Aerospace & Defence

What’s the price of risk in the private space sector?

23rd January 2023
Kiera Sowery

The number of satellites in low-Earth orbit is predicted to grow dramatically over the next decade due to the launch of planned satellite constellations by private companies.

According to a report by Northern Sky Research, use of COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) components for space-bound satellites is helping to drive the 17% compound annual growth of the private satcom and constellation market.

“Accessibility to space has become easier than ever before,” said Tom Freeman at Solid State Supplies. “A space launch used to be a national effort. Now, thanks to significantly reduced launch costs and COTS components, multiple private companies have the capability, which presents countless commercial opportunities.”

The efforts of private space companies can be rewarding, both in monetary and societal terms. Collecting data is a key driver. Once collated and sorted, data can be used across a wide range of sectors including agriculture, the military, telecoms, mapping, mining, energy, and more, presenting a hugely lucrative opportunity for commercial entities.

With all that profit to be had, it’s little wonder that private companies are keen to build and launch satellite constellations as soon as possible and with maximum margin for profit.

As launch costs and component pricing are substantially lower than ever, failures are easier to bear. That’s according to Hugh Wratten, Franchise Manager at Solid State Supplies: “There is a greater willingness from companies to accept failure. If a satellite fails, it’s a calculated loss, and launching a new one is still affordable. That would have been unthinkable just over a decade ago, when failure represented a catastrophic financial loss.”

If risk-taking in the commercial space industry is more readily accepted, it raises questions: what kind of impact will that have on safety, the environment, and space junk, and what are the dangers involved with getting through the constellation gridlock to reach deep space?

“Certainly, space-grade testing tends to be minimised by some private companies who want to reach earth’s lower orbit,” said Wratten.

“Historically, components would have to go through rigorous testing procedures to ensure they were fit for purpose, but much of this testing can be foregone if a company is willing to accept there may be failures.

“It’s still the case that when sending spacecraft above the atmosphere, space-grade testing will apply, but satellites only going as far as lower orbit can perform well with aerospace-testing. There may be some fall-out but making it commercially viable often takes precedence.”

The cost differences are stark. When ordering space-grade parts, you would have to order many more than you need, as the components are tested to the point of destruction. A fully radiation-hardened component which has endured weeks of testing can cost ten times the price of  its counterpart which may only be radiation-tolerant. A risk? Maybe, but when profits are the number one factor, many commercial companies may consider it one worth taking.

COTS components do not equate to low quality, however, explained Wratten. “There are differences in the spec between many of the products designed by our manufacturers for space versus aerospace, but the majority of the cost difference comes from the testing.

“Even when considering the product differences, it is important to remember that space components were born out of those designed for aerospace, so the standards are often inter-compatible. Components made for passenger jets must be of the highest spec for their grade. Satellite constellations made by private companies are only designed to reach low orbit, which poses an entirely different set of conditions than the harsher environment of outer space, where space-grade components and rigorous testing can’t be compromised.”

Perhaps, then, a lack of appetite for such rigorous testing isn’t as irresponsible as it immediately sounds. Plus, there are other ways to counteract any potential fallout. Long-term manufacturing increases confidence in a component, as statistical analysis over an extended period gives an indication of its success level while remaining within the realms of commercial feasibility.

This could explain why the private space market is veering towards volume manufacturing in the same way that the automotive industry has.

While no one’s denying the risks that some private companies may feel inclined to take, Freeman points out that it’s in the companies’ best interests not to fail: “If your biggest incentive is profit, then you need your satellites to work first time and to work for as long as possible. There comes a point when making shortcuts becomes a false economy.

"Private space companies realise this and, while they might be tempted to cut out certain testing processes, component suppliers have a level of responsibility and simply won’t agree to supply for a project they know the component is inadequate for.”

Freeman agrees. “COTS doesn’t mean commercial grade. Even if inadequate for outer space environments, for a component to be suitable for lower-earth orbit, it still must withstand a temperature range outside the parameters of a commercial grade part, which would be more likely to contain epoxies and adhesives subject to out-gassing with no consideration for radiation.”

The resounding advice from the experts when deciding on the suitability of a component is to ask the manufacturer or trusted local agent, who understands the product and its capabilities.

“They’ll know the product better than anyone and should be able to give you a good steer on whether it’s suitable for use in your application,” saysFreeman .

“Ask if you can use the product; what the risk might be; and whether it’s been used for space before.”

If the specific component hasn’t been used in space previously, but the technology itself has space heritage, some manufacturers, such as Microchip and VPT, partners of Solid State Supplies, can take the specific component you’re looking at and test it to make sure it makes the grade.

If questioning the manufacturer or distributor is the critical ‘DO’, then what is the critical ‘DON’T’?

According to Freeman, the worst mistake you could make is assuming that just because two products look the same and are even made by the same manufacturer, they will have the same characteristics. “It can be as subtle as the type of dye or wafer process used, but that difference can spell either success or failure.”

Another warning is to watch out for products which have plastic or epoxy packing, which most commercial components do, due to the cost-effectiveness of the materials. Such products will likely lead to failure in satellite constellations.

“The dos and the don’ts all boil down to the same thing,” said Freeman . “Gaining knowledge of the product by speaking to the manufacturer or distributor adds much more value than the potential losses which could be seen if the satellite fails. Taking the time to ask and understand is easy, not to mention mission critical.”

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