On August 3-8, the small satellite (“smallsat”) community flocked to Logan, Utah for Smallsat 2019. The conference drew nearly 3500 participants representing more than one thousand organizations and forty-five countries. The attendees included smallsat operators, ground-station-as-a-service providers, launchers and launch integrators, component manufacturers, students, enthusiasts, and even some attorneys. In addition to the noticeable increase in attendance, a few other themes, highlighted below, jumped out.
Orbital debris mitigation continues to dominate conversation
The keynote by OneWeb’s Greg Wyler set the initial tone: companies should be focusing on satellite reliability and not be rushing to launch. He warned that failed satellites and collisions could lead to even stricter orbital debris regulation. Other participants seemed to share this concern. For example, several propulsion and space tug companies exhibited the value of their technologies for on-orbit collision-avoidance maneuvering and post-deployment satellite phasing in less congested orbital altitudes and inclinations. In fact, one space tug operator, Momentus, announced its partnership with an established launch service integrator, NanoRacks. From its centrally-located floor booth, the 18th Space Control Squadron (18th SPCS), which provides space situational awareness services, handed out brochures emphasizing the need for operators to collaborate early and often with the 18th SPCS to maintain space safety and sustainability. Finally, RocketLab announced that it, like SpaceX, would begin recovering and re-flying its Electron vehicle’s first stage, minimizing on-orbit debris and helping boost the company’s future launch cadence.
Ground-station-as-a-service providers have a new competitor in a rapidly growing field
Viasat, a legacy satellite operator and component manufacturer, revealed its plans to provide ground-station-as-a-service for the increasing number of smallsat operators downlinking Earth Observation, Internet of Things, and other data. It joins Amazon Web Services, RBC Signals, InfoStellar, and Atlas Space Operations in contending for current market share along with the primary incumbents, Kongsberg Satellite Services and Swedish Space Corporation.
2020 may shake out the industry
Investors may slow their investments temporarily in 2020 to observe how their current space-related investments perform. With a potential temporary drying-up of capital, there could be exits in the form of acquisitions and initial public offerings; mergers could also become a focus this year given the plethora of companies in the various sectors (launchers, ground station providers, bus/satellite manufacturers, and satellite operators). Exits could also include unfortunate company shut-downs too. For example, Vector, a smallsat launch vehicle operator, had raised $100 million (including a $70 million Series B round in October 2018) but recently halted operations.