Popular Mechanics – Advances in electronics and launch technologies are enabling a new class of smaller, cheaper, and lower-flying satellites that could revolutionize how we use satellite imagery and communications. But it all depends on low-cost access to space and the emergence of customers who will use them.
Chris Lewicki is chief engineer for Planetary Resources, which, in addition to devising a grand plan to mine the asteroids, is building the first commercial space telescopes. “It just so happens,” he says, “that everything that the computer-makers are innovating for a smaller cellphone that does more in a smaller spot, and the batteries last longer—those are exactly the same problems that you always have in space . . . It’s wonderful to be on the back side of all that innovation in the consumer world and be able to pick the best pieces and send them off to space.”
For example, Lewicki and his team are building their space telescopes around commercially available sensors rather than engineering them themselves. They have realized further cost savings by using 3D printers to quickly build prototypes for testing and design refinement almost as soon as they can conceive them. Like Sierra Nevada, Planetary Resources will build its completed spacecraft design in quantity to take advantage of the economies of scale to be had by ordering many of the same parts and reusing the same tooling in the manufacturing process. They are also sourcing parts from consumer and conventional industrial sources rather than from expensive satellite-component suppliers.
Skybox and the other new manufacturers are counting on being able to lower the cost of building a new satellite from hundreds of millions of dollars to one-tenth of that, and that’s just for starters. Spacecraft costing in the single-digit millions could follow.