Ross Wilkers

SPACE

Millennium's small satellite business & market are both in motion

Jason Kim was one year into a stint at Raytheon Technologies segment when the nearly two-decade market veteran got the pitch to return to the company he says he grew up with.

Kim spent the 10 years prior to Raytheon at Millennium Space Systems, the small satellite maker Boeing acquired in 2018 and operates as a subsidiary focused on alternative models for space access and business.

So why go back to become CEO of Millennium and take it through the next phase of its strategy as a non-fully integrated arm of its blue chip owner?

“We’re still a small company, about 450 people at the moment and growing, and with that small company culture, you really know everybody, you know a lot about each other, and you depend on each other and help each other out,” Kim told me in an interview at the SATELLITE 2021 trade show in National Harbor, Maryland.

On the surface, there is a slight paradox of Millennium touting its small company identity within a global industrial giant like Boeing. The nearly 20-year-old Millennium is a part of Boeing’s space and launch business unit.

Kim said part of Millennium’s attraction is that given its status as non-fully integrated, it can still draw on Boeing’s financial resources and contribute to the owner’s larger technology roadmaps through prototyping and other efforts.

By the same token, Millennium has the freedom to create its own roadmaps with technologies and techniques brought in from outside the traditional aerospace-and-defense sector.

One of the roadmap items Kim mentioned was three-dimensional printing of structures to help develop satellites at larger volumes and faster speeds of 12-to-13 months versus years.

The word “hybrid” also came up frequently in our conversation thread about roadmaps and where they are going.

“We also see the future in a hybrid of ground processing and onboard processing, which will enable even lower latency communications for decision-makers to go from sensing to actual information,” Kim said.

“There’s a hybrid future of small satellites and large satellites working together, we are investing in technologies to enable safety of flight between the small and large satellites.”

Safety is becoming a more paramount topic as outer space gets more crowded given the ever-increasing numbers of satellite launches each year, which eventually translates to growth in space debris.

Millennium participated in an effort to tackle that problem late last year, when two of its satellites launched via a Rocket Lab vehicle to use tethering technology and bring satellites back to earth from low-Earth orbit.

Kim said the idea there is to make so-called LEO orbit more sustainable and the DRAGRACER demonstration last year de-orbited two satellites eight months sooner than previously expected.

That is also in keeping with Boeing’s overall environment and sustainability goals, an umbrella under which Kim said Millennium is additionally working on the development of safer fuels.

But where the owner of Millennium particularly comes into play is the production aspect and at scale given how Kim sees the overall small sat market as “going more from prototypes to constellations.”

“I can see that happening already with satellite communications, but I also see it with things like missile warning and missile defense,” Kim said.

In one example, Millennium holds a contract with U.S. Space Force to evaluate sensors for satellites to detect and track ballistic missiles. Kim said the goal there is to help incorporate better capability than geosynchronous orbit, or GEO, and less complexity than low-Earth orbit.

That effort called Missile Track Custody Prototype could also serve as an example of the hybrid-type constellation Kim spoke of with large and small satellites working together, particularly as the small sat market further matures.

“As we move more toward constellation building in addition to prototype development, we’re standing up high-volume production systems and that’s the mind-blowing part,” Kim said. “We’re taking a lot of the production expertise from Boeing and applying that to small satellites to become more efficient, to be more affordable.

“That’s where you’re developing satellites in terms of weeks not months.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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