Feb. 28, 2017 /Denver Post/ By Tamara Chuang
You don’t need eons of experience or a NASA pedigree to build satellites for space anymore. Soon, students at Metropolitan State University of Denver will build the orbiting objects.
York Space Systems, which is gearing up to build 150 to 200 satellites a year, will move its headquarters into the school’s new Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building this summer — manufacturing facility and all. While York gets new digs and access to aerospace students, Metropolitan State students and faculty can collaborate with York engineers on a new method to mass produce satellites.
“This is a really great partnership,” said Dirk Wallinger, CEO and co-founder of the 2-year-old startup. “It’s fantastic for York to have this great facility where we can manufacturer spacecraft. But we also get to work with the university and students with internships and the senior design program. Students will be getting hands-on experience. And with MOC, students will get to operate real satellites that are in orbit and see pictures and data and information, and see how data can be used to help society.”
The new Metropolitan State building is a $60 million collaboration by the school and state to train more workers in advanced manufacturing. Inside the 142,000-square-foot facility will be aerospace, engineering and computer science classrooms and faculty offices, plus the new Advanced Manufacturing Sciences Institute on the first floor. The Institute will have CNC (computer-controlled) machines, 3-D printers and other equipment available to building tenants.
York will occupy 7,000 square feet on the fourth floor. Besides having its engineering and design team at the location, York will house its mission operations center, or MOC, at the school “where we will operate our spacecraft,” Wallinger said. From its home on campus, York can work with and train students — its potential future workforce.
The building is expected to be completed by July. York is the first tenant to be announced and it’s a perfect one, said Robert Park, the institute’s director.
“The idea behind this is to give our students exposure to real world manufacturing companies,” Park said. “York represents the ideal tenant because the partnership agreement expects students to get exposed to all aspects of manufacturing, from the satellites to mission operations control. … They’ll be able to control satellites they helped build.”
Wallinger likes to use Henry Ford’s revolutionary Model T production line as an example of York’s different approach to building small, affordable satellites.
“The satellite industry today is really very similar to the automotive industry at the turn of the century. Satellites are bespoke. One-offs. And only for very wealthy individuals,” Wallinger said. “York is building a standardized industrial product. It’s mass produced, like the Model T. We will be manufacturing the satellites ahead of the given need. Folks will know they can get a product and the design cost will be significantly less.”
York’s S class platform satellites weigh between 45 and 65 kilograms (99 and 143 pounds) and are about the size of a hotel mini fridge. By using a new technical design and process to mass produce satellites, Wallinger estimates that York can build a satellite at 80 percent less cost than what a company must pay for one today. Or, as the industry calculates it, York customers would spend $63,000 per kilogram of satellite versus the industry’s average of $336,000 per kilogram.
“What is amazing is the development of the (York’s) Space Segment Enterprise Program to collaborate with a network of partners using a common small satellite bus platform to meet customer needs,” said Jay Lindell, with the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. “I think it is unique to focus on affordability to meet customer needs by integrating current technology rapidly and driving lower cost in the satellite market.”
Companies like Westminster’s DigitalGlobe have used larger satellites to take high-resolution photos of Earth from space for two decades. That helps companies like ride-sharing’s Uber identify better stops to drop or pick up customers. But the burgeoning small satellite business is gaining interest with smaller clients as the orbiters’ usefulness becomes better understood. Insurance firms use satellite images to track weather damage to crops, while financial analysts might look for crop yields or increasingly crowded employee parking lots to predict future sales, said Carolyn Belle, a senior analyst with Northern Sky Research, which tracks the satellite and space industry.
“What’s different about smaller satellites is not high resolution but the ‘per time’, and ability to take more images per day,” she said. “A lot of the customers are going to be the same. Defense is a customer for high-resolution but also high-temporal images. There are new markets like crop insurance and operators trying to get information on high-crop yields.”
Northern Sky Research estimates that smaller satellites — those weighing 1 to 100 kilograms — constituted a $267 million business last year. That is projected to grow to nearly $1 billion by 2025.
Belle said that demand for York’s satellites will grow if the company can shorten the time it takes to get the satellite in orbit. Right now, that can take a few years.
“The importance and value of standardization is the time it takes to put a satellite in orbit,” Belle said. “One of the benefits is if York has the satellites fairly ready to go or they’re long-lead items. … If that can be shortened, it could be valuable for operators trying to capture the immediate market.”
York has a prototype of the satellite but the company isn’t ready to divulge any images or other details in order to protect its intellectual property. Details could be shared this year. The company recently announced a contract with the U.S. Army to launch its first satellite.
York plans to ramp up its hiring in order to meet the goal of building 150 to 200 satellites a year. The 11-person company expects to soon hire another 16 employees with an average annual salary of $130,000.