7-things Space: November 2021
A long-winded summary of my thoughts on all things space
In each edition of the newsletter, we will be diving deep into 7 developments in the space industry from the weeks that passed.
I will be focusing on recent developments in space tech focusing on those impacting life & business on Earth - more downstream less upstream, more applications less infrastructure, more commercial less technological. In short, things that I found particularly interesting!
And without any further rambling, let’s get to 7-things space!
2 developments in space tech that might be worth diving deep into
More satellites for climate
As COP26 wrapped up yesterday in Glasgow, us, in the space industry have been busy figuring out how space can help with respect to climate change. Of course, one of the easiest applications of space is monitoring, especially as world leaders agree (or at least try) to net-zero goals and greenhouse gas emission reductions. A number of Earth observation missions - both commercial and institutional - are in the works, including some recently announced, to help us monitor emissions and understand the evolution of greenhouse gas effect on the planet. The ones I have been tracking include (non-exhaustive, but in my defence, it’s getting hard to keep up):
Sentinel-5P, part of the Copernicus program
GHGSat, the Canadian startup that recently received $20M more in investment
Carbon Mapper, a US non-profit consortium including NASA & Planet
MethaneSat, from the Environmental Defence Fund (another US non-profit)
MicroCarb, from CNES
Merlin, from CNES & DLR
CO2M mission, part of the future Sentinel missions
The recently announced CO2MVS constellation from the EU
In the meantime, some outstanding bit of work done by Climate Trace - a consortium of 12 members - in democratising access to emission data from around the world. Earth observation will always continue to have a huge role to play in climate change - from helping us understand the planet to tracking what we do to it i.e. both from a scientific standpoint and for policy monitoring. But, important to remember that the value from satellites is not realised unless data is converted to insights (which then hopefully leads to action) - perhaps through a climate data mission control center.
Working on space debris management
More good news on this front. From governmental agencies taking an active role in supporting space-debris related solutions (UK Space Agency funding for ClearSpace & Astroscale) to more companies working on such solutions - tracking all of the debris out there being an important part of it (Turion Space, Privateer, Digintara). Apart from the private space station announcements, this topic probably got more attention than anything else during the International Astronautical Congress. And, we are seeing more alliances being formed between space companies to collaborate on reducing orbital debris.
Frankly, I cannot remember the last time this subject got so much attention - when I got into the space industry in 2016, working on space debris management was a niche topic and it barely got a mention. Seeing all these developments actually makes me quite hopeful - because after all, it is in the space companies’ and spacefaring nations’ interest to make space sustainable for all.
2 trends in Earth observation that I am monitoring closely
How we communicate about Earth observation
There has been so much so noise in Earth observation lately - the jargon of data, platforms, analytics and insights are being thrown around everywhere. But, what really is an Earth observation data company? What is the role of platforms? What really does an EO analytics company really offer? And, what do insights mean?
Personally, I have been trying to understand the puzzle that is Earth observation for a while. You might have read my thoughts evolve over the years and elsewhere. I used to juggle between a 3-layered and a 4-layered stack for Earth observation. And so, I wanted to quickly revisit this 👇
Data availability - (Acquisition): Launching satellites to fill a data gap - more often than not by a single remote sensing sensor
Data accessibility - (Dissemination): Building platforms to facilitate access to data and efficiently process it
Data “fusability” - (Analytics): Making data fusable by converting data into information that can be integrated into other tools / data types
Data usability - (Insights): Developing applications that can be consumed directly by end users, solving a specific problem.
Although there is innovation happening all across the board, here’s my thesis on EO:
Disruption isn’t just about launching more satellites equipped with different type of sensors to acquire more satellite data and distributing them. It is about solving a problem for the end-user via the acquired data - mostly by providing actionable insights!
Activities across the value chain - Funding, M & A and more
The past month saw so many developments in Earth observation that even as an EO aficionado I found it very hard to be on top of everything. From Satellogic’s interesting “Dedicated Satellite Constellation” based business model contract with Paraguay to AiDash and Overstory’s funding announcements - both focusing on the lucrative, but very underrated infrastructure monitoring market. From SatSure’s private equity funding news, SustGlobal’s seed funding, and of course, Planet’s acquisition of Vandersat, which generated a lot of discussion.
