The next 50 years of inspiration

My dad has often told me of his experience of the 1969 Apollo moon landing, where he and other students gathered around a small black and white television at the physics department in Melbourne University.  On the way home that day he stopped by the house of an old hermit at the end of his street to tell him the news, where he was met with utter disbelief and then promptly asked to leave.  For anyone not up with current events, the very idea of this achievement was so outrageous that it created contempt, yet now we know it was an event that inspired generations to come, and the word “moonshot” has come to mean any crazy idea that – once completed – becomes a breakthrough success.

There are many thought pieces coming out this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, often focussing on it as a testament to the audaciousness of the American spirit, or as an example of 400,000 people being able to work together to achieve a single, far-reaching goal.  Many are citing it as proof that people can come together to achieve similarly daunting goals like serious action on climate change, or preventing environmental degradation.  That may be true, but in my opinion the moon landing isn’t a great analogy in these cases.  Those efforts are things we *have* to do, and will require something more akin to the mobilisation effort by western allies in World War II – that was also something we *had* to do.  There are many examples of large goals that humanity has achieved through necessity, but I’d argue the moon landing is not one of them.

The moon landing, by contrast, was a crazy, audaciously difficult goal that we *chose* to do, and I think that’s inspiring on an entirely different level.

I feel it’s important to make the distinction, because it’s an example of a different way of thinking, and it requires a different kind of intelligence.  Where deductive reasoning gives you clear, logical outcomes that must follow from a given premise, inductive (creative) thinking requires setting a goal, and working backwards from that goal to infer how you can achieve that outcome with the materials that you have.  Thinking creatively is the bedrock of the innovation culture on which we pride ourselves, because it’s only through setting goals and working backwards from those goals that true invention occurs.

When it comes to space, what should the next goal be?  It’s important that it be forward-looking, simple, and with success easily measurable, like it was to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth”.  As most people in this business are used to thinking *logically* about this, it’s not surprising that most have come to the conclusion that the next goal should answer the ‘where next?’ question, whether that be a landing site elsewhere on the Moon, or on Mars, or even visiting the asteroids.

But hang on… let’s back up a step.  Are we still a single organisation like NASA, funded by a government caught up in a war of prestige, trying to win a first-past-the-post competition with flags-and-footsteps on an astronomical body as the goal? Or are we part of an international movement made up of many different types of organisations, trying to ensure humanity settles space and becomes a truly space-faring civilisation?  Only one of these is a goal I find audacious and inspiring.  Technically, we know we’re capable of planting a flag on another astronomical body… because we’ve done it before.  Doing it again won’t create the same level of inspiration that it did the first time, which is why “where next?” is the wrong question.

Instead of ‘where next?’, what if we asked ‘who next?’.  Instead of ‘what mission?’, what if we asked ‘how many?’.  We can infer what it means to be a space faring civilisation, because we know what it meant to be a sea faring civilisation.  It was less defined by where the ships were going, or what they were doing, but more by the variety and quantity of the people and cargo being shipped.  I think a simply stated (but audacious) goal should be framed in these terms and easily measurable…. something like this:

To accelerate the advent of humanity as a space faring civilisation, we will work towards the goal of having 50,000 people in space by the year 2050.

Does it matter whether they’re at the Moon, on Mars, at asteroids or in Low Earth Orbit (LEO)? Not particularly: the technology required will have significant commonalities regardless of location.  Nor does it especially matter whether the astronauts involved are performing scientific research or mining, participating in tourism or setting up communications infrastructure.  All of these pursuits and more will be key elements of a vibrant human civilisation in space, and supporting a large number of people in space will have a fundamental impact on how large numbers of people live on Earth, just as the technological achievements Apollo have had knock-on effects throughout society.

Take sustainability for example: Due to the volumetric constraints of space habitats, supporting large numbers of people in space means managing energy use, resource consumption and waste disposal at levels that have never been necessary on Earth before.  Indeed, one of the holy grails of spacecraft design is the creation is a fully closed-loop ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System), where every waste product, and every gas emission by every living thing on a spacecraft is fully recycled back into useful materials.  Like every other technology developed in space, it’s the highly exacting nature of the space environment – and the severe consequences of anything going wrong – that results in proven technology that is useful for similar problems on Earth.

