The Space Industry

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A podcast discussing how companies can build on their heritage of space missions in years and decades past to meet the changing needs of the modern market.

Show Notes

In this episode we speak with James Barrington-Brown, CEO of NewSpace Systems - a space industry manufacturer with facilities in South Africa and the UK.

NewSpace Systems has developed a strong heritage in the modern commercial space sector with hardware and services provided to more than 60 clients, including several national agencies. But this progress is a built on a foundation of expertise in so-called ‘Old Space’ industry – by applying lessons from working on missions and services in decades past.

And that’s what we talk about in the episode, including:
  • What James thinks the terms of New and Old Space really mean
  • The importance of effective, widely used standards in the industry, and the benefits these can bring to businesses
  • The factors that need to be considered when determining the true total lifetime cost of a mission
  • How manufacturers can meet high volume requirements without sacrificing quality
To find out more about NewSpace Systems please view the company's supplier hub on the satsearch platform, and to stay up to date with all of our work, please join the satsearch mailing list to receive our weekly newsletter.


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What is The Space Industry?

The Space Industry by satsearch - sharing stories about the businesses taking us into orbit.

We delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space companies of today, who could become the household names of tomorrow. Find out more about the companies and technologies discussed on this show at satsearch.com.

Hywel: Hello everybody. I'm your host, Hywel Curtis and I'd like to welcome you to 'The Space Industry' by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.

Before we get started with the episode, remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com.

Hello and welcome to the episode. Today I'm joined by James Barrington-Brown, CEO of NewSpace Systems, a space industry manufacturer with facilities in South Africa and the UK. NewSpace Systems has developed a strong heritage in the modern commercial space sector with hardware and services provided to more than 60 clients including several national agencies.

But this progress is built on a foundation of expertise in the old space industry, by applying lessons from working on missions and services in years and decades past. And that's what we're going to discuss today. So firstly, James, welcome to the podcast. And is there anything you'd like to add to that introduction?

James: Thanks very much to satsearch for inviting me and welcome to the audience.

Hywel: All right, fantastic. So, let's dive into this topic now. How do you personally define, old space and NewSpace? Where are the lines and where may be the overlaps and particularly, as I think you could be considered as an industry executive who has been one of the drivers of this transformation that we've seen.

James: The first thing in NewSpace is, as I see it, the grandfather of the smallsat industry, and what sort of became NewSpace, is SSTL and they launched EOSAT-1 at one back in 1981. So we're talking 40 years ago. I joined the industry, with a company called SIL back in 89. We were the first people to fly FPGAs on a European Space Agency mission, which is still working today.

We launched in 95. So that's 25 years ago and people seem to think that constellations are new, but I was around when they were doing Orbcomm and Globalstar, Irridium and they're all back in the late nineties. So NewSpace to me is not new. But it has moved on. Even if a lot of people think CubeSats are the birth of NewSpace, but even those Bob Twiggs developed that back in 99. So even CubeSats now are 20 years old.

But if you're trying to define the difference, old space is really government focused where risk was unacceptable. It was unacceptable for things to fail and NewSpace really to me is more about applications. It’s about new business models, it’s about doing things using space assets that couldn't be done before - all about closing a business plan.

So you have to make the space infrastructure and the launch infrastructure, the ground segment, cheap enough to now close a business case for an application, which may have been done terrestrially before. And now it could be in space.

It's all about things like time to market, minimal viable product, total lifetime cost, which would be nice to talk some more about that later on, but fundamentally the point I wanted to talk about today is that the physics hasn't changed. The chemistry hasn't changed. There's still radiation, there's still atomic oxygen. You're still working in vacuum. We're still working in zero gravity. So it's really important not to throw out the baby with the bath water, as they say, let's not try and reinvent everything.

There are some things which have been tried and tested. A lot of failures and you learn from that. So let's not throw all that away with a new wave of innovation, which is fantastic. Now we're on that wave, but it's really important to learn from our history.