As companies continue to work on important & boring problems to move the industry forward, I have been thinking about 3 things that are usually considered buzzwords and get less attention: “go to market”, “repeatability” and “scalability.”
Go to market - i) how your product is delivered to the customer - is it a web app? a mobile app? or, an integration with enterprise software like SAP or ESRI? or, is it a stand-alone SaaS solution? ii) what is your customer profile - are they a data analyst? a software developer? a decision maker?
Repeatability - i) how many times can you sell the same product to more customers with minimum effort and the least customisation of the product involved (ideally <10% like a SaaS product). ii) how do you say ‘no’ to more project-based work, for achieving this repeatability in the business model.
Scalability - i) does your product work for an entire city, a region, or the whole world? or just on a specific area of interest? ii) how automated is it from end to end? Is it a plug-and-play solution for everyone, everywhere?
In the past 5 years I’ve been involved with EO, I’ve never thought finding a good idea or even funding is a huge challenge - it has always been the execution and the approach to market. As weird as it sounds, figuring out these three so-called ‘buzzwords’ has been harder, even more so than launching satellites into space.
1 trend that I wish slows down
Plans for satellite constellations (mega & mini)
Do we really need more satellite constellations? Boeing got their plans approved by the FCC, while Astra wants to deploy a constellation of 13,600. Hughes , Inmarsat (which was just acquired by Viasat for $7.3bn) and Telesat (which is going public) also wants to launch their own mega (>1000) or mini satellite constellations. And if all goes well, we will apparently have around 79,000 satellites for global broadband 😮
When will this slow down? After one company goes bust? After a serious space debris situation? Or, should we all root for Starlink/OneWeb to gain 100% market share so that all other constellations wouldn’t have to launch?
I feel like the space economy has somehow reached the “App Store” phase - when any mobile software developer from anywhere in the world could develop an app and launch into the Android or iOS App Store i.e. everyone, who can afford to, can launch a satellite or a constellation of them into space. Space democratisation is a great thing, but only if it is regulated properly. If not, there will only be more space junk.
1 thing that I am curious about
SPACS - The Past, The Present and the Future
We have another SPAC and this time an interesting one. ICYMI, Terran Orbital is going public via SPAC at a $1.8 billion valuation. And if you don’t know much about the company, here’s a nice summary thread. This is fascinating, for me, because the company, unlike many others, has their eggs into two (potentially) exciting buckets: satellite manufacturing and Earth observation - completely different market dynamics but if they execute well (especially on the US institutional segment) , they could grow fast 💰
Terran Orbital remind me of Airbus Defence & Space in their overall approach- who do well manufacturing EO satellites for different customers around the world, but also launch their own EO constellation to sell data.
And, we have seen quite a few SPACs in space, this year (see below). I am still not fully sold on NewSpace companies building their companies while listed on the public markets (yes, even though Spire, Blacksky, Astra gave positive outlooks). Most of those outside the ‘space bubble’ simply don’t understand the nuances within each space segment (frankly, more than five years in, I am still figuring it out). All we can do at this point is to try and continue rational conversations about the developments (although I tend to focus on the EO segment more than others).
1 thing that I have been thinking about - a lot
The future of humanity in space
Ever since I read this beautifully written, long read on this subject, I couldn’t stop thinking about what we are doing and where we are going, as a species. Every so often you read something that makes you take a step back and think deeper. There is often a lot of utopian thinking when it comes to space exploration.
But, is space really for everyone? Will we leave people behind as we progress technologically and become a multi-faring species? Will a privileged few of us, hailing from selected countries, get to escape a climate-ravaged Earth?
Coming from India, I fully know the history of colonialism and what it entailed. And, as a space enthusiast, I also understand the excitement of building towards a multi-planetary species. I just hope that we don’t make the same mistakes - but I have to admit, that hope is slowly, but surely stumbling each day. TBC!
🎙️ PS: I have had some very interesting guests on the TerraWatch Space podcast - an a strategist, an entrepreneur, a tech executive, an astronaut and a space professional (which includes 3 women and I am quite proud of that). 5 more episodes to come, before the end of the year. Thanks for your support!
🌍 PSS: I have been working on a piece on “Earth observation for Climate” for a while now - it will be an expansion of this piece that I helped develop. So, stay tuned!
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