The space market is currently experiencing disruption. New technology, new players, new business models and new demand is shaking up what was traditionally a conservative, expensive, risky and slow-paced industry. Record investment is pouring into space companies on a wave of excitement and race to grab market share. In 2015 $1.8 billion of venture capital poured into space startups.
Petroleum companies, big box retailers, hedge funds and governments are realizing the value of high resolution image streams from satellites that can be refreshed as often as daily. Farmers can analyze crop health, corporations can track assets such as ships and governments can monitor geopolitical issues. New players like venture-funded start-ups, universities and commercial players are successfully launching fleets of satellites. Examples include Planet Labs, Spire and Virgin Orbit.
The majority of satellite launches in 2016 were small satellites or Smallsats (under 500kg). They typically use off-the-shelf components and are launched in constellations creating networks of 10s or 100s of satellites. Some satellites called cubesats are as small as the size of a shoebox. There is a focus on speed of deployment, redundancy and economies of scale rather than the perfect solution. The lower launch costs associated with smaller, lightweight satellites also make them very attractive and lower risk.
Smallsats are now taking on missions that were previously only possible with large satellites (weighing thousands of kilograms). Some factors driving this are the miniaturization of components, standardization or borrowing of parts from other commercial industries and the development of new technologies like highly integrated electronics.
All of these small satellites share one attribute: the use of solar cells to generate electrical power. Power is required for sensors, communications, computers and propulsion. In fact as the capabilities of satellites grow, the demand for power also grows, necessitating more solar. With limited space available on a Smallsat, innovation in integrating the solar is required.
Until now, there have been no commercial solar technologies that could match the improvement in cost, weight and ease of use that other components of small satellite technology have achieved: space grade solar cells are traditionally expensive, fragile, rigid, and difficult to encapsulate and robustly attach to spacecraft. Alta Devices solar cells address all of these traditional problems because they are thin, flexible, easy to encapsulate and mount, and provide high conversion efficiencies. Alta’s cells can be wrapped around curved surfaces while remaining highly robust and provide a new level of mechanical and design flexibility for the small satellite industry.
We’re excited to be working with many space pioneers in this small satellite boom. Please reach out if you’re interested in discussing your space project with us.