Why space is an accelerating opportunity

Several factors are converging to accelerate the space market. We look at how one company is positioning itself for more opportunities.

A combination of rising budgets, government shifts in policy and organization, and increased chatter of greater private sector involvement all show that the race for space is very much on for the United States as a country and as a commercial industry as well.

It should be noted at the outset that there is a growing share of secret space work and funding many of the largest industry players have touted but said very little about beyond the generalities. Under this umbrella: think advances by China, Russia and other powers in space technology and the U.S.’ move to reinvest in its own architecture to regain the advantage in what is now seen as a contested domain.

But there is a lot that can be discussed in detail. Beyond just the chatter and headlines over a possible Space Force -- which is in essence a carveout of some Air Force responsibilities -- budget growth in the national security space domain is accelerating. Even with some declines on the civilian side including NASA, this sector is showing signs of increased reliance on public-private partnerships for both human and robotic space missions.

Add all of that up and you have an “exciting time to be in the space industry,” said Rob Zitz, chief strategy officer at satellite maker SSL, a business unit of Maxar Technologies. “We are on the cusp of a major transformation.”

Zitz knows firsthand given his almost three-decade career, first in government at defense and intelligence agencies, and now in the private sector for the past seven years. He joined SSL in the spring of last year.

Part of the transformation involves how the conversations between government and industry have evolved. Zitz said that agencies have become more active in reaching out to industry through consortiums, plus through buying behavior changes like new contract vehicles and “Other Transaction Authority” awards to get new tools on a quicker turnaround.

“Now more and more, it is commonplace that government will look to industry to do the groundbreaking innovations and then the government will adopt that and use it,” Zitz said. “That’s not able to happen in every instance obviously, but in many instances it does happen.”

Vast amounts of commercial satellite imagery available from SSL sister company DigitalGlobe and others falls under that umbrella of looking to industry, Zitz said, plus cloud computing and high-throughput communications. Part of that outreach also takes on a “try before you buy” approach to see what industry has to offer and what works, he said.

SSL has itself received work from defense and civilian agencies over the past couple months to help the government determine next steps. SSL leads a team helping the Missile Defense Agency develop a space layer prototype concept for tracking missiles, and it is working with NASA to study commercial habitats in space with the vision of housing satellite manufacturing operations.

Then there is the concept of on-orbit assembly that SSL also has both civilian and defense footprints. The “Restore-L” project with NASA to demonstrate in-space servicing of satellites and other platforms is ongoing, as is the similar “Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites” initiative with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

That idea of repairing and upgrading platforms already in space is “no longer science fiction” and neither is the concept of building the platforms in space, Zitz told me.

Back to the headlines and chatter surrounding Space Force. It is still an unknown as to whether a sixth military branch does happen as that depends on Congress. But the conversation certainly has made the government’s prioritization of reinvesting in the U.S. space architecture clear, Zitz said.

“The great news about all of that discussion is that you have the top leadership of the country focused on space and focused on what needs to happen in space to make sure that we stay safe as a people,” Zitz said.

Zitz said that traditionally the national security community has used larger satellites and platforms to support nearly all types of missions that range from monitoring to communications. These “exquisite” platforms have served the U.S. well, Zitz said, but can also be targets of adversaries given their size and importance to military functions.

One solution industry players like SSL have increasingly brought forward is small satellites to complement those larger platforms. Some high-profile examples include the investments by venture capital arms of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, plus Raytheon in startups and other emerging players in the small satellite market.

SSL is creating a small satellite division based in San Jose, California to try and grab its share of the market. Small satellites will be a key to creating a more disaggregated and resilient space architecture not dependent on a few large platforms, Zitz said.

“The exciting opportunity for industry that I see is the technology and miniaturization of sensors, the processing power and the ability to be able to do launch in smaller form factors so you can move to a more rapid launch capability,” Zitz said. “All of these technologies and advances in technology are converging now to be able to provide the national security arena in particular an option an augment to those exquisite capabilities.”