On April 26th, 2013 Argentina put its first nano-satellite into orbit. It is a development by Satellogic in collaboration with INVAP, which acted as the project incubator, and financed by Argentina´s Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation and private investors.
The satellite´s technical denomination is CUBEBUG-1, although it was named “Capitán Beto” in honor of Argentine singer and songwriter Luis Alberto Spinetta, who passed away in 2012 while the nano-satellite was being developed. Emiliano Kargieman, CEO at Satellogic (and fan of Spinetta) gently agreed to meet with Satcom Post for a personal interview at a coffee shop in Buenos Aires.
SP: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how you came to fund Satellogic.
Kargieman: I studied Mathematics at the University of Buenos Aires and my background is rather in software: I funded six companies in this industry including Core Security Technologies, which develops security software products for the global market.
It was really not until 2010 that I became interested in the satellite industry, after participating in a NASA´s program at their Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. It was there where I started maturing the idea of designing and building nano-satellites.
Being used to the pace of innovation and development/ execution times of software projects, I got surprised by the state of the satellite industry. I found an industry with little innovation, high risk aversion and with development cycles that are too long and monolithic, as well as old engineering management models. Some of these practices are justified for an industry with costs of manufacturing and launching in the range hundreds of millions of dollars, and where it is very difficult to fix problems when things go wrong. Nevertheless, the contrast with the IT industry got me thinking and I thought it was an interesting space to explore ways to accelerate such times and, to some extent, lower the entry barriers for scientific and space exploration initiatives. Nano-satellites are very functional to these goals.
So in 2010 I returned to Argentina, closed a deal with INVAP S.E. to incubate the project at their labs in Bariloche, and contacted Gerardo Richarte (also from Core Security Technologies) to start working on the ideas that are now Satellogic. We are currently 13 poeple working full-time on the project of building these nano-satellites and we have an extensive network of providers in Argentina. With Capitan Beto launched and operational, our development efforts are now focused on the second satellite, which will be launched from Russia starting in July and will be named “Manolito”, in honor of Argentine cartoonist Quino.
SP: Tells us about the main technical characteristics of “Capitán Beto”
Kargieman: It is a technology demonstration satellite categorized under the so called- nano-satellites because of its weight and size. Its characteristics are:
- Weight: 2Kg (4.4 lbs)
- Size: 20 cm (2 7/8 in) H x 10 cm (3 15/16 in) W x 10 cm (3 15/16 in) D
- Launch: April 26 2013 from Jiuquan Space Center in China, via a LongMarch 2 rocket.
- Orbit: LEO Polar, orbiting at an altitud of 630 km (391 miles) and an orbital speed of 27,000 kph (16,778 mph). Its orbit takes it around the Earth every 93 minutes.
- Name: Capitan Beto
- Technical Denomination: CUBEBUG-1
- Frequency Band: In the UHF radio amateur band – frequency 437.445 Mhz
- Bandwidth: Narrowband, with 1200 to 9600 bps transmission rate
- Power: 5W peak (with solar cells), and 1 W radio power.
- Command Center: From Radio Club Bariloche, San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.
- Main components: The satellite has three research hardware elements:
- A gyroscope or spinning wheel (to control its acting in space),
- A low-res camera to take photos of the stars.
- A computer to watch its navigation.
- Beacon: Every 15 to 30 seconds it sends a data packet to its controllers.
SP: Generally, these developments have a specific mission, what is the mission of Capitan Beto?
Kargieman: Capitan Beto is the first step within longer-term goals. The main goal for this first satellite was to validate the nano-satellite platform that we designed and a number of designs and components that we managed in house, together with the feasibility of manufacturing nano-satellites locally and putting them into orbit. We can say that the first goal, this proof of concept, it is already successful.
Our more encompassing and long-term goal has to do with the democratization of space. We aim at generating a platform that can bring the possibility of putting technology into space closer to a wider range of players, from research labs and universities, to schools, individuals and small enterprises. These satellites can accomplish specific scientific missions, or function as test platforms for space technology to be incorporated into future satellites. As an example, our partner INVAP is currently developing the geostationary satellites ARSAT-1 and ARSAT-2 and in the future they may rely on the nano-satellites that we develop to test new technologies before incorporating them into more costly projects, such as a geostationary spacecraft.
Cost and Financing
SP: What are the cost components and financing models for these initiatives?