This is why it’s frustrating to hear space exploration presented as an “either/or” proposition versus solving the problems on Earth.  The fact is that space exploration solves problems on Earth, because it solves the problem in a more exacting scenario, then applies it to the mainstream.

To bring this back to the vision for Exodus, you may have noticed that the website’s tagline recently changed to “A Kinetic solution for Space Debris” from “Technologies Enabling Settlement”.  The long term goal is still to build technologies which will enable those 50,000 people to live and work in space, but first, we have to build a successful company using our technology, and that’s where the kinetic solution for space debris comes into play.

‘How?’ you ask?  Well, one of the places I believe we can expect to see settlement is in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), not just with one, or a handful of space stations, but with scores or hundreds of space stations supporting tens of thousands of people.  This “big LEO” scenario, as I call it, is where I think the majority of those 50,000 people will be located, because of the safety/convenience aspect of being able to move back and forth from Earth’s surface quickly and easily, as well as move many other places in the solar system.  As Robert Heinlein once said “Once you’re in LEO, you’re halfway to anywhere” (which if you do the math, is quite a good approximation).

Unfortunately, LEO is also where the majority of space debris is located, so that’s a problem that needs to be solved first, before large scale settlement of LEO can occur.  It turns out that there is a nice synergy between our technology and our plans: Our DeTA technology is both what we’ll use to deploy our kinetic solution for space debris *and* eventually build spinning habitats to produce artificial gravity.  Our plan is for the early versions of our technology to clean up space debris in LEO, so that later versions of our technology can help humanity settle LEO.

The 50th anniversary of Apollo is a huge week for space exploration, any way you slice it.  The Apollo program has inspired generations of scientists, engineers, educators, students and more, and will continue to do so.  I think it’s important that the next 50 years in space are even more inspiring than the last, because going to space will be one of the ways we solve humanity’s current problems.  Exodus wants to be a big part of that, and I hope you can see we have a vision to match.  If you want to know more about what we’re doing, please feel free to get in touch.  Till next time!

Building an Australian Space Startup

Another title for this post could have been, “London Tech Week part 2: Please remember to walk with both feet.”  This may or may not be an in-joke regarding the obviousness of certain public announcements on the London underground, but I also like it as an analogy for our experience of being an Australian startup in London: Certain things about building a startup are (in retrospect) as obvious as walking, but I wonder, would learning to walk be as easy for a toddler if there weren’t older children and adults around to model their movements on, and be guided by?

It is undeniably an amazing thing to be a startup in an ecosystem like London, where tens of thousands of startup companies populate scores of co-working spaces as well as other offices, packed in tightly around the city, where governments incentivise investing in these startups from corporates, angel investors and venture capital funds alike, and where startups that have succeeded are able to stick around and pass on what they have learnt to the next generation.  It’s rightly called a startup culture when you’re constantly surrounded by people who are on that learning curve, and it was eye-opening for those of us attending London Tech Week for the first time to see the level of infrastructure in place to help startups succeed.  There have been a number of penny-drop moments for us during the week, which will likely affect our strategy going forward.

And yet, it should be said that there is a reason Australian Startups are so highly regarded.  Part of the downside of our isolation is having to (re)invent so much of what we aim to do, but as a result we have a reputation of being very good at invention, and along with our cultural tendency to undersell and over-deliver, our delegation arranged some high level meetings and so far to our knowledge at least one of the companies on the Startup Catalyst mission has had a spectacular funding outcome.  We also learnt much about the challenges of bridging that gap between operating in Australia and operating in the UK/Europe, and the importance of building a company that has already achieved well-defined metrics of success before attempting to move into the UK/European marketplace.

The second half of Exodus’ mission to London was just as productive as the first, but less structured.  Pictured above is the WA-focussed event at the Australia centre Thursday night (13th June), where the five Western Australian startups on the Startup Catalyst Mission to London Tech Week were able to meet with all the people from organisations that came together to make it happen, as well as a number of other fantastic West Aussies in London.  Special thanks go out to a number of people, but first to those within the WA Government department of Jobs, Tourism, Innovation and Science, who approved Exodus application to come on the mission, and Charlotta Andresson and others in the Government of Western Australia (WAGO)’s office in Europe, as well as Tess Thomas and others in the UK Department of International Trade (DIT).  Many of our most successful meetings wouldn’t have happened without them, and any Australian company seeking to move into the UK would do well to consult with these organisations.