Hywel: That's really an interesting take on it. On that, I think teams today have to find a balance between merging the "old space" processes with NewSpace commercial technologies. And you're saying that those two things overlap quite a lot. How do you think teams can find that sort of balance? Are there any examples you could share based on NewSpace System's own product development history?

James: Yeah. Maybe I'll talk a little bit about our approach, the old space way as I call it was a lot of work, because everything was risk averse, there was no chance of failure. So a lot of things were about optimization, a lot of analysis. Now the new route seems to be, build something and test it and do that rapidly.

It's almost like agile process with software. You do rapid iterations and Elon Musk is a fantastic advocate of this. And his phrase of these RUD, Rapid Unintended Demolition or destruction, or so. He builds things rapidly and while he's testing the first one is building the next generation to test.

Whereas the older approach, and you can see that in things like the SLS program, launcher programs in the States, they are years behind what Elon is doing. So our approach tends to be to use digital systems because they're easily to reprogram. So everything we build is processor- or FPGA-based.

We overdesign on the mechanics. So we tend to use big boxes and not to take little pockets of mass out. So things tend to be over-mass, but that's also good because it gives you a good radiation performance, if you've got bigger boxes. And then we test and we test again. And, we really focus on the engineering model, qualification model stage to make sure that what is built is going to work, but do it much more rapidly than the old tradition.

Hywel: Interesting. Yeah, I think the contrast in the Elon Musk approach with the SLS in America is a very clear way of seeing these two modalities you're talking about.

James: Well, the follow on from that is, we still build stuff the old way. You can't maintain stuff in space. The nice thing is with software defined things, you can start doing some maintenance in orbit. But the hardware itself, the solder joints, the components you use, the PCB quality, all of those are fixed. So we really do focus on what I'm also calling old space in terms of the manufacturing of the units. We are using very traditional tried and tested methods.

Hywel: Yeah, absolutely. And it's about assuring the quality and reliability as you say, because you can't go up and fix things! So, another way that the industry tries to achieve that quality and reliability is in terms of standards, which suppliers and manufacturers can use.

And we talk about that only standards which can actually be adhered to are really genuinely useful and are really likely to succeed in improving that quality. But do you see merit in certain standards for NewSpace being agreed to by different stakeholders, including industries and agencies through mission experiences that have occurred so far and how do you see this playing out?

James: Overall, standard are great, and you see a lot of parallel industries where people have come up with standards and that's accelerated the supply chain and market penetration. A lot of people worry about that standards will stifle innovation. I think in general again, a bit like learning from history and there are certain ways of building things, you should stick to that.

Having a standard doesn't really stop you inventing new things, but you can still talk to the same boxes or whatever. So a lot of people talk about standards at the hardware level. I'm a big fan of that, but I've seen many companies say this is a new standard, but they're the only people using it.
We really focus on process and there are people who throw up their hands when you talk about the ECSS processes, which are the ones that ESA use. But ECSS by its definition actually allows tailoring of those standards.

So it's a nice kind of framework and there's 101 acronyms, which I hope some of your listeners will understand like PDRs and CDRs and MRRs. You could put it in easy to understand terminology. When you start on a project, you want to sit around and say, are we getting in the right direction? You can call it a preliminary design review and then once it got to the end of the design, you can sit around and say, okay, is this really, have we thought this through, is this what we actually want to build? And that's a critical design review or a CDR.

And then you get to the next point, you say, okay if we ready to build this thing. Have we bought all the bits, written down how are we going to assemble it? And that's a manufacturing readiness review. And you can go through all these different reviews and ultimately you get to the DRB, the delivery.
Are you talking to your customer to make sure that what you've built for them is actually what they wanted in the first place? And you've ticked all the boxes? You've tested what they've wanted? You've got documentation they want?

So ECSS is a great framework. Whether people think they're using it or not, I suspect if they're doing proper traditional design, then they are following those kinds of rules.

