British startup offers low-cost cubesat services

WASHINGTON — A British startup says that it can build and
launch cubesats for a fraction of the cost of traditional
approaches, a concept that has won support from the European
Space Agency.

Open Cosmos, a company based in Harwell, England, offers
spacecraft design, launch and related services for cubesats as
large as 12 units. The company says its all-inclusive costs
start at £500,000 ($637,000) for a 3U cubesat, which it claims
is as little as one-tenth the cost of alternative providers.

The key to that low cost and fast turnaround time — the company
says it can go from project kickoff to launch in less than a
year — is through the use of standardized systems. “What we do
is provide entire missions,” said company founder Rafel Jordà
Siquier in a June 15 interview. “Customers come in with a
payload or even just with a data requirement, and we do
everything else so that they get that data.”

The approach Open Cosmos uses is to send a spacecraft
simulator, called qbkit, to customers, who test their payload
in there using a software package called qbapp. Once satisfied
that their payload is working as desired in the simulated
spacecraft, the customer ships that payload to Open Cosmos,
where it is integrated into an actual satellite for launch.

The company has flown one satellite to date, a demonstration
mission called qb01. That 2U cubesat, carrying a sensor to
measure atomic and molecular oxygen in the upper atmosphere,
was flown to the International Space Station on a Cygnus cargo
spacecraft and deployed earlier this year as part of the QB50
satellite project.

In May, Open Cosmos signed a contract with ESA to be the
agency’s first Space Mission Provider as part of its Advanced
Research in Telecommunications Systems’ Pioneer program. Under
that agreement, known as Project Sapion, ESA will provide
technical support to Open Cosmos and fly a telecommunications
demonstration payload on an Open Cosmos satellite.

“ESA’s Pioneer program will support the development of the
infrastructure and service that secures the future
commercialization of new technologies through in-orbit
demonstration,” said Magali Vaissiere, director of
telecommunications and integrated applications at ESA, in a May
30 statement.

The ESA contract is a major milestone for the company. “We are
really glad to be selected as a provider,” Siquier said. “We
intend to see this mission as a validation of our service with
ESA, and hopefully many more contracts will come from public
entities as well as private ones.”

He said the company is not trying to focus yet on any
particular class of missions or customers. “We don’t want to
position ourselves in a particular vertical,” he said, saying
the company was open to working with customers from government
organizations, companies or academia. “We just want to have as
many of them as possible.”

The company, formed 18 months ago, recently doubled its staff
to 16 employees, and Siquier said he expected to hire several
more engineers in the coming months to raise that total to 20.
The company currently has the ability to build four to five
satellites a year, but plans to increase that capacity to 30.

The company has yet to do a major fundraising round. “The
company has been built on commercial traction. We haven’t been
doing any of these flashy big rounds,” he said, adding that he
is not ruling out doing a financing round in the future
depending on investor interest and plans to scale the company.

Open Cosmos has received financial and other support from
Entrepreneur First, a London-based business incubator. “They
take technically talented people and turn them into startup
builders,” he said, calling it more of an “amplifier” than an
incubator.

Within Entrepreneur First, Open Cosmos stood out. “Most of the
companies worked on software and machine learning. That’s why
they move really fast,” he said. “I was the weird guy, trying
to do space hardware as fast as the people who were during
software. It incentivized us to go faster.”

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