When José Mariano López-Urdiales was a little boy his astrophysicist father, unlike other dads, didn’t read him bedtime stories or take him to Disney movies.
“He would explain things to me as if I were a scientist or engineer,” says the CEO of Barcelona start-up zero2infinity. “He would lie down with me in bed and explain to me things like how a submarine works, or what the problems were they were having with some telemetry.
“I grew up in that environment talking to engineers and physicists. I thought everyone was like this.”
López-Urdiales Senior went on to work on the pioneering Rosetta mission. For the young López-Urdiales, his future was set. Whatever he did, it was going to involve space in some way. “I cannot remember my first rocket launch. I have been doing this forever.”
Zero2infinity, founded in 2009, is López-Urdiales’s first company. It wants to make launching small, sub-100kg satellites into low-earth orbit almost a commonplace event, slashing costs, and opening up the stars to far more people.
But rather than using an expensive rocket to fire the satellites into space, López-Urdiales’s Bloostar project will use a 1.5-tonne, just 0.02mm thick polyethylene balloon filled with 90,000 cubic meters of helium to lift a small satellite, no more than 75 kg, mounted inside a rocket platform, to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.
From there the 3D-printed, multi-stage, donut-shaped rocket fires. The 7,000kg of thrust drives the rocket into space to a height of around 600 kilometers above the earth’s surface, a low-earth orbit, where the satellite is released.
Eye In The Sky
Beyond communications and imagery, what are the uses of constellations of micro-satellites? According to zero2infinity CEO José Mariano López-Urdiales, there are many.
“The U.S. military has been trying to get some sort of capability for a long time. They had a project, that was canceled, called SeeMe. A soldier anywhere in the world could press a button on their military communication device and within 20 or 30 minutes they could get a high-resolution image of the area they are in. Obviously they would love to have something like that.” López-Urdiales says the Pentagon is still working on a program.
“You might be more interested in the health of crops. You do not look at that in visible light — you use other frequencies. I fully expect satellites will be helping address things like crop illnesses.”
“One of the reasons why Russia has been so successful at the extraction economy is not only because they have a huge landmass, but during the Soviet times they were very active in trying to identify where to drill. They have been using space assets for that. A massive constellation of satellites that can monitor things on the planet like geomagnetic field for instance is going to be very useful for finding where to drill, not just oil, but other minerals too.”
Internet of Things
“A bit of information from a sensor that is in the middle of the Atlantic checking if there are fish or not for the boats to go there is worth maybe 1,000 or 10,000 times more than a bit of information of a video of a cat.”
“If you want to be able to operate a drone that is able to put chemicals on crops and you want to do to that from China, but the crops are in Africa, how will you do it? There are clients who want to track items around the world, to check if they are too cold or too hot or in the right storage conditions.”
Google is also, as it happens, looking at using balloons, not for launching satellites, but to provide Internet access to remote regions. The Mountain View company is investing in what it calls “Project Loon,” and will have flights of balloons that travel 20 km above the earth’s surface, remaining there for up to 100 days at a time.
The donut-shaped stages of the rocket then fall back to earth. Why donut shaped? “It is easier to land those controllably than it is to do it with a large, slender, fragile empty cylinder.
“They are a lousy shape to take off from sea level, but since we take off where there is no [air] density, or very little, we can design it for the way down, and not the way up.”
Bloostar hopes to launch the first satellite in 2017
Bloostar’s time has come. Thanks to the impact of Moore’s Law, a whole new market is opening up. In the last five years some 331 nano- and micro-satellites (satellites between 1kg and 10kg, and 10kg and 100kg) were launched, according to a report by SpaceWorks Enterprises, an analyst firm.
Some 158 of them in 2014 alone. According to López-Urdiales these micro-satellites can cost less than $1 million.
“For the price of one conventional satellite, you can have 100 micro-satellites,” he says. “The interesting part is the constellations of small satellites. These will be enabled by small launchers which right now do not exist.” Satellite constellations already exist — programs like the U.S. GPS or Russian Glonass positioning system, or the Iridium communications network — however, these older systems were conceived long before advances in technology made possible constellations of cheaper satellites.
“The way to ensure coverage is to have many satellites in the right pattern so that they cover the area you want,” says López-Urdiales.
One company that is executing its ambitious plans to fill the skies with scores of imaging micro-satellites is San Francisco-based Planet Labs. Last year the Flock-1 constellation consisting of 28 CubeSats satellites was sent via an Antares-120 booster to the International Space Station, where the individual “dove” satellites were deployed.
Another 11 were launched in June, 28 more in July. Another 26 were due to be deployed in October but were lost when the Antares 130 exploded seconds after launch.
The company, which raised a $13.1 million Series A round in 2013 led by venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, uses the constellation to provide 3- to 5-meter-resolution images of the earth’s surface. Unlike other services, which may provide one image every few days, Planet Labs can offer multiple images a day including HD video.
Google Dreams Of Space
Google is not slouching in this market either. The search engine giant spent $500 million in cash in August 2014 to acquire Mountain View-based satellite imaging company Skybox Imaging, which plans a 180-satellite constellation to provide images of the earth’s surface.
However it is unlikely that the company will be a client of zero2infinity any time soon. Skybox Imaging bought its own rocket, an Orbital Sciences Minotaur-C, to launch six more satellites from Vandenberg Airforce Base this year.
Nevertheless, López-Urdiales is confident that his technology is the key to future constellations. He dismisses suggestions that balloons lack precision.
“The error is comparable to the error that you would have anyway if you were flying a rocket to that altitude,” he says.
“We have become incredibly good at working out the trajectories of balloons. We launch a few thousand balloons for weather prediction every day and have been doing this for decades.
“Every time a balloon is launched, there are people predicting its trajectory and comparing the predicted model to the actual trajectory and so improving the models.
Rockoon Technology — An Ugly Word For A Beautiful Idea
“This has been going on for decades. All this data is freely available.”
Where did such a unique idea come from? Given his upbringing, the plan inevitably came from talking with his father about a problem he was solving that involved “rockoon” technology — an ugly word (it comes from the forced marriage of “rocket” and “balloon”) that has a beautiful simplicity.
“My father was working on a mission to recover samples from Venus. If you want to take off from Venus, which has a similar gravity to that of the earth, you need to do something clever. You do not have a Kennedy Space Center.
“The engineers came up with the idea of using a balloon to exit the atmosphere with the samples from the surface, and then shooting a rocket up from there that would meet up with a probe. That probe would come back to the earth.”
The Venus mission never came about, but the idea is seeing daylight here on earth.