Sep 23, 2015

Wade Larson on UrtheCast’s Pivot from Station to Constellation

Estimated Article Reading Time: 10 min.

From Station to Constellation

In the middle of June, Vancouver, British Columbia-based remote sensing company UrtheCast invited media to New York for a preview of the first high-definition video produced by one of the company’s two cameras mounted on the International Space Station. At that time, the company was known just for those two cameras, with plans to add an additional camera and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument to the station later in the decade. The company didn’t discuss any additional initiatives at the event.

Within a week, however, UrtheCast announced a significant shift in plans. On June 19, the company said it was developing a 16-satellite constellation in partnership with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL). Eight of the satellites will carry high-resolution cameras and the other eight SAR payloads. Three days later, UrtheCast announced it was acquiring a European remote sensing company, Deimos Imaging, that currently operates two satellites.

One of the key people overseeing this change in direction at UrtheCast is Wade Larson, the company’s president and chief operating officer since 2013. Larson came up with the original vision for UrtheCast after nearly 20 years in the space industry, including work at the Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.

Larson spoke recently with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust about UrtheCast’s new direction.

A few months ago, you were still known primarily as the company operating cameras on the space station. What prompted this change into a more satellite-centric remote sensing company?

We’ve always viewed ourselves as a company that is a space station company, using that unique platform in space to do interesting and different things in Earth observation. But I think for quite a while now we haven’t defined ourselves as only that. We’ve known that we want to be much more than that.

The announcement of the constellation and the acquisition of Deimos Imaging took many by surprise. How long had they been in development?

We’ve been working on both of those initiatives for a long time — for months anyway on the acquisition, and for over a year on the constellation. We’re a public company, so a couple of the triggering events hadn’t taken place that would have allowed us to announce them when we unveiled our first light videos.

Will you at some point transition to only operating satellites — that is, you’ll no longer operate cameras on the space station?

We’re committed to the space station. There’s no doubt about that. We think it’s a very interesting and unique platform with a lot of benefits to it. In some ways it’s hard; there are complications with being on the ISS. There are disadvantages. For example, some of the revisit is highly unusual. There are reasons why electro-optical satellites have always been in a 10, 10:30, 11 o’clock revisit orbit.

On the other hand, it turns out having a variable revisit in an inclined orbit such as the ISS has some advantages. Not everything happens in the middle of the morning around the world. Power provided by the station is very advantageous, as well as real-time geostationary communications. Those are advantages that you don’t have with traditional free flyers.

Are you planning to go through with some of your earlier announcements about adding a camera and synthetic aperture radar instrument to the station?

We think there is a very complementary business case for continuing to build out our sensor suite on the ISS that both anticipates and supplements what we’re going to be doing with our own constellation.

So some of the sensors you might want to add to the station could be precursors of what you would fly later on your satellites?

Exactly. They could be precursors, or they could be complementary assets. That is, if you’re dealing with a certain set of spectral bands on your free flyer, you might choose to have different bands on the ISS. And when you take into account the orbital characteristics, there’s an interesting case for using the ISS for this business.

How will your constellation stand out from the growing number of current or planned competitors?

A key point is the sensor suite. What we’re proposing here is a fully integrated electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar constellation. That by itself is already unique among many of these smallsat constellations that are coming out.

The second is the concept of operations. We’re proposing to fly the radar satellite and the optical satellite in very close tandem formations, about a minute apart, at an altitude of 450 kilometers. There’s a lot of real-time interaction between the satellites based on onboard processing.

The third thing is to really stress is that, strictly speaking, we’re not putting up smallsats. We actually think that the sweet spot is somewhere between what people currently call smallsats, which, depending on the definition might be 200 to 300 kilograms, and the traditional class of satellites that might be a couple of tons. We think the sweet spot is somewhere between 600 and roughly 1,000 kilograms per satellite. That’s the size at which you can get the advantages of low-cost satellites in terms of some of the new technologies that are coming out, particularly electronics, but you can still protect aperture.

So it was aperture that was driving you to this somewhat larger class of satellites?

Absolutely. You can’t get around the physics. It has to be big enough to collect the photons necessary to get down to the resolution you want. We’re targeting a resolution of 0.5 meters for our satellites, on the optical side.

Is there a similar argument for the SAR sensor?

The argument is even stronger, because the power requirements are so great. On the radar side, radar is power hungry. What is really unique about our technology — and we’ve patented this — is the ability to image simultaneously in quad-polarization L-band and single-polarization X-band from the same sensor. The ability to do that with relatively low power is something that’s quite special here. But you need a lot more power than you can get from a 200- or 300-kilogram class bus. That’s pushing us up to just north of 1,000 kilograms.

Are you planning to use the same bus for both spacecraft?