On Friday morning, I (Mike) was able to attend the Australian Federal Treasurer (Josh Frydenberg)’s Breakfast at Macquarie Group headquarters in London, where he spoke about the challenges to, and opportunities for, Australia’s economy going forward.  Meeting him briefly afterward, I was able to thank him for his government’s support of the Australian Space Agency, and encourage them to do more for the growing space sector.  Anything their government can do to accelerate the growth of the space tech ecosystem in Australia will be news welcomed by us and others!

 

 

On Monday, Exodus Co-Founder and Lead Engineer Carl Conquilla flew into London for the space-themed meetings of the trip, and on Monday and Tuesday we were fortunate to meet a number of Satellite Insurers, as well as representatives from space-focussed venture capital, banking and trade organisations.  We look forward to further progress in each of these directions, but we are glad to say that each of them supported the importance of space debris cleanup as a pursuit, and could see how our method to deorbit space debris kinetically has the potential to be far more financially viable as a business than those companies using alternative methods.

One of the highlights of the trip was our visit on Tuesday afternoon to Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), where we learnt more about what this company has been doing for over 30 years in the design, manufacture and operation of satellites in space missions.  Along with the Leicester and Harwell space clusters now in development, SSTL is undeniably a key asset for the UK space industry, and proximity to that concentration of expertise would have to be a driver for any space company to have a presence in the UK.  In the meantime, we will be exploring how we at Exodus might use this new connection to facilitate the further education of Australian engineers who want to become experts in satellite design and operation, since those are the people we want working at Exodus in the future.

Now that we’ve returned home, and (mostly) recovered from the jet lag, we are also looking at how we will use this experience to move Exodus forward towards meeting our own goals, and how we can pay it forward to other West Australian entrepreneurs who have their own great ideas and want to start their own companies.  It might just be a matter of learning to “walk”, but we’re definitely happy to do our part and help other startups “walk” with us.  So in that spirit: Please remember to walk with both feet, cause a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

On the ground at London Tech Week

What happens when more than 30 innovative Aussies descend on London Tech Week? Incredible possibilities, that’s what.  The Startup Catalyst Mission to London Tech Week is in it’s fourth year, and this is the biggest cohort yet, with over 30 Aussie founders, investors, government personnel and others, including a dedicated female founders stream which (as has been commented on numerous times) gives our delegation 50:50 representation, and the best cross-section of Australian talent yet.

Exodus Space Systems owes particular thanks to our sponsor, the WA government Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, which has supported Exodus to come on this mission, along with 4 other WA-based companies: Power Ledger , Jugglr , Bankvault and The Volte , each a leader in their respective spaces.

We’ve been to functions at Australia House, the Google UK offices, and several co-working spaces including Huckletree Shoreditch, Techhub London, Rocketspace, Catapult, Plexal.  We’ve had events organised by London Tech Week hosts London and Partners, the UK Department of International Trade (which has representatives in each Australian state), as well as numerous other meetings on the side, especially beneficial as all the founders can compare notes on our various companies’ development.  It’s an incredibly positive vibe, to say the least.

It will take much more time to process all the extraordinary discussions that have happened so far, but speaking personally (Mike) I have to say this has clarified so many of the questions that I had – and that any company going through seed stage funding will have  – about the goals Exodus will have to achieve, and the order in which we need to achieve them.   For early stage startups, coming on a mission like this cannot be recommended highly enough.

More to come later, but suffice to say Exodus is incredibly proud to have been selected to attend this trip, and with the responses we have received to our pitch and our plans to solve the space debris problem, we’re sure it will be be a spring board for even bigger things to come!

Exodus selected for London Tech Week!

Exciting news! We can now reveal that Exodus Space Systems (represented by Mike) applied for and was awarded a place on the Startup Catalyst mission to London Tech Week, funded by the Western Australian Government Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation.  As part of a delegation of over 40 Australian startup founders, investors, academics and government personnel from around the country, we will engage with more than 40,000 delegates from over 70 countries, in 300-plus events over the course of one big week in London!

