SUPPORT | June 8, 2017

The Golden Era of Space – A Personal Journey from Toy Sputniks to the Stars

Photo Credit: EBAN Space

 

This year of 2017, we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Sputnik. It inspired and continues to inspire men and women around the world to reach for the stars and to achieve great things.

A Toy Sputnik for the Christmas Tree

I was 5 years old in 1957 and for Christmas I received from my father and mother a toy sputnik with Santa Claus inside to put on the Christmas tree. When I was 10 in 1962, my father, one of the pioneers of space and telecommunications working on the Apollo Mission and doing the rst US government and private satellites, came to my class. He told us that “one day we will have satellites for communications, for entertainment, for education and when we have wars, we will have wars with satellites and peace on earth”.

Democratisation of Space

I was hooked. From that day on and still today, I have had the privilege to found or co-found a number of satellite ventures — be they SES, Loral Teleport Europe, Europe Online, and Iridium (the only company where I was actually employed!) during the 1980’s and 1990’s and then today in the 21st century to be involved in such ventures as OWNSAT/Kaci c, NorthStar, Laser Light, Planetary Resources, and Aura, all privately nanced commercial initiatives helping bring about the “Golden Era of Space”. All of these projects brought or are bringing about a democratisation of access to space and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Today, the world has never needed so much connectivity, so much interactivity, so much interconnectivity. The fossil fuel of the 19th and 20th centuries is being replaced by “bandwidth”, the engine that is driving the Digital Era and Big Data. Satellites provide immediate infrastructure and thus are the ideal solution to connect our people, our planet, and our universe.

Personal Communication Satellites

In 1997, I did a “Blue Skies” concept for Hughes Satellites. I called it PCS, “Personal Communication Satellites”. It was a wink at the “PCN’s”, the mobile Personal Communication Networks that were sweeping the world at the time. The cells were smaller, the phones were smaller, thus enabling what all hoped would be universal access to to mobile telecommunications.

My idea of course was that “every(wo)man” would have their own satellite that would provide them with their own complete communications network. Being a satellite manufacturer, Hughes loved the idea but felt it was too advanced for them at the time.

Today, 20 years later, kids are going to Space Camps and building their own satellites and launchers.

Amateur Radio Operators and Universities who used to launch experimental satellites called “Nano Sats” and now “Cube Sats” and “Pico Sats” are realising that these ‘“research” projects can be revenue generating companies providing Big Data to countries, organisations, companies and institutes eager to understand not only our earth, but our planet and our universe.

Companies such as Planet (formerly Planet Labs) are putting mobile phones into Cube Sats and taking pictures of the earth, turning a fun experiment amongst 20 year-olds into a 140 million USD company.

Developments in Material Sciences on the ground

As in the past, developments in material sciences are a ecting the way satellites and launchers can be used more e ciently, more e ectively, and more economically. In 1983, when we rst started SES Astra, today the world’s pre-eminent satellite company, governments and their large publicly owned monopoly telcos and industrial companies invested billions into high- powered satellites with 250 Watt TWT’s (Traveling Wave Tubes) to beam television signals directly into 60 cm dishes. We had been following the developments with gallium arsenide LNB’s (Low Noise Block Down Convertors) for the satellite dish outdoor electronics. These new LNB’s permitted 60 cm dishes to receive signals from the existing “o the shelf” satellites with TWT’s of 25 Watts, thus creating a disruptive competitive advantage of 10:1 in price, technology, and risk aversion.

The end of that story? All of the “High-Powered Satellites” failed and literally burned out. SES Astra, with its “conventional o – the-shelf” satellites but using new receiving equipment went on to become Europe’s and then the world’s pre-eminent satellite system.

Today, “new” phased array antennas using meta-materials developed by a technology company called Kymeta are being used by such companies as One Web (the 777 satellite constellation being put up by a consortium made up of Qualcomm, Virgin Galactic, Airbus, and SoftBank) to enable not only xed but moving objects (cars, wearables) to connect and be connected. The innovation is not in the satellite constellation itself which is basically the 1992 (yes!) design that the low-earth orbit (LEO) Iridium system had used with 77 satellites. As in the case of Astra almost 35 years before, the innovation is in the ground equipment. Perhaps even more to the point “phased array” antennas have been around even longer than satellites themselves, but always su ered from being too expensive, cumbersome, and large to use. The meta material innovation of Kymeta has taken care of that and democratised not only the technology but access to bandwidth for all.

Launchers

The biggest impediment to the proliferation of using satellites for our connected universe has been the lack of launch vehicles commensurate with the size and type of satellites that have sprung up in the last 10 years. In the rst 40 years of space, the space launch market belonged to a few governments and their Space and Defence agencies, such as the USA and Russia. In the early 80’s Europe then came onto the scene with a beautiful e ort resulting in Ariane Space, one of the rst multi-national and private-public projects bringing a number of European countries and companies together creating a multi-functional launch pad in the jungles of French Guyana in Kourou. These launches from Kourou – where many of my Astra satellites were launched are among my favourite as the vibrant tropical colours of the night are brought into full splendour during the night launches.

