When we need a computer or a car, we all know more or less what questions we should ask. It is not the same with small satellites. Although CubeSats have opened up space to startups and companies of different sizes, they are still far from being a day-to-day investment. That's why it's important to be clear about what to ask before hiring a nanosatellite provider.
It's all a matter of time. Let's not forget that in the 1950s it was said that there was only a worldwide market for five computers. Today we all have one (or more) at home. We don't mean that in a few decades we will all have our own nanosatellite in space, but we are convinced that in the short-medium term it is going to be a much more common investment than it is at the moment for companies.
It is obvious that the era of New Space has opened up space to new protagonists. In fact, every year new startups and companies appear that consider space to be an ideal scenario to start up their business ideas. In this context, it is key to have flexible, fast providers that provide quality solutions at a competitive price.
If this is your case, what questions should you ask before choosing a nanosatellite provider? At Alén Space we sum this up for you in 15 questions.
1. Are nanosatellites the best option for what I want to do?
Even if you have clear objectives, you need an expert point of view on the feasibility of your project. The companies that develop nanosatellites know perfectly what is being done and what could be done with the help of CubeSats. A provider should be able to tell you if a small satellite-based service is the best option for your business, if there are better alternatives, and if you have realistic business objectives regarding the technical capabilities and functionalities of nanosatellites.
2. Can you help me to develop or improve the technical focus of my project?
Not all companies and startups that want to hire a small satellite provider have a closed and completely defined project. It is common for customers to know where they want to go, but they are not clear about the most appropriate approach and the path they should follow to get the information they need. At Alén Space, for example, in addition to the design, manufacture and operation of nanosatellites, we have a consultancy service to help make the most appropriate strategic and technical decisions for each mission. Even if you arrive with a closed project, your nanosatellite provider may be able to suggest improvements or modifications during the planning stage.
3. Do you have a ready-to-launch nanosatellite solution for my business?
In the same way that in fashion there are garments made to measure and ready-to-wear, in the world of nanosatellites these two alternatives also coexist. For example, at Alén Space we have ready to launch solutions for IoT, ADS-B and SIGINT, which make it possible to streamline time frames and reduce costs with respect to other, more customised developments.
4. Do you have the capacity to create a tailor-made development for my project?
You may find nanosatellite providers that operate with standard working models, with little flexibility to vary it and to adapt to the needs of customers with specific requirements. Not all manufacturers of small satellites have the will or the capacity to propose customized developments for companies and startups with special requirements. This versatility is precisely one of the strong points of the Alén Space team, which has more than demonstrated its capacity to develop projects tailored to its clients’ needs.
5. Have you successfully completed missions in space with CubeSats?
When you want to put a nanosatellite into orbit, you need a provider who already knows the way into space. That's why you should know more about their experience, their projects, their team and the agencies or companies they've worked with before.
6. What is the success rate of your nanosatellite projects?
When it comes to making calculations, this is a factor that you should take into account. What is the success rate of the projects developed by this nanosatellite manufacturer? A database from Sant Louis University indicates that about 9% of CubeSats missions fail to launch; 20.7% are dead on arrival (DOA), and 16.7% fail in the first few weeks of activity. The percentage of completed missions, once those still in progress and those with unknown results have been ruled out, remains at 18.5%. In the case of the Alén Space team, in 2012 we put into orbit Spain’s first ever nanosatellite (Xatcobeo) and today we have 100% efficiency in our missions, an unrivalled success rate in the market.
7. What makes you different from other small satellite providers?
It's the same question you'd ask in any job interview. Why do I have to hire you? Or if we put it another way, what are the advantages of your solution over your competitors? If we talk about Alén Space, in addition to the best success rate in the market and major flexibility for the development of tailor-made projects, we stand out for the quality of our processes, in which we apply ESA (ECSS) standards to the nanosatellite sector; for our independence from the main hardware and software manufacturers; and for our ability to offer ready to launch solutions that have already been tested, allowing safe, fast access to space at a competitive price.
8. What preliminary design do you propose for my space project?
Depending on the nature of the project, you can ask your potential provider to present a preliminary design of the mission and platform in their proposal. In short, what solution would they provide for your project? With this first draft, you will have more elements to help you decide if it could be the right provider for what you need, and if it is a suitable approach for a subsequent, more in-depth development.
9. What tasks will be carried out in the project, and in what order?
Your nanosatellite provider should specify the steps it will follow in the execution of the project: what tasks will it do and in what order? The contracting of a project with nanosatellites can be performed as an integral service or by modules, since for your project it is possible that there are work packages that you may want to manage independently. For example, you may be interested (or not) in negotiating directly with the launchers, or manage the operation of the nanosatellites with your own team of engineers once they are in orbit.
10. Who will be responsible for each of the stages?
This aspect is very closely related to the definition of the work packages in the previous question. It must be made clear who will be in charge of the development of each of the tasks within the project. In other words, who does what and how far the responsibilities of each of the parties involved go. It is possible that you are the provider of the payload, that you are in charge of the environmental tests or that your team will take over the operation of the nanosatellite once in orbit. In this case, the communication between all the people in charge must be fluid and everything must be perfectly defined at the start of the project. This is the best way to avoid later problems, even though there are issues that can be addressed along the way.
11. When will the nanosatellite be ready for launching?
In the New Space era, the capacity for response, agility and reducing the time taken to reach space are all valued. This is why it is so important to have a completion schedule. If in the two previous questions it was necessary to define the work packages and those responsible for their implementation, now it is time to determine realistic and ambitious deadlines with your provider for each of the stages of the process.
Photo: ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2016
12. What materials will you deliver us at the end of the different work packages?
It is interesting to specify in these first steps what deliverables the provider will make available on completion of the different work packages. What do we mean? These can vary from one project to another, but we are talking about materials such as the platform plans, the results of subsystem verification, environmental tests (thermovacuum, vibration, etc.) or the manuals for the different tools and programmes, for example.
13. How much does it cost to develop the first satellite? And for a constellation?
This is the million-dollar question. At this point it may be necessary for you to establish your budgetary restrictions, if they exist, so that the provider can present a realistic project, adapted to your needs and economic possibilities, whether for the development of a nanosatellite or a complete constellation. Here it is convenient to compare the terms 'costs' and 'profitability'. It is possible that small differences in budgets may translate into greater certainty that the project will come to fruition, or an increase in the capacities of the nanosatellites.
14. What milestones are associated with the payment plan?
During the contracting process, you should agree on a payment plan with your provider, in order to foresee from the outset what the billing process is going to be like, and in how many instalments it will involve. Payments are usually linked to project milestones and the work packages described above.
15. What volume of data will I have available to sell to my customers?
Depending on the project presented to you by your potential providers, your company could access more information and have a greater capacity to sell data/services to your end customers, if that is your business model. The key to your decision is the balance between the operational cost of putting a nanosatellite (or constellation) into space, and its performance. From there, it's about looking at the numbers and seeing how you can improve your final profit margin. For a small saving, nobody wants to find they have a satellite operating at 50% of its capacity or with a solution that is of no use to them.
These 15 questions are part of our manual: 'Nanosatellites: Ultimate Buyer's Guide to RFP Success'. If you need more information before hiring a nanosatellite provider, you can download the complete handbook for free. It will help you create an effective RFP (request for proposal) that will allow you to lay the foundations for a solid project.