Loft Orbital’s ‘Rideshare’ Sats: Take An Uber To Space

June 28, 2021 | by Theresa Hitchens

Scientists making letters with their bodies

Loft’s two satellites are carrying payloads for a Space Development Agency demo, the UAE Space Agency and European commercial satcom firm Eutelsat, among others.

WASHINGTON: Loft Orbital’s first two microsatellites, YAM-2 and -3, will carry some 10 payloads to space for a mix of government, DoD and commercial customers — who are in essence buying a ticket to ‘ride’ to orbit with the startup rather than buying their own satellites.

The launch, now planned for Tuesday as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-2 mission (delayed from last week) on a reusable Falcon 9 rocket, is important for the company and to the space industry writ large, says Loft’s CEO Pierre-Damien Vaujour because “this first launch demonstrates for the industry that you can buy a ticket on a satellite to fly instruments in space and use them — like you buy a plane ticket. You don’t buy an airplane; you buy a train ticket, you don’t buy a train.”

Thus, Vaujour (in charmingly French-accented English) calls the startup’s unique business model “infrastructure as a service” and refers to its washing machine-sized YAM sats (for Yet Another Mission) as “rideshare” satellites — a reference to carshare services such as Uber, itself a Silicon Valley startup. Loft Orbital, founded in 2017, has headquarters both in San Francisco and Toulouse, France’s space industry hub. Along with Vaujour, its co-founders are Alex Greenberg, chief operating officer, and Antoine de Chassy, president, Loft France.

The company buys generic ESPA-class satellite busses (which weigh about 100 kilograms) from LeoStella and Blue Canyon Technologies. LeoStella, created in 2018, is headquartered near Seattle in Tukwila, Washington, is a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space. Blue Canyon, headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado, near the current home of Space Command in Colorado Springs, was founded in 2008.

Loft then integrates the busses with its own “Payload Hub,” which in turn can be used to carry any type of sensor for any type of mission — from communications to imaging to you name it. The hub can carry payloads “that range from 1g to 70kg or even just software on board our flight computer,” according to a Loft factsheet provided to Breaking D.  Loft does the integration of the payloads into the hub, and then contracts for the launch provider. The company also provides users with a simple mission control software, called Cockpit, that allows them to operate their payloads.

“This is the first true space ‘infrastructure as a service’ where everything from mission design, (in some cases) instrument development or procurement, satellite integration, launch services through on orbit operations and data delivery is handled by Loft,” the factsheet says.

In many ways, Loft Orbital is really a software company more than a satellite company, Vaujour says. The company not only buys the busses, but most of the subsystems — such as the inter-satellite links — from others and concentrates on the software that allows those satellite pieces to work with anyone’s payload. “We make software to make hardware into smart hardware,” he said.

Aboard the YAM-3 for tomorrow’s planned lift-off will be the Prototype on Orbit Experimental Test Bed (POET), a foundational software to enable battle management/custody of the Space Develop Agency’s (SDA) planned National Defense Space Architecture satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The POET demo is building on DARPA’s Pit Boss battle management, command, control and communications (BMC3) system for its Blackjack satellites. It uses the the Sagittarius-A* Innoflight data fusion processor and software for edge computing on orbit developed by Scientific Systems Co. Inc (SSCI). In this case, Loft’s customer is SSCI; SDA is contracting with SSCI.

The YAMs are also carrying payloads for Eutelsat, Europe’s large satcom provider, and the UAE Space Agency, the factsheet says.

However, Vaujour explained that customers can contract for use of an entire satellite to house a payload or payloads. For example, the Canadian Space Agency in 2019 issued a contract worth $30 million to Honeywell to design a quantum key distribution communications system for its Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite mission, or QEYSSat. (Quantum keys are a bit of a Holy Grail for encrypted communications; with only China successfully having demonstrated a capability so far.) Honeywell  contracted Loft last August to provide the satellite (which will be the YAM-4) and launch. Neither company has revealed the contract’s value.

Loft already has integrated payloads for YAM-3 through -6, and is “filling up” YAM-7, Vaujour said, with some 20-plus payloads under contract.

While other satellite firms sometimes “host” other payloads on satellites they own and operate, what is truly different about Loft Orbital is that it intends to operate as an “infrastructure provider,” explains Vaujour.

“The analogy we usually use is AWS, Amazon Web Services. They buy servers, they own server farms, right? And nobody really knows where they are. Who cares?” he said. “In that sense, the server is like the satellite — we buy, we own, we operate a large number of satellites in space. And we’re allowing customers to just either plug-and-play and deploy sensors in it, or communicate with it.”

So, rather than paying for the satellite itself to be custom designed, which is expensive and takes time, customers pay for the amount of resources they use on orbit. Payload owners are charged by the payload’s mass, the volume of the payload bay it takes up, the amount of electrical energy it eats up to operate and how much data it produces.

This allows customers quite a bit of flexibility, Vaujour explained, especially in cost management. For example, if a “defense user” wanted to have the realtime capability to use thermal infrared cameras to detect missiles anywhere around the world, but didn’t have the upfront budget to pay for the 20 satellites needed, it could put the cameras as small payloads on Loft’s satellites and simply leave them “turned off” for very little initial cost.

Because “as for us, each payload is off; it costs us almost nothing — you use zero power, zero data,” he said. The meter would only begin running once the cameras were turned on and used. And that switch would be flipped at the user’s discretion, via “one email” that would result in a working network within “one hour.”

That prospect, alone, certainly must tickle the fancies of many at DoD and Space Force. But while Loft is seriously interested in becoming a service provider for the US military, Vaujour said its customers so far are truly a mixed bag from all over the globe — some like the Canadians paying for use of an entire satellites; others simply paying to put a software package up.

Filed under: SSCI in the News