SAN FRANCISCO — Long before the brutal militant group often called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — ISIS, for short — was in the headlines, cubesat developers were turning to a Dutch company known by the same acronym for satellite components, engineering support and spaceflight services. In recent months, Innovative Solutions in Space executives have reluctantly considered whether to embark on a major rebranding campaign. They hope that will not be necessary since the terrorist group is now referring to itself as the Islamic State, Jeroen Rotteveel, ISIS chief executive and co-founder, said.
Innovative Solutions in Space was established in 2006 by four members of the Delft University of Technology team that designed and built Delfi-C3, the Netherlands’ first nanosatellite and the nation’s first student-built spacecraft. Since then, ISIS has established a catalog featuring a wide variety of nanosatellite components and entire spacecraft. Eleven percent of all satellites launched in 2013 relied on ISIS launch services or the company’s small-spacecraft deployment systems, said Abe Bonnema, ISIS co-founder and marketing director.
In June, ISIS embarked on its largest launch campaign, sending 21 cubesats and larger nanosatellites into orbit on a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket. The cubesats were ejected from ISIS’s QuadPack nanosatellite dispenser. Shortly after that launch, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. announced plans to use the ISIS QuadPack in 2015 for the inaugural launch of its Sherpa space tug, a platform designed to house and deploy small satellites and secondary payloads.
ISIS developed the QuadPack for the European Union’s QB50 mission, an initiative to send 50 university-built cubesats to conduct research in Earth’s lower thermosphere. ISIS is in charge of the QB50 launch campaign scheduled for 2016. The firm also designed, assembled and tested two QB50 precursor satellites launched on the June Dnepr flight.
In 2013, ISIS flew payloads on six different rockets. “We would like to achieve an airline approach,” Bonnema said. “If you know your destination and have a timeline, you should be vehicle agnostic.”
That approach is designed to reduce risk for ISIS Launch Services customers. “We do not want to be too dependent on one particular launch vehicle,” Rotteveel said. “We can offer better service for satellite developers by offering opportunities every few months to go to low Earth orbit. They can plan for that.”
When ISIS was established, universities across Europe were adopting the cubesat standard, while Europe’s largest aerospace companies were facing consolidation and layoffs. “People were charmed by the idea of doing smaller, faster space missions,” Rotteveel said. “We saw a lot of interest and few players offering solutions.”
For its Delfi-C3 mission, the student team purchased Pumpkin Inc.’s CubeSatKit to house the spacecraft, but developed most subsystems, including radios and power systems. “If we had been able to buy more subsystems, we certainly would have bought quite a number of them,” Bonnema said. “It wasn’t possible at the time. There was virtually nothing available apart from the Pumpkin kit.”
Delfi-C3 was sent into orbit in April 2008 on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The mission demonstrated new technology, including thin-film solar cells produced by Dutch Space, wireless sun sensors built by the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research and an amateur radio transceiver designed by students on the team.
Innovative Solutions in Space at a Glance
Location: Delft, the Netherlands, and Somerset West, South Africa
Top Official: Jeroen Rotteveel, chief executive and co-founder
Mission: To provide high-value, cost-effective small-satellite solutions by making use of the latest innovative technologies.
By the time Delfi-C3 launched, ISIS s founders were hiring employees with all the skills needed for satellite design and integration, including radio frequency communications, data handling, software, mechanical engineering, attitude control and thermal management. “You need a lot of different skills to build a satellite, irrespective of its size,” Rotteveel said. “Not everybody can afford to have all these disciplines in a project team. So we knew that if we built a company that could offer a little bit of everything, we could serve any customer.”
Because the Netherlands is an extremely small market for a space company, ISIS looks for customers globally. “We’ve become quite good at that,” Rotteveel said. “We have a big customer base in South America, Southeast Asia and Europe. Despite having no home market and increasing competition, sales are picking up quite a bit.”
That growth is largely a reflection of the growing popularity of multiple-cubesat missions. Individual customers, who in the past may have purchased single components or small numbers of parts, are placing large orders because they are preparing to launch “networks, swarms and constellations,” Rotteveel said.
The emergence of cubesat constellations also promises to make ISIS and other nanosatellites suppliers more profitable. In the past, companies often were forced to redesign particular items to meet the needs of each customer. “The good thing about constellations is that they use identical pieces of hardware and software,” Bonnema said. “It is easier to work in such a market.”
In addition, firms that offer satellite hardware, software, launch services and space operations are establishing close ties with cubesat constellation builders. “We can offer customers a complete turnkey mission, not just a satellite ready to launch, but a satellite launched and ready to use,” Rotteveel said. “That is particularly helpful for scientific or commercial users who are primarily interested in data or running an experiment.”
Within the last two years, several companies including Planet Labs and Spire, both based in San Francisco, have announced plans to use cubesat constellations to provide imagery to government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations. “We have some involvement in a number of these initiatives and do not rule out partnering in one or more of these ventures or even starting a new venture led by ISIS,” Rotteveel said.
ISIS has built much of its business through partnerships. Since the firm’s inception it has worked with multiple cubesat component producers. For instance, ISIS sells products built by San Francisco-based Pumpkin abroad, while Pumpkin sells ISIS components in the United States.
Similarly, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. has a great relationship with ISIS, said Phil Brzytwa, Spaceflight business development manager. Spaceflight assists ISIS with the integration of foreign payloads on U.S. launches, and ISIS helps Spaceflight integrate payloads for its customers on foreign launch vehicles.
“We are accustomed to working through thorny technical integration and export regulation issues with them,” Brzytwa said by email. “Our arrangement provides value to our customers by allowing us to reduce travel costs on both sides of the Atlantic.”