And then on top of that, there's some very detailed stuff, which a lot of it, we don't follow the software ECSS rules. They are just very heavy and you spend months before you actually started doing any coding, which is against this sort of agile flow I was talking about earlier.

But when it comes to, how do you make a solder joint, how do you make sure there's no gold in the joint? How do you make sure you're not using pure tin as it whiskers, conformal coating, outgassing or glues, making sure that the materials used weren't with contaminants, which would damage optics and things? Then we follow the processes to the letter.

And on top of that we follow ISO9001 and some people use AS9100, which is similar. And we started doing that when we were under six or eight people, which just because process is really important to make sure you build things right.

Hywel: Wow! And as you say, if the process is the logical approach to completing the project anyway, it's relatively straightforward to follow. That's really interesting. Earlier you mentioned the lifecycle cost or lifetime cost, and I know there are different ways of describing this.

Now, probably a lot of teams taking the NewSpace approach to build missions are really trying to optimize for reliable performance at the lowest price, the lowest sensible price that they can develop that.

Could you share any insights about how teams should be thinking about the real total product lifecycle cost or lifetime cost of a mission?

James: Yeah, it worries me when I look at the market all fighting each other to be the lowest cost entrance. And that isn't taking into account the total lifetime cost. But as I mentioned, I've been in smallsats I guess it's more than 30 years now. And it hasn't fundamentally changed. The driver to go smaller is to reduce mass. And it's all because of launch costs. Now it's interesting and we can talk maybe later about whether that's going to continue, the launch cost at the moment is still the driving costs.

When you go on the Transporter missions with Elon, it's still expensive. And so there's no point in building something very cheap if your launch is going to be very expensive or building something very expensive if your launch is very cheap.

And the way I've explained to other people is you see these very long sausage shaped balloons that magicians turn into dogs, butterflies and different shapes for kids parties. Everything should be balanced. If you squeeze it in one place, then it bulges out in another one. And something that was bought up by my mentor many years ago was basically you want to keep things balanced and you split things into five sections.

So your platform costs, your payload costs, your launch costs and your ground segment costs should all be roughly the same. And then the fifth is contingency. Something goes wrong, you still have got a backup. I think people are really focusing on lowering the cost of the platform and that's not a balanced approach.

And one of the other problems I see is payload is still too expensive. But I guess that's because payloads are very mission-specific and they tend to be made in smaller quantities, but I think there's still some work to be done on payload costs.

Hywel: Interesting. Yeah, that's a great way to look at it with those five areas and it should be very useful for our listeners to remember. You mentioned earlier that you'd been working on effectively some constellation programs for many years. We know that NewSpace Systems has also been a key supplier to the One Web constellation for example, in the more modern industry in more recent years, what do you think have been some of the major challenges that you've had to overcome in meeting the volume requirements that those constellations prescribed while keeping up with the quality and the reliability as we discussed earlier? And have any of the lessons from those earlier years, if you don't mind me saying it that way, have they helped?

James: Yeah. There is a difference now that volumes have gone up in NewSpace. As I mentioned, there were a few constellations, but they're in the forties, fifties, and now things like One Web, Starlink, they're in hundreds of units. But again, we could learn from history.

The automotive sector, aviation sector, they're not quite the volumes we're talking about in space, but they've done a lot of work over the years in lean manufacturing and setting up flexible manufacturing lines using product trees. So you have commonality at the sub-assembly level. So we're really focused on that.

And to try and put it in again, in terms of your listeners’ focusing their development, the really important thing is the qualification. Do some early prototyping and then get something which is the same as you're going to build and really try and break it. That is your one opportunity to make sure the margins are there. You've designed something right. It's robust to temperature, to vacuum, to vibration, to shock, to EMC, etc.

And then what we do after that is we really focus on process. And I think I'm talking about process all the time. But when you're talking automotive or aviation, and now in large quantities of space, it's really important to focus on process.

