New Year Greetings from Exodus Orbitals!

Our journey this year has been dramatic and eventful, and we finish 2019 on an upward trajectory. As the NewSpace industry gains momentum, 2020 promises to deliver even more technological breakthroughs from both large and small players.

Exodus Orbitals is on track to develop one such breakthrough – an entirely new approach for satellite software applications. Our solution will allow a much wider community to actively participate in space exploration. We are proud of our progress to date and we want to thank everyone who has helped us on our journey.

Happy New Year 2020!

NOVA Mission: Risk Mitigation, Part II

Beyond the standard technical risks for space exploration missions, there is also a financial challenge. Space is a capital-intensive domain, with satellite, launcher, and ground infrastructure factoring in to the total bill. For a small start-up, any unforeseen disaster can potentially bankrupt the company, so one has to prepare for that kind of scenario. In short, one must maximise odds of mission success, while minimising the total cost of the mission.

Let’s review what actions can be taken:

Satellite Design and Manufacture – In-house or Outsourced?

Even with a small team, it is possible to build a CubeSat; it has already been attempted multiple times. However, the odds of building a CubeSat and it operating successfully on a first try is not that great. By looking at the history of CubeSats [our podcast link] built by various teams, the odds of success are ~50%. Many nanosatellite teams succeeded only on later missions. Fortunately, there are now nanosatellite vendors with a proven track record, that can build a CubeSat to order, giving the customer a significantly better chance of making it past the deployment phase successfully on a first attempt. Exodus Orbitals will take this route, opting to review proposals from various vendors to select the one with the best offer. In-house construction may save a company money in the short-term, but our view is that such gains are not worth the risk of mission failure.

Launcher Selection – New or Existing Providers?

As with the small satellite industry, there is now a boom in the launcher market, with hundreds of companies now competing to bring their own solutions to fruition. Right now, the only such company that has succeeded is RocketLab, but by 2020 the market should see many more companies gaining orbital capability. Being the pilot customer on a new launcher extremely risky; a successful first mission here is an exception, not the rule. New launch providers frequently offer a considerable discount on the launch price, but again our view on this matter is that the risk is simply too high.

Ground Infrastructure – Rented or Fully-Owned?

A fully-owned ground station setup can provide a lot of value for multiple missions, but there is a large upfront expense. For satellites operating on amateur radio frequencies, one can rely on the many volunteers across the globe to obtain downlink telemetry. However, for commercial activities, a ground-station is absolutely required for both the uplink and downlink data. Fortunately, there are now “ground station-as-a service” companies, offering their facilities for both purposes on a pay-per-use model, reducing the initial costs required. This is what we plan to use, and we are already in talks with a number of these vendors in preparation for our first mission.

NOVA Mission: Risk Mitigation, Part I

Space missions of all kinds have been lost because of software errors, including those engineered by experienced teams from the largest space agencies in the world; well-funded interplanetary probes such as ESA’s Schiaparelli and NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter are but two examples.

Much smaller teams with intentions of launching a CubeSat will have to deal with the same degree of space environment challenges, plus many additional risks originating from allowing an amateur user to run code on a satellite’s onboard computer.  Therefore, it is important to describe what risks we are going to face, and the preventive measures we are going to take to optimise the odds of mission success. They can be roughly grouped into mission risks and business risks. Firstly, we will talk about mission-specific risks and their mitigation. 

Mission Risks

Running code written by people without extensive prior experience in space software development is the largest challenge we face in developing a mission of this kind, in addition to the usual risks that come with CubeSat development.

…and Possible Countermeasures

The core concept of our solution is the implementation of multiple layers of software and hardware guards as well as operational procedures, forming a defence-in-depth strategy to reduce the risk of premature mission termination.

  • First and foremost, the design of our satellite in general, on-board data handling, and the commands subsystem will follow current practices in nanosatellite design and construction. We plan to utilize flight-proven parts from existing nanosatellite vendors to reduce any unforeseen risks and leverage the reliability of flight heritage solutions.
  • Secondly, our onboard data-handling and command system will be split into primary and secondary partitions, where the primary partition will act as a supervisor with priority in commanding the satellite subsystems and can override user code execution on the secondary partition. The mission software and operating system on the primary will be selected or designed by our team and will not be accessible or overwritable by our satellite users.
  • Thirdly, a degree of flight envelope protection will be implemented for the mission software – runtime environment on host operating systems will provide safety checks and threshold limits for potentially dangerous user command sequences.

As the primary operational precaution, before any user code will run in space, it has to pass the comprehensive test procedures on the ground, from basic sanity checks to predictive analysis of the satellite behaviour using “digital twin”, synced with the real satellite using real-time telemetry. In the case of mission-critical emergencies the secondary on-board computer running misbehaving user code will be powered-off, either through command from the ground station or by autonomous decision-making of the primary on-board computer.

Technical solutions are not the only actions we should be using. There is no substitute for experience, and the moment we will be able to secure sufficient funding to start our mission design, we will be hiring people with experience in nanosatellite mission design and operation: system engineers, electrical and mechanical engineers, software developers and orbital mechanics experts. A lot of necessary answers will be obtained during our collaboration with ESA’s OPS-SAT mission, to be launched in just a few days, on December 17, 2019, so we will not be operating in the blind when the time comes for our own mission in late 2020.

In our next update we will describe the potential business risks and our approach to minimise them. 

NOVA Mission Goals

The primary goal of our mission, NOVA, is to radically lower the entry barrier for parties and people interested in conducting their own research and projects in space.

Currently, it requires an incredible amount of time and effort to deploy and operate any kind of instrument in space, even on the smallest possible satellite, and the mission payload is accessible to the few, not the many.

NOVA will create numerous opportunities for both companies and individuals alike, opening up the doors to space for people that previously could not afford access to this type of technology. 

What we can offer in the long run is a “satellite-as-a-service” system, with our space and ground infrastructure becoming a revolutionary new development platform. NOVA is a proof of concept, that if successful, will become a precursor to an untold number of missions with diverse payload types and features available for customers to utilise.

Examples of potential instruments include:

  • AIS and ADS-B receivers
  • Laser and SDR transceivers for IoT connectivity
  • Earth observation cameras
  • Astronomical observation cameras
  • Particle detectors

Universities will be able to grant their students access to a software development platform that operates in the space environment, giving them direct experience with real satellite hardware and satellite operations. The system could also be used as a qualification and test platform for high-risk/high-impact projects from existing aerospace businesses.

These are but a few examples.

NOVA will unlock an almost endless list of possibilities that we are excited to anticipate.