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.