If your qualification model is good and has margins, and you can then guarantee to reproduce that qualification model, very reliably, very repeatably, then the amounts of verification and tests you have to do on each unit itself can go down. And so the majority of our savings on constellations hasn't been in, we're still a hundred percent test on our units.

And we use things like built-in self-tests and automated tests and starting to bring in some of the industrial revolution, 4.0 type things like AI and looking at trends and whether things are out of family and that kind of thing. It's really focusing on making sure our processes are very robust, very repeatable.

And we do a lot of work on making sure that there's no change. Any change in processes equivalent to a change in the design. And so we have to requalify, etc. So it's a really focusing on that, but then yeah, designed for manufacture. You need to minimize the number of parts. Things like torque rods went from about 20 parts to, I think, five on our latest designs.

We're really focused on how to reduce the touch times. So how little our operators have to work on it. Design for tests. We use a lot of jigs. So rather than measuring things, we actually use jigs to make sure the thing is right first time. And then you just have to calibrate your jigs to whatever is built for that. It's good. So all of these things are borrowed from automotive.

Hywel: Interesting. And yeah, people talk about the lessons that can be learned from the automotive industry quite often. So it's really sometimes at a theoretical level. So it's great to hear it from a practical point of view from you guys.

So well, that's fantastic. Now we've talked about a lot of the changes that the NewSpace sector has brought into space as a whole. Some of these, I think we're undergoing periods of change right now. And you'll see in the way that component manufacturers are operating and marketing, and platform manufacturers are doing a whole range of different things.

And then there are so many companies that are either becoming more and more vertically integrated or going in the opposite way. And also the kind of the common sizes of platforms that are used are changing too, as various electronics get miniaturized, but some payloads have grown in size because of consumer demands, customer demands, etc.

So markets are changing a lot. So I wondered to put you on the spot a little bit. If you could step back and look at the NewSpace market as a whole, how do you see things evolving over the next sort of 5, 6, 7 years? What are you expecting to happen and what maybe you excited about, especially with regard to your company?

James: Sure. My views align with the majority, that says you're looking at the growth of the market. But I'll say what I think anyway. Time will tell whether I'm wrong or not, but I think there will be a move away from the CubeSat form factor. It has done some great things. And I think there will always be uses for it. And there are certain missions that are suited to it.

But again, showing my age, I lived through the personal computer growth, where people were doing some fantastic things with ZX Spectrums and BBC micros and things have evolved. People use Apple and they use PCs and there are still people playing with Raspberry Pis and stuff which developed out of that market. And they do some great things, but they're not really professional in the sense that back to this total costs, total lifetime cost. There's still some laws of physics. You still need apertures to get photons into your camera. You still need a certain amount of power to do a comms mission or a navigation mission.

So you need a certain amount of size and you can use deployables, but deployables tend to be less. So again your worried about your total costs of the system if you have to have a number of missions that fail. So I think people are going to go slightly larger and it was interesting I did a study of this, which I called the Goldilocks satellite in a not too small, not too big, not too complicated, not too expensive. And I came up with a number of about 30 to 35 kilos. And Sir Martin Sweeting of SSTL got his team to do a similar study and they came up with the SSTL 42. So 42 kilos was apparently the sweet spot. And I think the way things are going, there's Moore's law, which is improving capability and bringing size down, but apertures aren't going away.

And as I say, people are still paying for the data that comes from these missions. So you need to get it to an optimal point where you're getting the maximum amount of data for the minimum amount of cost of your constellation. So I think that, 25 to 50 kilos is a sweet spot. There's some great innovation coming and where CubeSats are great is demonstrating this agile approach; getting things up into a little bit faster, demonstrating them, but then using large missions to actually go to paid for services.

Vertical integration, I also think of as ‘old space’ to me again. I'm a great fan of Surrey. And they went the vertical integration route where a lot of people have said it was successful for them. We must follow that and now people are including the launch and ground segment in their vertical integration.
I think we're getting mature enough now to go to a more traditional multi-tiered supply chain, similar to again, to automated, and to aviation. The rate of development means that one individual company really can't fund all the R&D necessary to develop a reaction wheel for instance, and then only use it on their own missions.

