space products. In the end, it is these experienced companies that are in the best position to enable Space 2.0 contractors to be successful.
The principle of quality over quantity has been the cornerstone of the space industry: Since the dawn of space exploration in the 1950s, traditional spacecraft have been designed with an emphasis on quality, meaning that engineers use only radiation-tolerant components after putting the parts through extensive testing. In the past decade, however, a new trend called “Space 2.0” or “New Space” has emerged. The strategy is to deploy a large number of redundant and relatively inexpensive satellites rather than a few robust and costly satellites. This method is rapidly gaining popularity and finding traction in companies and organizations, whether they seek to deploy global communications infrastructure or create imaging systems with very high revisit rates.
In each case, radiation tolerance – the ability of components and systems to withstand the damaging effects of radiation in space – is a significant factor that engineers must consider. Unsurprisingly, it can be a problem. Cheap commercial parts are not typically tested or characterized for space radiation; often, important radiation data is unavailable for the satellite developers who need it.
To mitigate the risk that radiation effects will cause widespread disruption to satellite operations, satellite-systems designers can benefit from partnering with component manufacturers who have deep experience with traditional radiation-tolerant space components; this way, the newcomers will gain knowledge about testing these commercial parts and obtaining accurate radiation data. (Figure 1.)
The traditional approach – Space 1.0
Two fundamental issues confront designers of space hardware: radiation effects in space and the high opportunity cost associated with on-orbit failure.
Two types of radiation damage to electronic components are of concern. The long-term accumulation of ionizing radiation and spontaneous single event upsets (SEUs) caused by particle radiation can both be fatal to spacecraft. Designers of traditional spacecraft mitigate both effects by either choosing components whose radiation effects have been characterized or sourcing components that have been deliberately hardened to withstand the destructive effects of radiation in space.
The high cost of launching satellites, their long development time, and the impracticality of performing servicing missions have given rise to the requirement to use components with the highest screening levels (such as QML Class V). For a part to be qualified as reliable in these harsh environments, it must receive millions of device-hours of meticulous testing. For example, some families of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in the space industry have over 35 million device-hours of testing.
Radiation characterization and reliability testing are expensive and time-consuming, resulting in components that are significantly more expensive than their commercial equivalents. In addition, components with a sufficiently robust radiation and reliability pedigree are often one or more generations behind their commercial equivalents.
The new approach – Space 2.0
While cheap commercial plastic-package parts have no place in deep space and flying on critical military and defense space missions, they can be acceptable for low Earth orbit missions in certain situations. For some space programs, the use of fully qualified components is simply unaffordable. Using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts is often the only way to meet both the performance and cost requirements of a mission. For example, rather than purchasing components with a high degree of reliability and radiation testing, some modern constellations comprised of hundreds or thousands of satellites actually plan to create redundancy at the system level by deploying numerous satellites serving the same purpose.
Opportunities and issues
Some large-scale New Space constellations have been proposed recently by major companies. In February 2017, satellite telecom startup OneWeb – emboldened by the oversubscribed $1.2 billion Softbank-led investment that occurred in December 2016 – was on the verge of adding another 2,000 satellites to its previously proposed constellation of several hundred satellites. In February 2017, imaging company Planet made history by launching the largest microsatellite payload yet: 88 microsatellites.
In recent years, the U.S. military has also shown an interest in commercial parts. For mission-specific small satellites, the military’s use of commercial parts will be conducive to reducing launch costs and minimizing the time between the decision to manufacture and the launch. In a military context, spreading a capability across multiple assets makes it significantly more difficult for an enemy to attack the capability, thereby providing an additional incentive for military planners to consider constellations of redundant, relatively inexpensive satellites.
Evidently, this idea of large satellite constellations built with cheaper commercial components is quickly gaining popularity and has already seen investment from many sizable companies such as Google and SpaceX. Yet there are even more potential customers observing the effectiveness and results of these New Space missions; everyone is waiting to see if it is worth investing in Space 2.0.
In a recent Forbes article titled “How to Win Big Investing In the Space 2.0 Boom,” angel investor Brandon Farwell stated that the recent success of New Space projects has “catalyzed the interest in space by the VC community.”
However, a big problem with the Space 2.0 strategy occurs when there is a common failure mode that escapes commercial testing in a manufacturing lot. That failure mode in one part type will then affect not just one system on a satellite, but potentially the whole fleet.
Although failure of a single satellite may not diminish the functionality of the constellation, large-scale catastrophic failures are still possible and the requirement for reliability testing and radiation characterization is still present. For space companies that seek to design New Space constellations, the main issue is that commercial component manufacturers typically don’t have the expertise and resources to test their parts in harsh radiation environments and provide radiation data.
Traditional space manufacturers: The perfect resource
Space contractors interested in pursuing opportunities in the Space 2.0 market should seek to partner with established Space 1.0 component manufacturers that can leverage their experience and expertise with traditional space products to assemble and test cheaper commercial equivalents of their radiation-tolerant devices. These companies are in the best position to use their heritage, prowess, and understanding of what’s required for reliability, radiation, and packaging to offer solutions to Space 2.0 companies. Most importantly, they can make radiation data for non-space-grade components available to New Space satellite system and subsystem contractors for use during device selection.