British startup offers low-cost cubesat services

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WASHINGTON — A British startup says that it can build and launch cubesats for a fraction of the cost of traditional approaches, a concept that has won support from the European Space Agency.

Open Cosmos, a company based in Harwell, England, offers spacecraft design, launch and related services for cubesats as large as 12 units. The company says its all-inclusive costs start at £500,000 ($637,000) for a 3U cubesat, which it claims is as little as one-tenth the cost of alternative providers.

The key to that low cost and fast turnaround time — the company says it can go from project kickoff to launch in less than a year — is through the use of standardized systems. “What we do is provide entire missions,” said company founder Rafel Jordà Siquier in a June 15 interview. “Customers come in with a payload or even just with a data requirement, and we do everything else so that they get that data.”

The approach Open Cosmos uses is to send a spacecraft simulator, called qbkit, to customers, who test their payload in there using a software package called qbapp. Once satisfied that their payload is working as desired in the simulated spacecraft, the customer ships that payload to Open Cosmos, where it is integrated into an actual satellite for launch.

The company has flown one satellite to date, a demonstration mission called qb01. That 2U cubesat, carrying a sensor to measure atomic and molecular oxygen in the upper atmosphere, was flown to the International Space Station on a Cygnus cargo spacecraft and deployed earlier this year as part of the QB50 satellite project.

In May, Open Cosmos signed a contract with ESA to be the agency’s first Space Mission Provider as part of its Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems’ Pioneer program. Under that agreement, known as Project Sapion, ESA will provide technical support to Open Cosmos and fly a telecommunications demonstration payload on an Open Cosmos satellite.

“ESA’s Pioneer program will support the development of the infrastructure and service that secures the future commercialization of new technologies through in-orbit demonstration,” said Magali Vaissiere, director of telecommunications and integrated applications at ESA, in a May 30 statement.

The ESA contract is a major milestone for the company. “We are really glad to be selected as a provider,” Siquier said. “We intend to see this mission as a validation of our service with ESA, and hopefully many more contracts will come from public entities as well as private ones.”

He said the company is not trying to focus yet on any particular class of missions or customers. “We don’t want to position ourselves in a particular vertical,” he said, saying the company was open to working with customers from government organizations, companies or academia. “We just want to have as many of them as possible.”

The company, formed 18 months ago, recently doubled its staff to 16 employees, and Siquier said he expected to hire several more engineers in the coming months to raise that total to 20. The company currently has the ability to build four to five satellites a year, but plans to increase that capacity to 30.

The company has yet to do a major fundraising round. “The company has been built on commercial traction. We haven’t been doing any of these flashy big rounds,” he said, adding that he is not ruling out doing a financing round in the future depending on investor interest and plans to scale the company.

Open Cosmos has received financial and other support from Entrepreneur First, a London-based company builder. “They take technically talented people and turn them into startup builders,” he said, calling it more of an “amplifier” than an incubator.

Within Entrepreneur First, Open Cosmos stood out. “Most of the companies worked on software and machine learning. That’s why they move really fast,” he said. “I was the weird guy, trying to do space hardware as fast as the people who were during software. It incentivized us to go faster.”