Japan, India and China followed suit in the early 90’s and as often in such endeavours, initial e orts were met with failure but ultimately resulted in successful launch programs of which their countries can be proud of today.

I was privileged to be a part of bringing about two international cooperations with the Russians, the “grand-daddy” of space. Each endeavour was always characterised by international cooperation at the highest levels and a sense of history in the making. In 1995, 22 years after the Russians had approached us to launch our USA/Europe manufactured satellite (not possible due to COCOM restrictions) and 6 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we launched our 5th SES ASTRA satellite on a Proton rocket in Baikanour. It was the result of a cooperation called ILS – International Launch Services that we had ‘inspired” between the American company Lockheed Martin and the Russian Krunichev company behind the Proton Rockets. Three years later, I was contacted by Ariane Space to help this time the Europeans cooperate with Soyuz, another beautiful international cooperation that I am proud to have been associated with.

Today and way beyond Space X, Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab, Blue Origin — all of who are now at least 10 years old, we are looking to the next generation of rockets which will bring the small cube sats, nano sats, pico sats, and constellations into space. Entrepreneurs in Australia with Neumann Space, in Spain with PLD Space, in Russia with Skolkovo Space, in the USA and Luxembourg with Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, to name just a few — are pushing the envelope to make space more a ordable and more accessible for all.

Drones, Airships, Loons, and Space Debris

The amazing proliferation of drones – worth an article in itself – are changing the way people do business, save lives and gather data. On the horizon or perhaps even looking back to the future, Airships and “Loons” may augment the traditional satellites, cube sats, nano-sats, pico sats, constellations to contribute to our connected world, planet and universe. Although people speak of space debris today, future systems will all have self-destruct mechanisms.

My personal journey to the stars

These last ve years of my life, I have returned with vigour to the sector I love and to which I was born. After having done satellite television with SES, satellite telecommunications with Loral Teleport Europe, satellite mobile communications with Iridium, satellite Internet with Europe Online, traditional rocket launchers with the Russians, the Americans, and the Europeans, it is my privilege to be working today on 5 space-related projects which I believe are helping change the world for the better and pointing to the future, although so much more can still be done. These projects are:

  • OWNSAT (Oceania Women’s Network Satellite), a group of telecoms, Paci c Island, and passionate women including many from GTWN who have come together from around the world to help fund and operate Kaci c, the high-throughput satellite system serving island states at rst in the Paci c and then other regions.

  • NorthStar, a space situation awareness LEO constellation using hyper spectral and infra-red sensors which will help us understand our planet and our universe better by being a conduit for Big Data collection.

  • Laser Light Communications which intends to be the 1st global provider of Optical Satellite as a Service, “OSaaS”, to serve the ever growing demands for large data transport needs of carriers, enterprises, and government agencies around the world, based solely on optical wave technology.

  • Aura, a micro-satellite launcher to open the bottleneck for all “New Space” entrepreneurs bringing satellites up to 500 kg into space on a weekly, re-usable basis.

  • Planetary Resources Inc., an Asteroid Mining Company, which while not exactly going to the stars will bring us closer to discovering the secrets of the Black Hole and be a lucrative source of water and precious metals going forward.

Needless to say, as with all of my previous endeavours, all of these projects are privately nanced and commercially oriented, even while there is no doubt that they are helping humanity, the planet and the universe. What people today call “New Space” — an umbrella term for a movement and philosophy encompassing commercially driven space ventures working to independently develop faster, better and cheaper access to space, space technology and space missions — is something I have done all my professional life.

These projects are also based on the trends of the future for “New Space, i.e., simply the best means to broader, more socioeconomically-oriented, NewSpace ends and the establishment of a worldwide community of designers, re ners, promoters, and advocates of building-block concepts, architectures, systems, technologies, missions, programs, protocols, and policies that enable and support NewSpace activities across all relevant dimensions.” (Wikipedia de nition of New Space)

(Wo)Manned Space

I personally have never had the heart nor the stomach to go into or be involved in bringing about (wo)manned space, even though I realise that this is truly a next frontier of the exploration of space and our universe.

For me, this will indeed be for the next generation.

I am delighted to see though, that there are a number of initiatives that I think are truly worthwhile and advance the causes of humanity and space.

The rst initiative is by my friend, Claudia Kessler, CEO of HE Space. She has single-handedly initiated a movement for Germany to have its rst woman astronaut, something other countries have achieved decades before and which inspired whole generations of young girls to follow careers in ICT and STEM.

The second initiative is “Space Nation”, started by a wonderful group of Finnish entrepreneurs who believe that everyone can be trained as an astronaut, even if they do not actually become an astronaut. I think this initiative will democratise space even further and prepare a whole new generation to understand and contextualise our place in the universe.

Brain Waves

As I conclude this small chapter on my personal journey from toy sputniks to the stars, I believe that ultimately we will have to develop our ability for our brains to communicate with other human beings, machines and complex systems in order to transcend the voyage to the stars, other planets, and other galaxies. I believe this is totally possible and that this will indeed be my next and ultimate journey.

 
 

Ms. Johnson is President of Johnson Paradigm Ventures (JPV) which is a principal founding shareholder with AXA, Caisse des Depots, Bayerische… About the author