As the Trump administration toyed with the idea of a Space Force, the privately funded space industry chugged along with essential (if less sexy) infrastructure and technological advances. SpaceX continued work on its Starlink mega-network of satellites, which hopes to provide high-speed internet to organizations including the U.S. Air Force in even the most remote corners of the world, while companies including Swarm Technologies, Spaceflight, and Momentus set their sights on democratizing the space industry by providing alternatives to high-tech, high price-tag options.
For building up its Starlink satellite constellation
Not just a launch company, SpaceX is quietly building its own mega-network of satellites. It launched 120 Starlink satellites (which power SpaceX’s satellite internet) in 2019, and by early 2020 plans to launch another 120. SpaceX’s ambitions seem even larger—it’s requested a license for up to 42,000 satellites. The U.S. Air Force is testing connecting to Starlink satellites on aircraft. SpaceX has raised more than $1.3 billion in new funding in 2019.
2. Swarm Technologies
For creating sandwich-size, low-fi affordable satellites
Swarm Technologies’ “grilled-cheese-size” satellites are lower cost (and lower tech) than is typical. The constellation networks created by companies like SpaceX and OneWeb aim to provide fast, high-speed, low-latency connection to sophisticated systems operated by the likes of the U.S. Air Force—at an equally high cost. But Swarm’s technology aims to fill in the gaps for less data-intensive communications, assisting organizations that want remote access to a network but don’t necessarily need the speediest, most powerful connection. In 2019, for example, the company partnered with Ford to help it get better connectivity with cars in even the most remote parts of the world. It also partnered with the National Science Foundation to send ground station and handheld trackers to Antarctica.
For introducing “ride share” for space cargo
Spaceflight operates “ride shares” to space, allowing companies to reserve cargo space in launches for significantly lower prices than a traditional private launch. It launched its first dedicated ride share mission in late 2018, and since has been ferrying satellites for organizations including research centers, museums, middle schools, and more for both commercial and educational purposes. In addition to physically getting cargo to space, Spaceflight also helps less experienced players through the logistics of licensing and approval, and provides transparent pricing.
4. Johns Hopkins APL
For designing a craft that NASA will send to explore Titan in search of E.T.
In 2019, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab’s Dragonfly craft design was selected as NASA’s next New Frontiers mission to Titan (a moon of Saturn), to search for extraterrestrial life. Dragonfly will launch in 2026, and reach the moon by 2034.
5. Capella Space
For inventing satellites that see through weather patterns—and send images to the cloud
Capella Space builds satellites that can see through clouds and weather patterns. In 2020, it will launch a constellation of satellites and ground infrastructure in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to allow instant downloads through the Amazon cloud.
6. Space Tango
For launching two human brain organoid models to the International Space Station
The respected lab-in-a-box company sent up its first experiment to the International Space Station using living brain “organoids.” Researchers will use them to study the effects of microgravity on the human brain.
For developing a promising method of using water to move satellites in orbit
Momentus is developing an innovative water-based propulsion system for moving satellites and cargo around in space. The system would allow companies to launch satellites into low orbit generally, then “drive” those satellites to correct placement.
8. Accion Systems
For making more efficient satellite propulsion systems
Propulsion company Accion Systems was one of 14 U.S. companies selected in 2019 for NASA Tipping Point partnership, developing moon and Mars technologies. Accion will work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to replace the cold gas propulsion system used for interplanetary CubeSats with a more efficient ion electrospray propulsion system. The company received $3.9 million for the project, with anticipated launch in the summer of 2021.
For engineering a high-volume assemble line for satellites
In 2019, OneWeb opened the world’s first high-volume, assembly line high-facility building advanced satellites in Florida. It also successfully launched the first 6 satellites of a planned 650 in Phase 1 of a mega constellation of small satellites, delivering affordable Internet access in a joint venture with Airbus.
For attempting the first private lunar landing
In 2019, Israel-based SpaceIL came tantalizingly close to landing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. It was the first-ever attempt to deliver a privately funded lunar lander to the moon’s surface.
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