We’re aiming for maximum standardization across both. The eight optical satellites all look the same, and the eight radar satellites all look the same. There are huge similarities in terms of bus design and other things, because you get the economies of scale and the efficiencies by doing so.

Obviously, there are differences. For example, the radar birds are bigger, so you need more propulsion, so you have bigger tanks. They’re a little heavier, so you might need a different solution in terms of how you point the spacecraft.

What attracted you to SSTL, given that your satellites are planned to be larger than most of the ones they have built?

SSTL is the world’s leader in small satellites. They have been migrating into bigger satellites in recent years. We’re seeing that in terms of this new constellation of 1-meter-class satellites that they built for 21AT. We’ve seen it in some of the Galileo work they’ve done for the European Space Agency. So they’ve already been moving into a higher class while retaining the enormous strengths they have in the small-satellite domain.

Where are you seeing the demand for radar imagery to devote half your constellation to it?

There is clearly interest and demand for radar imagery around the world. Historically it has been about 20 percent of the Earth observation data market. The best estimates we’ve seen are that relative weighting will more or less continue for the next decade or so.

I think the real magic of what we’re proposing is not a standalone radar. There are actually four sensors on two satellites: an X-band and an L-band on the radar satellite, and a multispectral pushbroom imager and a 30-frames-per-second video imager on the optical one. So we think there’s a “one plus one equals three” utility that comes from this for our customers.

What are your plans for financing and launching this system?

The business model is something we’re calling a “timeshare” business model. We’re working toward launching the constellation in 2019 and 2020. The way we get from here to there is by working with partners. Partners can buy into the constellation during this build phase in order to guarantee themselves access and data rights during the operational phase beyond 2020. It you bought the equivalent of a pair or two pairs of satellites, we can now federate that capacity over the entire constellation for your area of interest. You get better coverage and better revisit times from the entire constellation than if you launched your own satellite.

How are those sales efforts going?

We’ve been in discussion with a couple dozen prospective customers from around the world. The response has been very strong. It’s because this offering is so unique, the value proposition is so strong, that people seem really quite interested in it.

Are these commercial imagery resellers, government agencies or some other set of potential customers?

They broadly fall into three buckets. One would be government customers: pure traditional government operational users. The second would be Earth observation companies themselves, or companies looking to get into the business as operators. The third are pure commercial users of data. And that runs a very wide gamut.

Do you have, or are you courting, U.S. government customers?

Yes, absolutely.

Is there anything you can say about those efforts?

I prefer not to speak about how any particular customer discussion is going at this stage.

Is it your intent to just sell images, or sell data products that combine those images with other data sets?

Both, actually. We’re looking for partnerships. Where it makes sense to do something internally, then we can vertically integrate. But where is doesn’t make sense, then we’ll work with others.

Where does the purchase of Deimos fit into all of this?

Think of it as a strategic steppingstone to the full constellation. It starts to build the internal capabilities in terms of free-flyer management and operations. It broadens and deepens our sales pipeline beyond just what we can do from our cameras on the ISS. It gives us access to a lot of very highly qualified personnel. With the Deimos acquisition we’re up to about 200 employees.

One of those satellites is a medium-resolution imagery satellite. Since the future constellation is going to be high-resolution imagery, how does that fit in?

There is robust demand for it. It’s a 22-meter multispectral camera, but it has basically the best coverage in the world for broad-area agricultural applications. So there is surprisingly robust interest in this as a standalone offering in the market.

You need a toolset: Sometimes you need high resolution for a particular problem, but in other cases you really want broad-area coverage. So even now, before we get to our constellation, we have a 22-meter wide-area Deimos 1 satellite, and we’ve got a 1-meter — at nadir it’s a little under — Deimos 2 satellite. We’ve got a 5-meter multispectral sensor and a 1-meter video camera on the ISS. So we’re already coming to the market with four unique, different capabilities. Not every customer itch will be scratched by a particular solution. It’s the variety of those sensors and the things you can do with them on a standalone basis or on a collective basis that makes things quite interesting for us.

How are you paying for that acquisition?

We have done a combination of debt and equity. We went out and got a big loan from an undisclosed bank, and then we’ve done an equity raise.

Why did you do that particular combination, rather than all debt or all equity?

The combination of the two gives us the most flexibility and line of sight certainty to the money required.

How is the mood at the company with all of these changes?

Morale at the company has never been higher, and that’s saying something since this is a company that people seem to love working for and being a part of. We have a very clear strategic vision, and people have really bought into it. We’re trying to do Earth observation differently. We certainly want to come at this with some humility, because we understand this is a difficult business. The companies that are succeeding in this business currently do so because they’re exceptional, and very good at what they do. So we make no assumptions that we’re going to displace these companies or anything like that.