As an early stage startup we’ll of course be seeking funding from investors, partnership with organisations where our interests align, and expressions of interest from potential future customers of our space debris removal services, but overall we’re looking forward to so many of the ways in which a week of meetings with some of the most innovative people on the planet can grow a company like ours.

This blog will cover many of our findings from the week, and these entries will also be reposted on our Facebook page, so you can either follow this website, or like us on Facebook to keep up with our journey.  If you want hear more about the whole Startup Catalyst mission in general, you can follow the #SCLondon19 hashtag on Twitter.

Lastly, we’ve got a few questions for you dear reader… Do you know people in the UK space/tech industry that we should meet? Do you have suggestions for how we can help grow collaborations between space/tech-focussed organisations in the UK and Australia?  And what do you think will be the best way Exodus can use this trip to inspire the creation of more startup companies in Western Australia? and/or convince more of the creative people here to take the plunge and dive into a new entrepreneurial career?

Our contact page is here, and we would love to hear from you.

Meeting the Space ANGELS (Space Law)

On the second of May I had the pleasure of meeting Special Council Duncan Blake (from the International Aerospace Law & Policy Group), and five of his students – the ANGELS – from the University of Adelaide, to have a discussion about Exodus Space Systems and the legal considerations we expect to face in the future.  It was a really productive conversation, where the aim was to help them understand what a start-up founder like myself might want to see in the website they are building, and it was also one I was especially glad to have it at this stage in our company’s development, as I was able to run a couple of our hypotheses by the group and talk about the legal implications.

A significant feature of any future space debris removal industry will be how various actors respond to the issues raised by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. A good summary of the treaty as it relates to space debris can be found here, but I think we can all agree that the treaty requires space-faring countries – as well as any commercial space entities located within the jurisdiction of those countries – to avoid “harmful contamination” of the space environment.  Because harmful contamination in the form of space debris already exists, processes like active debris removal (ADR) are likely to become a key feature of the emerging space industry, in some way, shape or form.

The question is: who is going to pay for it?

This is where our hypotheses come in.  The first hypothesis is that we think there are basically two different categories of ADR services that satellite customers will want to see from space debris removal companies such as ourselves, which we’re calling 1) Ad Hoc and 2) General services.

Ad Hoc services are those services to be performed in cases of specific need, as when a satellite is no longer controllable and needs to be de-orbited, or worse, when a collision has occurred and the resulting debris poses an imminent threat to other assets in space. We think these will form an important part of the early stages of the space debris removal industry, and will continue as long as there are large multi-ton used rocket stages and defunct satellites in orbit that require dedicated missions to remove.  Going forward however, it is hard to see how the majority of ADR services performed will consist of customers paying companies to deorbit individual pieces of debris, any more than a city council would contract a company to sweep up a single piece of litter on the street.

General services will necessarily have to become the majority of services performed in the future: there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris over 1cm in size, and the companies with technology that can cost-effectively clean whole orbital regions of hazardous debris will inevitably come to dominate.  Because payload mass is so expensive to transport into orbit, cost-effectiveness means mass-effectiveness, and we think our flyby mission profile – which saves on both propellent mass and the mass required for grappling/de-tumbling/de-orbiting space debris – will turn out to be a method that can effect both the Ad Hoc and General Services.

So again: Who is going to pay for these services?  If the only possible service allowed by technology was of the Ad Hoc type, the only incentive to clean up would come from the liability the owner of that out-of-control satellite (or user of that anti-satellite weapon) might face in the international arena.  My knowledge of international law is limited, but it doesn’t yet seem that any such punishment is in the works for previous occasions in which debris has been created, so it’s hard to see when in the future such a “stick” might eventuate.  If however there were a technology that cost-effectively reduced the risk of collision with space debris over a whole orbital altitude, then the incentive to act would become more carrot than stick, with operators of satellite constellations becoming potential customers able to reap the benefits of that reduced risk, multiplied by as many satellites as they have in that orbital altitude.

What if the operator of that satellite constellation were a nation state party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, or an organisation within the jurisdiction of such a nation state? Our second hypothesis is that – rather than needing to modify the 1967 treaty or create a new one – countries could be incentivised to help subsidise the process of removing space debris through the creation of a list of “good citizen” countries acting to solve the space debris problem.  This could be measured in comparison to the number of satellites that country already has in orbit, as this would be a surrogate for how big a part those countries played in generating the debris which is already in orbit.

