Global Connectivity, Space Tourism and More Than A Billion Dollars for Space - February 2021

This is the very first edition of the TerraWatch Space newsletter. Every fortnight you will receive the TerraWatch Space newsletter, containing some analyses on recent developments in space tech, links to the recent episode(s) of my podcast and/or a long-form blog of my perspectives on the space industry.

Seen from Space

A brief rundown of what happened in the space industry this past week. This segment contains a couple of ‘spotlights’ (deep-dive analysis) on key developments in space tech, but the majority of content is ‘quick-hits’ (one or two sentences).

This first edition is longer than usual and is mostly full of spotlights. Expect more quick-hits from the next edition!

Spotlight: Space Applications 

A rundown of everything that happened in the space industry that has to do with applications on Earth (including internet, IoT, satellite data)

Connecting the World with Satellites: Towards a four-horse race (+China)

Most of you should have probably heard that SpaceX has been beta-testing its satellite internet service in a few countries, and OneWeb, recently acquired by the British Government and the Indian telecom giant, Bharti Enterprises, has started launching satellites again after it filed for bankruptcy last year amidst the pandemic. With Amazon is well on its way with its own plans for satellite broadband through its Kuiper constellation, now we had another one confirmed this week, Telesat from Canada, which plans to provide fibre-like internet from satellites to businesses around the world. There may also be a constellation or two from China in the works. In the end, even if 49% of the population is still not connected to the internet, and the 51% will continue to demand more bandwidth, I guess, most of us just care about whether we get good bandwidth at home for surfing Netflix and whether it will be value for money, wherever we are based on the planet. Whether it comes from satellites, or through 5G (or 6G!), not sure most of us really care.

Satellite Telephony: Lynk vs AST & Science

We have been trying to connect our mobile phones directly with satellites for a couple of decades now (remember Iridium 1.0?), but we are probably on the verge of making it work. Lynk, a startup based in Virginia, USA is building what it calls “cell towers in space” and will soon start testing links between satellites and mobiles phones, for sending text messages. Worth remembering that Texas-based AST & Science is going public through a SPAC, valued at USD 1.8 billion, aiming to offer the same type of service. They have partnered with Vodafone and Japanese conglomerate Rakuten to go-to-market by 2023. Will this turn out to be another Iridium bubble?

Commercialising IoT Connectivity from Satellites

Swarm Technologies, one of the space tech startups offering IoT services from space, with over 80 satellites in orbit, has announced their commercial offering: for about USD 150, you can get a modem and IoT sensors installed and connected to their satellites. This could be revolutionary for industries such as agriculture, mining, energy and transportation, where IoT has a lot of applications but either lack of good terrestrial connectivity or high costs have hindered the adoption of IoT. However, as I pointed out, as quoted in this WSJ article ($), there are at least a dozen startups around the world trying to build satellite constellations for IoT connectivity, would they be able to satisfy this demand on their own (also, is there so much demand?) Or will we move towards a hybrid solution?

Earth Observation: Towards an Era of Intelligence from Space

Blacksky Global, a vertically integrated satellite data company is going public through a SPAC merger, valued at USD 1.5 billion. Blacksky aims to launch 30 satellites to collect real-time data and build analytics products combining this data with other sources of data (social media, IoT and others) for use across security & intelligence, disaster management and industrial infrastructure sectors. Blacksky is competing with Planet, Maxar, Airbus in the optical data category, while there is Iceye, Capella Space, Umbra (and more) in the radar data category, along with radio frequency data and infrared data coming up as well. As I have pointed out numerous times in my previous blog posts, satellite data is just another type of data, except that it happens to come from space. All that matters is what software we build with it and who is ready to pay for this. Seems like Blacksky is going all in and also building their software product Spectra, which was used to monitor Covid-19 lockdown measures from space.

Spotlight: Space Infrastructure

A rundown of everything that happened in the space industry that has to do with the infrastructure that enables applications on Earth (including rockets, satellites, satellite operations, ground systems and antennas).

Launchers: SpaceX vs The Others

SpaceX just raised a good part of a billion dollars (USD 850 million) raising its valuation to USD 74 billion. Being the poster child of the (new) space industry, it has clearly no problem attracting investors who want some stakes in the company that is building a future for both connecting the Earth (the Starlink constellation) and going to Mars (the Starship rocket). SpaceX is already becoming a customer favourite for launching satellites to orbit and to outer space, from both NASA and startups alike. With Starship less than a couple of years away from becoming operational, it seems like an exciting time to be in the launch business (as seen from Astra’s SPAC), although it is becoming insanely overcrowded (over 150 companies building rockets). How many launch companies do we really need? How many will survive?

Spotlight: The In-Space Economy  

A rundown of everything that happened in the space industry that has to do with technologies that enable commerce on Earth through in-space activities (space tourism, on-orbit servicing & fueling, space tugs and space debris)

Space Tourism: Hype vs Reality

Axiom Space, the space tourism startup, became the newest unicorn (a valuation of at least USD 1 billion) of the space industry, raising USD 130 million from private investors. ICYMI, Axiom is launching the first private spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) in early 2022 (although with two traditional astronauts and two high net-worth individuals, all men!), with more missions to come in the future, leveraging on the space station(s) that Axiom wants to build. Maybe we are finally entering the promised land of democratising human spaceflight? Or maybe not. A competition to raffle off a seat on an upcoming SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to the ISS has raised only a small fraction of its goal so far. Maybe going to space for tourism it’s one of those things that people may want and don’t need yet?

Quick Hits

  • NASA is about to land the Perseverance rover on Mars later today, focused on finding whether there was any life on Mars. It is the most precise landing being attempted and if it goes well, there will be a mini-helicopter flying on Mars soon.

  • If you are European and think you have what it takes to become an astronaut, the European Space Agency (ESA) is looking for astronauts. ESA is also starting a Parastronaut feasibility project, for those with a physical disability. What are you waiting for?

  • Fancy a bottle of Bordeaux made in space? Space Cargo Unlimited is attempting to do just that, as it is looking at making wine grape vines more resistant to climate change, by testing them out in microgravity. What a time to be alive!

The TerraWatch Space Podcast

A link to the recent episode of my podcast where I attempt to demystify space technologies for those outside the “space bubble”, by sitting down with investors, entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the space industry.

The first episode of the TerraWatch Space Podcast was released earlier this week. I chat all things Earth observation and satellite data with Joe Morrison. From topics ranging from whether satellites can be used to spy on your ex to making a case for why investors should fund EO companies, Joe provides his unique perspective on the state of the EO as well as the best way forward to make sense of all the data collected. Coming up, an episode (or two!) about investing in space!


One cool application of space technology on Earth that caught my attention

Most of us know that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines need to be kept and transported in super cold conditions (-70°C and -20°C respectively). But, did you know that sensors attached to the refrigerated device containing the vaccines are monitored through satellite? Especially when the vaccine trucks are passing through remote areas (little to zero terrestrial connectivity) or passing through a highly congested zone (bad connectivity due to overuse), satellites provide a way to continuously monitor those tiny vials that will (hopefully) take us back to the old normal.

That’s it for this time. See you in a couple of weeks!

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Founder, TerraWatch Space