The cost of launching data-gathering satellites into space is about to get a lot cheaper, if Dirk Wallinger has his way. Wallinger is CEO and co-founder of York Space Systems, a two-year old company based in Colorado that promises to radically reduce a few of the astronomically high price points of launching things into space.

York Space Systems claims its solutions will “eliminate barriers to entry for entire new data gathering space constellations, creating new verticals, and enabling for drastic growth of the space mega-set.”

Dirk Wallinger, CEO and co-founder of York Space Systems. Image courtesy York Space Systems
Dirk Wallinger, CEO and co-founder of York Space Systems. Image courtesy York Space Systems

The space mega-set refers to the huge — yet largely untapped — commercial opportunity for private enterprise to leverage the the types of data that can be only collected from space.

“We refer to it also as the space data frontier,” Wallinger told The Downlink. “Space right now is really an information gathering opportunity.”

A swath of companies are interested in getting their hands on satellite imagery and other bits of information about Earth — such as temperatures, weather patterns, animal migrations, etc — for applications and analytics.

“It’s not just pictures of your house. It’s the amount of water on a crop field and how that can be used more efficiently; it’s resource identification and location; it’s monitoring natural disasters and helping agencies bring aid to the right places;  and it’s stopping illegal fishing.” Wallinger said. “In the future, we’re going to find boundless opportunities for what this data can do and ultimately help our lives.”

At present, the costs required for launching satellites into space are too high for space-based data collection to be feasible for most organizations. “It’s pretty much only harnessed by the government,” Wallinger said. “It’s an unrealized commercial market, where information will be gathered consistently and efficiently. But right now, it’s not economically viable.”

York Space Systems hopes to spur the commercial space industry by bringing efficiencies into spacecraft development and manufacturing that help dramatically reduce costs.

Designing spacecraft for mass production

York Space Systems is using proprietary technology and design to create what the company is calling the world’s first mass produced and standardized spacecraft platform. Wallinger is an engineer himself, and has been designing spacecraft for most of his career, with stints at Orbital ATK, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, and Ball Aerospace under his belt. “I’ve seen across the spectrum how different folks build spacecraft, and how they approach that problem,” Wallinger said. He put that engineering experience into good use by designing an instrument-agnostic spacecraft platform that can be used for a variety of missions without too much re-designing work. And because the design of the spacecraft is standardized, York Space is able to quickly manufacture them.

“It’s a piece of hardware that has standard known interfaces that folks can count on,” Wallinger said. “We mass produce them in our factory which will be completed in August. Those platforms will be available for immediate delivery. It’s really something that no one else does in the industry currently and York is hoping to change that.”

York Space System’s AESV S-Class platform is its first to market. The platform is designed for mass manufacturing and can be built at a fraction of the cost of other spacecrafts. The S-Class is a 3-axis stabilized spacecraft that can support up to 85 kg of payloads — placing it on the smaller side of the spectrum for spacecraft. “We hope to make bigger platforms in the future,” Wallinger said.

The S-Class offers standard data interfaces for the payload and high rate downlinks to transmit data to the ground segment. It can supply the power of the payload, and it handles all the attitude controls and stability of the spacecraft. It can be used for any orbit inclination and orientation.

But the S-Class also has a few optional features that cost extra: “One is a laser communications terminal, which allows downlink rates of up to 10 Gbps, which is really unheard of for this size space craft,” Wallinger said. That laser downlink is provided by BridgeSat. “It’s one thing to gather data, but to get it down is part of the challenge, too. And that laser option allows folks to get the data down.”

And for missions that require larger satellite constellations, York Space System’s S-Class platform offers a field effect electric propulsion (FEEP) feature that enables satellites to hold their configurations in space. Those features and the other options help to make the S-Class more competitive in the market, along with its much lower price tag: the S-Class prices range from $675,000 to $1 million, depending on features.  That’s significantly less than the $15 million and up price tags of York Space System’s competitors. And the platform’s design ensures that it can be used in ride-share opportunities, and can be adapted for small launch vehicles, which helps to further drive down costs for customers.

The Space Segment Enterprise Program (SSEP)

Now, York Space Systems is looking to energize interest in the commercial space data frontier. Earlier this month, York Space launched its Space Segment Enterprise Program (SSEP) for commercial and government entities. The program links company customers with a network of manufacturing firms within the space value stream to provide services such as mission planning and design, spacecraft, payload design and manufacturing, launch solutions, mission operations and data analytics.

SSEP partners include SAIC, Vector Space Systems, TriSept Corporation, ÅAC Microtec, Stellar Solutions, The Sensing Company, AMR Propulsion Innovations, RBC Signals, Atlas Space Operations, BridgeSat, Braxton Technologies and Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The idea is to offer something of a one-stop shop to companies looking to acquire and utilize space-based data sets. “We identify their [companies’] needs and wants first,” Wallinger said. “York identifies the size of the constellation that they need, identifies the cost points that they want to hit, and then we work with the other program partners to identify what the best solution is for them.”

For clients, the program essentially handles all the technical details and difficulties involved in launching something into space, from designing custom spacecraft to operating the ground station that collects the information. “This is in contrast to how things are done today,” Wallinger said. “Most of the capital raise is spent on infrastructure: building ground segments when a lot of that exists, building clean rooms when a lot of that exists, hiring engineers to design a spacecraft bus, when there are plenty of engineers that can do that.”

That removes a lot of complexity from the equation for firms and helps to streamline the processes for wider markets to take advantage. “We try to take the space part of the equation, and that let’s the customer focus on the data and analytics,” Wallinger said. “Ultimately, it’s better for everyone in the ecosystem when we do that, help folks be successful, because that’s just going to help our market grow.”

York Space Systems hasn’t sent up any of its spacecraft yet, but those cost-saving features have caught the eye of the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), which awarded York Space Systems a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) earlier this year. The company is also working on about 33 satellite projects for commercial customers. Wallinger said the company hopes to have its first launch early next year.

Feature image:  Closeup of the Ice Island from Petermann; (CC BY 2.0) by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Kendra R Chamberlain

Freelance journalist writing about environment, clean & green tech, smart infrastructure, IoT and circular economy. Co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink.

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