In any case, the conversation with the Space ANGELS was very interesting food for thought, and I wish them the best for their course!

An update on Space Debris

Imagine, for a moment, what an incomprehensible event it would be if you were walking down your street, minding your own business, and you were randomly struck by a bullet fired during World War II, half a world away and many decades ago.  Somehow, that bullet has been flying around all this time until it just happened to find you.  What would you do?  Maybe the person who fired it has since died of old age.  Maybe the country they fought for no longer exists.  On whom does the responsibility fall?  Not that it makes much difference to you in the moment, does it?  Ouch!

Fun with hypotheticals aside, we know such a thing couldn’t happen on Earth because of gravity and atmospheric drag.  Space debris is different.  Something very much like this can happen in space because the vast speed at which orbiting objects travel is sufficient to beat gravity, and the length of time these objects can stay in space is due to the lack of atmospheric drag.  The space debris problem will persist for decades to come, and the questions of responsibility are much the same.

The statistics on space debris are worrisome.  According to the recently updated ESA space debris by the numbers page, there are now an estimated 34,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm in orbit around Earth (these are the ones that can be tracked), with another 900,000 objects big enough (>1cm) to do catastrophic damage to any spacecraft with which they happen to run cross paths.

Most of these are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), since that’s where the majority of humankind’s activity in space has been.  Of course, if you look at the absolute density of debris, the numbers might seem very low.  The roughly 8400 tons of artificial objects in space are spread out over an area larger than the size of Earth’s surface, and even a back of the envelope calculation will tell you this works out to about 14 grams per square kilometre.  Then consider that this is spread over a volume hundreds of kilometres in altitude, and you realise the standard graphic of space debris showing the space around Earth thick with particles is merely an artistic representation.

The nature of the problem becomes more clear when you contemplate the phrase “hypervelocity impact”, and see images like this solid block of aluminium after impact by a small (~1cm) metal projectile travelling at approximately 8km/s:

Shield development within the HVIT group
Several innovative shielding approaches are being developed at NASA and elsewhere in an attempt to protect human-rated spacecraft from the millions of debris objects of this size, but clearly, prevention is better than a cure.  The problem won’t go away until we make it go away.

If anything, the problem will get worse before it gets better: Another 10,000 or so satellites are planned to be launched in the next decade, many of which will be in the orbits where debris populations are highest.  This is in addition to the 1800 or so currently functional satellites.  The odds of further random collisions between satellites and debris (or indeed between debris and other debris objects) creating further clouds of space debris, is not insignificant, and it’s because of this fact that a sizeable space debris clean-up industry is currently in the gestational stages.  We now expect this industry to be in the billion $/year range by 2030, given that the total space industry is projected to reach a trillion-plus $/year at or soon after this date.

Exodus Space Systems intends to be a leader in the space debris clean-up industry, and we think Western Australia’s growing prowess for space situational awareness (SSA) makes it an ideal location from which to operate.  We’ve been hard at work developing a novel technology which will cost-effectively solve this problem, a complete financial model showing who will pay for it and why, as well as a pack for investors describing all the details.

Here’s to some exciting meetings in the next few weeks!

To Germany and back…

Hi all! Wow what a huge couple of months it’s been.  It’s hard to know where to start.

When I last wrote, we were preparing for two conferences, ASAM’s (Australasian Society for Aerospace Medicine) focus colloquium on space medicine in Melbourne, and the International Astronautical Congress 2018 in Bremen, Germany.  Between these two events we’ve met a huge number of space professionals from both Australia and abroad, scientists and engineers from industry and various space agencies, all working towards driving the new space revolution forward.

We’re still in the process of contacting all the inspiring people we’ve met, so if you’ve not heard from us yet, please feel free to contact us, so we can continue the conversation.

We’ve also continued to work on promoting our DeTA (Deployable Toroid Array) space origami concept, both the hardware, and the business case(s) for what we can do with it:

Interested investors should contact us for a pitch package.  But remember, if you want to support us as a fan, you can always buy one of our 3D printed rotary DeTA models from our shop at shapeways.com/shops/exodus-space-systems

Onwards and upwards!