ICEYE: 2018 Year in Review and Upcoming Opportunities for New Space7th December 2018
By Pekka Laurila
A Year of Firsts
The year 2018 has been a monumental one not only for ICEYE, but for an entire wave of New Space companies across the globe. So far, we’ve seen SpaceX launch the world’s biggest commercial rocket with a car as its payload, Rocket Lab placed the first artificial star in orbit, and we at ICEYE successfully launched the world’s first synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite under 100 kg in January this year. Benchmarks were created, milestones were surpassed and innovation was spurred throughout the entire space supply chain.
Radar satellite imaging is a method that has been in use for a long time, but due to previous constraints on the technology, it has been available only to very exclusive audiences. In recent years, as far as the technology goes, the size of the SAR antenna has been massively reduced and the cost to launch small satellite missions has come down significantly. Today, the cost of 100 kg satellite launches can be calculated within single-digit millions. This is a monstrous decrease to the barriers that were originally preventing innovation and mainstream adoption of SAR satellites.
With various innovations occurring over the last couple of years, 2018 became the year that many of these new opportunities would be turned into reality and successfully demonstrated in space for the first time. And while there were plenty of successes, New Space start-ups still face challenges, as do any companies that operate in the aerospace industry. Risk continues to be a hurdle faced at many points during a company’s lifespan —from external risks, such as launching a satellite on any rocket at all, to making sure proprietary hardware and software operates as planned. Risk is inherent in every aspect of this business. On the other hand, many companies are thinking about the overall market in new ways, considering that investors have shown they’re more bullish on space, deploying more than $14.4B in the industry to date.
While exploring the still largely uncharted territory of New Space, the next year will bring all kinds of new technological breakthroughs. General advancements in several technologies used in space will usher in a new wave of start-ups that will continue to change the face of the industry.
As in the case of electric cars, New Space satellite and launch technology is not really reliant on individual breakthroughs anymore. Rather, an overall advancement of various portions of hardware and software at the same time is generating a wealth of progress. Components that were originally not created for space are increasingly being launched and successfully used for satellite missions, and due to market changes there is a whole host of ongoing launch vehicle development with different solutions in the mix.
Barriers Continue to Crumble
The small satellite market is expected to grow into a $7.5B business in the next four years, and with an increasing amount of small launch providers expected to make maiden flights in 2019, the costs continue to fall. Where cost was once a nearly insurmountable barrier for most, today the cost of launching a small, under 100 kg satellite can even be situated in the single-digit million range.
In addition to the decreased cost resulting from the availability of launches, the size of satellites themselves continue to shrink due to the miniaturization of technologies—in ICEYE’s case, SAR technology. SAR satellites could weigh up to thousands of kg (4400+ lb) not too long ago. Now that we’ve been able to make the system as a whole much smaller, the cost of launching such a satellite has also come down significantly.
Investor Interest is Strong
Significant investor interest is working in favour of New Space companies, and it is expected to grow in the coming year. Looking back at the last 18 months, the funding of space ventures has continued to grow, and as stated by Seraphim Capital managing director Mark Boggett, it’s hard to find a top-tier venture capitalist that hasn’t invested in a space business to date. Some have even named it the “golden age” of investment, where space ventures are able to secure much-needed funding to take the first steps in demonstrating their tech’s viability in what can be a rather uncertain industry.
In addition to investors taking interest in emerging space start-ups, 2018 also saw some remarkable deals indicative of a bright future also for more established space companies. There were major exits, including Northrop Grumman’s purchase of Orbital ATK, and a few massive market investments including Spaceflight Inc.’s $150M Series C, a $35M Series B raise from Relativity Space, and ICEYE’s Series B of $34M. This activity is only expected to increase in 2019, making the market ripe for New Space companies of all kinds around the world.
As proven by ICEYE’s first satellite launch, committed groups, with the right talent and knowledge of their own technology, can now get their ideas into space. 2019 is already shaping up to be another landmark year: not only are we excited to launch up to nine additional ICEYE satellites before the end of the year (including ICEYE-X2), but we’re excited to the see how others will innovate and push the envelope for the entire New Space industry.