It's much more sensible for a reaction wheel specialist to make a hundred different types of reaction wheels. We will make sure they got the latest parts, the latest innovation, the latest design, and sell it to multiple tier one suppliers. And that's really where we positioned ourselves, is that tier two, key in other people's supply chains. So we are on 30+ recurrent platforms supplying one component or another.

And they're happy with what we supply. We're very happy that more and more people are coming into the prime level, trying to compete. It's been like the old adage of the gold rush. Now there are a few people who mined the gold and they'll make their fortune. The people who consistently made money were the hotel owners, the people who supplied the buckets.

That's really where NewSpace Systems has positioned itself. The other thing I see is, you mentioned standards. Beyond that, I see more and more mesh type solutions. So Inmarsat has just talked about adding LEO to their GEO operations. People are combining UAV with satellite systems as new products, like high altitude platforms, skimsats they call them very low-flying satellites, which is a hybrid between a high altitude system and a satellite.

And combining space systems with ground systems, I think is definitely a big growing area. And also using smaller satellites to target more performance satellites. We've seen some recent announcements where if you take Planet, for example, they have fantastic Doves, which aren't great resolution, but they can spot change or they can spot something which is new. And then they can call the bigger, higher performance, one meter resolution or sub-one meter resolution or a SAR satellite to turn, and go and take a closer look. So it's all hybrid systems now, not one solution which does everything, but a mixture of systems. And again, you see that in terrestrial. And I think we'll start seeing that in space.

And then the final one I'd like to throw in is a lot of people are looking at higher and higher data rate to ground. People are now looking at laser comms and that gets rid of a lot of things. But to me, it's always amazed me that people who've got satellites to talk to one thing on the ground, pretty much every mobile phone had to have the same ground station, just doesn't make any sense.

So people like Kepler, I think they've got the right idea where they're looking at satellite to satellite links, but I think they're already going to be outdated by people like OneWeb and Telesat, where if you got a broadband system at a fairly high altitude, you might as well use that your satellite comms, and then you can talk to your satellite 24/7.

The data rates aren't so high, but they're 24 hours instead of a 20 minute downlink. So you can get similar volumes of data through a broadband. So again, you can call that again, a mesh network. You've got smaller satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using larger satellites as their backhaul. So that's some of my predictions and we'll see what happens.

Hywel: That's great. I think that's a great place to wrap up James. Thank you very much. I think that's been really interesting to understand your views on where old space and NewSpace lies.

And I think there's been some very interesting concepts for the listeners to take away, the five aspects of the mission that you need to balance, everything for total lifetime costs. This idea that a change in process means, it requires a change in design when you're talking about high volume manufacturing.

These are really interesting ideas. And then, yeah, as you say, we'll have to see how the industry develops in the next few years and what happens next with all these companies and all these missions and services.

Thank you very much for spending time with us today on 'The Space Industry' podcast. And we really appreciate it and wish NewSpace Systems all the best.

James: Thanks very much for allowing me the time to just throw my views out there. Let's see what the response is like!

Hywel: And to all our listeners out there. Thank you very much for spending time with us today on 'The Space Industry' podcast. If you'd like to find out more about NewSpace Systems, please head to the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com. You can use our free request system to get technical details, documentation such as data sheets or CAD models, quotes, introductions to companies and whatever else you might need, your trade study or procurement purposes.

Thank you for listening to this episode of 'The Space Industry' by satsearch. I hope you enjoyed today's story about one of the companies taking us into orbit.

We'll be back soon with more in-depth behind the scenes insights from private space businesses. In the meantime, you can go to satsearch.com for more information on the space industry today, or find us on social media if you have any questions or comments. To stay up to date, please subscribe to our weekly newsletter and you can also get each podcast on demand on iTunes, Spotify, the Google Play Store, or whichever podcast service you typically use.