An artist's rendering of Loft Orbital's YAM-3 satellite, which used a bus from LeoStella. Credit: Loft Orbital

TAMPA, Fla. — The space industry needs to significantly simplify services for customers outside the sector to unlock its next phase of growth, space executives told the Small Satellite Conference Aug. 9. 

New space-as-a-service (SaaS) business models have vastly expanded the market, offering more customers the benefits of space infrastructure without the burdens of satellite manufacturing, launch, regulations or other technical intricacies.

SaaS offerings from companies including Spire Global, SSTL, Momentus and Loft Orbital Solutions — which participated in a Northern Sky Research panel for the virtual conference, aim to lower barriers to entry for companies lacking in-house expertise to develop space services. 

They also promise to significantly speed up the time it takes these customers to launch their services. 

But many SaaS offerings are still being provided to organizations that consider themselves as a space company, with a keen interest in all its technical details.

“They want to deploy some satellites so they can then build a business around the data coming off of it,” explained Theresa Condor, executive vice president and general manager for space services and Earth intelligence at satellite operator Spire Global.

“And where this industry is going is more toward end-users that never considered themselves a space company … and all they want is to be able to have all the applications, data collection, in remote areas or in a way that they can’t do using terrestrial means, and they really don’t care about the rest of it.”

Much like how companies tend not to care about the number of servers used to provide them with cloud services, or how many will have to be added, Condor sees a growing need to simplify end-to-end services for space.

“For me the biggest challenge is making all of this as simplified as possible, and easy as deploying something to the cloud in that sense,” she said. 

“And I don’t think the satellite industry across the board is fully there in that simplified access quite yet.”

Service limitations

Financial and operational considerations mean SaaS is not necessarily for everyone, noted Alex da Silva Curiel, international business development manager at smallsat maker SSTL.

“What I see is the biggest challenge these days is where there is nonrecurring engineering required,” he said, referring to one-time research costs for testing a product.

He said SSTL is often asked to develop capabilities that do not yet exist that might first require a demo mission, for example, to collect results and then make adjustments. 

“That is very challenging, I’m finding in today’s market, because particularly what we are seeing is on the commercial side there often isn’t the willingness to invest in that,” he said.

“And then the question often is, well, who actually benefits from these developments? It’s often the company with the business plan to run a service that benefits from this and they wouldn’t want that development to be used by anyone else, because it gives them a competitive edge.”

Governments in particular have been hesitant to adopt an SaaS model because of a lack of control over the generated data, added Negar Feher, vice president of business development at space mobility startup Momentus.

“In order to get around that with particular government customers, or very sensitive customers, some changes will need to be done which will cause [nonrecurring engineering] and complications and make the service less smooth,” Feher said.

“So this isn’t potentially a solution that applies for all cases … there are a lot of use cases that could really benefit from it, but of course like anything else it has its limitations.”

SaaS is here to stay

The business model is a good fit for future space situational awareness and active debris removal businesses, said da Silva Curiel, adding that SSTL sees “a lot of interest” from governments as customers for this.

The ability for SaaS to open up new business applications like these gives the trend longevity.

Feher said: “We see this as a long-term trend, and the reason why I say that is because the space industry is growing exponentially … fed by the fact that access to space is becoming cheaper, technology is being miniaturized such that … a lot of new business cases are now enabled as a result of this.

“And that lends itself very well to more [SaaS] applications.”

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...