Q&A | ICEYE achieves the ‘impossible’ with miniature radar satellite
This article originally appeared in the May 14, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Until ICEYE produced its first image in January from a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) on its 70-kilogram ICEYE-X1 satellite, many people said microsatellites could not perform radar missions. While not impossible, it was challenging. To succeed, ICEYE’s founders Rafal Modrzewski and Pekka Laurila had to dispense with a lot of the traditional rules for building space-based radars. “That’s why it took us almost four years from the moment the idea was conceived until we launched a functional satellite,” Modrzewski, ICEYE chief executive, said during an interview at the 2018 GEOINT Symposium late last month in Tampa, Florida.
Before founding ICEYE, Modrzewski moved from Warsaw, Poland, to Helsinki, Finland, to study radio science engineering at Aalto University and begin building a satellite. There, he met Laurila and the two enrolled in an Aalto University venture formation course taught by Mike Lyons, the Stanford University engineering professor who now serves as chief executive of ICEYE US Inc. When he met the pair, even Lyons — an entrepreneur and investor — was skeptical of their plan but “Pekka and Rafal were keen on getting it done,” Lyons said in a recent interview.
Modrzewski readily admits ICEYE’s satellites would fail some of the tests NASA spacecraft undergo before launch. Still, the first satellite is in orbit and it is gathering SAR imagery. “It did past this one test that was actually the ultimate test,” Modrzewski said.
I’ve heard for years that it’s impossible to build a SAR microsatellite.
When we had the idea for company, we told people we needed a small SAR and asked, “How would we go about building one?” Everyone said, “Just drop it. It’s impossible.” We tried to dig a little deeper. What is the impossible part? We very quickly discovered it is not as much impossible as it requires a new look at some of the requirements. We did not try, by any means, to beat the laws of physics but we took another look.
What were the hurdles?
The aperture size is a hurdle. Power is a hurdle. Lifetime is a hurdle. All of these make SAR generally challenging.
How did you address those?
You can allow yourself a smaller aperture if you choose to only take certain types of imagery. Those images will be fine. We created a low orbital duty cycle system. If you can change the power system configuration so you allow yourself a long time to gather the energy and then can deplete it within seconds, you are able to build a much smaller system because your solar panels don’t have to be as large. The lifetime question is a question of reliability in general. We look at the reliability from the system perspective. At any given time, an arbitrary satellite may be turned off.
How many satellites are in your initial constellation?
Eighteen. But it doesn’t mean that we will launch 18 satellites. We will have 18 satellites operating during a period of three years.
Will you launch more?
Very much so. Just to cover for those ones that will not perform perfectly or will fail at launch.
How much money have you raised?
We raised $13 million in private equity. We’ve raised an additional $7 million in grants and various types of loans either backed by the European Union or the Finnish government. And we’ve been generating revenue since the inception of the company. We signed our first contract with ExxonMobil back in 2015.
Was that for aerial imagery of the Arctic?
Yes. ExxonMobil was the first one to believe that such a system was possible. They wanted to verify whether the quality would be good enough to help them detect and discriminate between different ice pieces in the Arctic. They said, “Take this system you have right now, fly it over ice and research whether the resolution, the signal-to-noise ratio and the incidence angle are sufficient for us to be able to detect the ice pieces that we are interested in.” It was a successful test.
You launched a SAR microsatellite in January on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Do you plan to launch two more this year?
Yes. We’ll launch ICEYE-X2 on the Falcon 9 [Sun Synchronous Orbit A] mission and ICEYE-X3 with Rocket Lab. The moment we heard about the first SSOA delay, we said, “The only way for us to mitigate that risk is to purchase another launch.” We were lucky to have enough financing to do so. As history has proven it was a wonderful decision.
What’s the mass of your satellites?
It varies. X1 was 70 kilograms. The design changes. We call it agile hardware development. We launch consecutive units and they become better and better. They very often have new features. There is actually a significant improvement between X1 and X2. Some of that is attributed to the increased mass. Right now, X2 is planned to weigh 80 kilograms. It has a substantial amount of improvement. We go from 10-meter resolution in X1 to less than three-meter resolution in X2
That sounds like it would be worth the weight.
That’s not where the weight ended up being. From an engineer’s perspective, especially if you are in a rush, every time you finish building a system you know what you would have done differently if you had a chance to build it again from scratch. We apply this methodology. We rebuild it utilizing the knowledge we learned from the previous unit. We managed to upgrade the antenna so it’s twice as large as the previous one but it weighs less. However, there are other subsystems we are adding, such as propulsion for orbital maintenance, that carry additional mass. We are working with Enpulsion out of Austria, using their ion propulsion on X2 and X3.
How many people work for ICEYE and where?
75 people. Our general engineering and management is in Helsinki. Our sales is mainly based in the U.S. Our operations, customer service and FPGA programming is based in Warsaw. The engineering design and management happens in Finland. There’s always so much attention around the founders of the company. But they never do it all themselves. It is the entire ICEYE team that managed to successfully launch ICEYE-X1 and build something so many people thought was impossible.
What do ICEYE images cost?
Right now, the contracts are relatively custom because the constellation is still not in place. It depends on how urgent the image is. The price will be different depending on whether we have to deliver it within three hours or within 30 hours. I can say the price, even for the highest urgency image, is lower than $1 per square kilometer.
Where will you build future satellites?
It hasn’t been decided yet. We are in the process of figuring out the best way to build them. Is it assembling them inhouse? Is it using a third-party organization to assemble them based on our design? Or is it to subcontract part of the design to a third-party organization? ICEYE-X1 was fully assembled in-house. ICEYE-X2 is being partially assembled by a subcontractor based in Poland. ICEYE-X3 is being partially designed by York Space Systems. York is designing the bus whereas ICEYE is designing the payload. We are purchasing the bus from York and launching it as ICEYE’s mission.
Everything you do goes against the traditional method of freezing aerospace designs and processes and relying on heritage.
That’s correct. We don’t do it on purpose. We are always looking through all those steps that have been assumed to be right and making sure we accommodate the ones that are critical or extremely helpful. That’s why we do run preliminary and critical design reviews.
Tell me about capturing your first image of Alaska.
I was operating the satellite. Half of the company was operating the satellite. It was within a week of launch. After commissioning the subsystems, there was nothing left for us to do but fire away. It turned out to be a wonderful marketing image because it looks very good. We saw it form after about 90 minutes from when the image was captured. We downloaded the data and we were compressing it. It takes a set of steps. Every step, we were able to see how the raw data transferred into a more and more focused image. We recognized some mountains and land features at first, which meant everything was working. We were very excited. The impossible became possible.