Kargieman: The technology platform was financed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation of Argentina together with the support of private investors and strategic partners. This covered the design, on-the-ground certification and selection of local component providers. Components were selected in a way that will let universities, small companies or institutions manufacture and use satellites using local components for purposes such as scientific exploration, imaging, communications and technology demonstration.
Although there was an important initial economic effort given technology development and validation, where we had funding of around 1.5 million dollars – from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation which allowed us to tackle one-time costs- the incremental cost for new satellites once the design is complete is about 40 thousand dollars, which is affordable by universities, SMEs and other institutions with modest budgets.
The cost of launching nano-satellites is not high either and is in the same range, between 30 and 50 thousand per kilogram. What you do is mounting the nano-satellite onto a launcher whose primary mission is putting into space a more important and heavier satellite. Given the proliferation of missions in low orbit, we are now at a historic point in time given that there are many programed launches and the current mechanic standards give us the opprtunity to put nano-satellites into space via each one of these launches. In our case, the launch was via a Chinese rocket whose main mission was putting a Chinese tele-observation satellite into orbit, to which it was also added the Ecuadorian nano-satellite project and a Turkish one.
Launchers charge by weight and, since nano-satellites are lightweight, this lowers costs substantially. Naturally, the cost per pound is between two and four times higher than the cost charged to heavy satellites because of economies of scale and also because nano-satellites bring a small additional risk to the launch mission.
SP: What is the expected lifespan of a nano-satellite?
Kargieman: The lifespan of a ano-satellites is between 2 and 3 years. The key determining factor is the battery life, given the charge cycles via solar energy and battery discharge (when the satellite orbits on the dark side) which take place with high frequency (every 90 minutes). This causes the battery efficiency to decay over time. Naturally, the battery life is over-dimensioned so that, with its gradual deteriorating, the satellite is useful for up to three years.
SP: Tell us about the interesting initiative of “open-source” nano-satellites – Objectives of the open platform and differences with the North American Cubesat program.
Kargieman: Our goal is that in the future our satellite´s operation will be open to radio amateurs and entities from around the world that desire to take advantage of it. Today, radio amateurs from all over the world are sharing information that they download from the satellite such as temperature and other health status parameters.
However, Satellogic is going beyond the opening of the operation: we open the design itself and also the software. Both software and hardware and the mechanic design will be open platform and will be made available to radio amateurs, universities and research institutions.
The opportunity to manufacture satellites that are one thousand times less expensive than traditional satellites marks a milestone for the satellite industry. Today it is possible to take advantage of commercial technology with components in the consumer market, many easily accesible such as those used to manufacture cellphones and computers, which we modify to build special components such as board computer, a spinning wheel and a low-res camera that can take photos of the earth and stars.
Therefore, we aim at a fully open source nano-satellite platform, in its hardware, its software and operation. We pioneer this initiative, although we rely on previous experiences, such as the mechanic parameters of the Cubsat platform, developed in the United States by a set of universities and later adopted by launchers to standardize the interface with launch vehicles.
SP: Can you give us an idea of the coordination process for nano-satellites and risks associated with launching and operating this type of satellites?
Kargieman: The coordination process is not as though as the one for geostationary communication satellites. It is necessary the coordination with international bodies such as the ITU, relying on local government bodies and space agencies. But it is not a difficult process; any country can launch this type of satellites without much hiccups and, indeed, there are nano-satellite initiatives proliferating in other regions.
Regarding risks, the launch is naturally a critical stage for any type of satellite and nano-satellites are no exception. We were glad (and reliefed) when we first heard Capitan Beto´s beacon, but it is clear that the money at stake is very low for these type of satellites, which gives them an interesting value as a validation platform for space technology.
SP: What are the current and future uses of nano-satellites?
Kargieman: Nano-satellites enable multiple scientific and educational applications. There are many opportunities to use these satellites, such as:
- Positioning: Take advantage of them as an accessible positioning platform (GPS) for developing countries.
- Technology Readiness: technology testing and space certification for use in future expensive satellites
- Observation: of Earth (climate and atmosphere ) and stars.
- Remote sensing: Use them as relays between sensor networks (scada /m2m)
- Communications and TV: Although this application is limited by the low weight and power, we do not discard possible future communication uses given the advantages of low orbits.
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