Coronavirus and the origins of the Exodus Vision

Since social isolation is a precondition of space travel, astronauts are some of the individuals best equipped to deal with its challenges. Does that mean that going through the COVID-19 pandemic is making all of us that much more prepared to travel in space?

If you’ve been following our story, you know Exodus Space Systems is a company which is developing a new method to solve the space debris problem, and we think this will be a big part of the space industry in coming decades.  But let’s put that aside for a moment and talk about our long-term vision for humanity in space, the origins of that vision, and how a pandemic like COVID-19 relates to that.

If I had a time machine, and we could go back to the significant moments in my life which eventually led to the genesis of Exodus Space Systems, at least one of them would be in the early 2000s when I was an undergraduate studying Molecular Biology at the University of Western Australia, learning about pandemics and why they can be so devastating.

As is abundantly obvious now, the adaptation of a new virus to the human species is an event against which our modern healthcare system is relatively slow and ill-equipped to react.  For at least some time after human-to-human transmission begins, we are limited to fighting the disease with much more primitive tools: social distancing to stop the spread, and artificial respiration to give the most serious cases a better chance of survival.  It’s like trying to fight a forest fire with firebreaks and heat blankets alone.  Eventually it is necessary to bring in the water (vaccine).

Over the last century, humanity has been becoming increasingly susceptible to the spread of a virus with these characteristics (long incubation times, asymptomatic/low-symptoms transmission) because our modern world is extremely interconnected through trade and travel.  It’s not at all surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention that the measures which are necessary to control the virus have had such a horrific effect on the world economy.  The warnings have been out there for years, concerning the what, if not the when of it.  Those who say “nobody saw this coming” are in effect, proclaiming their own ignorance.

It is worth repeating what many visionaries and futurists have pointed out before: Humanity as a space-faring civilisation would be inherently more resistant to pandemic outbreaks, in part because of the time-frame over which space travel occurs.  As soon as humanity has self-sustaining outposts on the moon, Mars and elsewhere in the solar system, the transit times to go between these places would in most cases exceed the incubation times of every infectious disease known.  There are few plausible ways an infectious agent could infect a significant proportion of the human population when social isolation is a necessary pre-condition of space travel, so the relative cost of a pandemic to society would be much smaller.  The exodus of humanity to space is beneficial, not in the biblical sense of running away from an existing plague, but in the pragmatic way that the space between us creates barriers to any new infections that might arise.

I would also add that round-trip travel times to every destination beyond the moon will require far more significant measures to sustainably support other aspects of human health over the long term, including measures to address radiation-induced cancer risk, microgravity-induced biomedical issues, and the need for fully (or near fully) closed-loop environmental control and life support systems.  In the long-term, I believe the most plausible vision for humanity is of a solar system network of space settlements which are linked by an information economy, but largely separate in their material needs, since even cargo transport costs will remain prohibitively high and transit times will remain prohibitively long with foreseeable technology.

As difficult as this may be, it is still worth doing!  The process of making humanity a space-faring civilisation will not only protect us to a far greater extent against the infectious pathogens which have brought human civilisations to their knees in the past, it will also teach humanity how to be truly sustainable. This integration of sustainable practice into the cutting edge of our technological development processes will go a long way towards solving the other existential issues which now trouble humanity.

Space travel is better positioned to drive this kind of thinking into high technology than any other endeavour.  If every bi-product of every energy generation or production process was treated with the same consideration that led space scientists to figure out how to recycle human urine for drinking water, we would be far better placed to solve numerous challenges, including human-caused climate change.

This is why the Exodus vision advocates space exploration and human settlement of the solar system, not just as a dream for rich men, but as a goal for humanity that will benefit all of us.

Going back to my time machine journey, I didn’t know at the time what form it would take, but it was during my studies that I became convinced that humanity needed to go to space as a matter of priority, and that I wanted to find a way to be a part of that.  Another important influence for me was the 2004 X Prize, which planted the seed in my mind that maybe a start-up company was the right vehicle to do innovative things in space, and that I wanted to be a part of the “New Space” movement.  Being an Australian scientist however, I had no idea yet how I might make that happen.

With each successive space event I attended, my knowledge of the industry grew, with particularly strong memories of meeting the Armadillo Aerospace team at the X Prize cup in 2007 and learning why returning rocket stages to a pad via vertical landing was so much more efficient than horizontal (wing-based) landing.  It’s with that knowledge that seeing SpaceX perfect this process to a fine art has been incredibly satisfying to watch.

The International Space Development Conference in 2011 was another major step for me, as this was the first time I presented at a space conference (my Carousel Space Station concept).  Highlights included getting to meet Buzz Aldrin, having a great chat with Al Globus on his space settlement concepts and being incredibly inspired by Jeff Greason’s Keynote.

Eventually, I came to know the two co-founders of Exodus Space Systems, Carl Conquilla (we met at the NASA space apps challenge in 2016) and Alexius Julian (we met through Perth’s Latin dancing scene in 2015 and bonded over science fiction when he found out about my Firefly Season 2 pilot script).  Initial discussions between the three of us became ongoing talks, and upon completion of my PhD, we founded Exodus Space Systems.  That was in August 2017, and the rest is history.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, while it presents difficulties for us as a start-up company, is an interesting experience for me personally, since it feels like I’ve come full circle on why I think the exploration and settlement of space by humanity is so important.  Indeed, the recent return of the ISS expedition 62 crew highlighted not only how much the world has changed in the last 6 months, but also how accustomed to social distancing measures the astronauts already are.  I’d also point to these comments by Australian Astronaut Andy Thomas on how his space experiences apply to what we are going through now, especially the importance of having a daily routine.

The social distancing requirements we are all experiencing right now would simply become a new normal if space travel across the solar system were to become a common thing.  Also – in case you hadn’t already figured it out – the answer to the question I posed at the top of the article is a giant “yes! I’m sure this pandemic has made us all just a bit more prepared for space travel”.  Of course there are elements that are more difficult to deal with, but we are collectively proving that adaptation is possible, if not easy, when we have a sense of shared purpose.  I can only hope that when we come out the other side of the pandemic, we can reapply ourselves to the goal of space exploration and settlement with redoubled energy.

Currently, Exodus Space Systems is participating in the (now online) accelerator programs being run by both CERI and Quantum Tech Exchange, and we are continuing to develop our understanding of the space debris problem, and those who will benefit the most from our solution.  There’s more to come, so stay tuned!

Quantum Tech Exchange success!

The Exodus team is proud to announce that we’ve been accepted into the Quantum Tech Exchange Accelerator, which is run by Atomic Sky.  This includes a full professional development program, with visiting speakers and mentorship, as well as site visits to key tech facilities in WA.  We’ll be there at the AOG conference and the WA Europe Innovation Summit, and will finish with an opportunity to pitch to investors.

The cohort itself has already proven itself to be a diverse group of businesses, and I’m looking forward to meeting and working with all of them further.  You can find out more about the group in Peter Rossdeutscher’s LinkedIn post announcing the program.

Here’s to a great start to 2020. Onwards and Upwards!

Exodus at the Space Innovation Network

Our last public event for the year was on Tuesday 17th of December, with Mike giving a speech on our Kinetic Solution for Space Debris (KiSSD) method at the Space Innovation Network, which is run by Innovate Australia.  A huge thank you is owed to Peter and Adam, both for this invitation to speak, as well as their ongoing support over the last few years.  Congratulations also to Joshua Letcher, CEO of Space Industries, who joined Mike in speaking at this event, and showed some exciting plans for their construction of a new space precinct at the Perth Airport West, which they’ll use as a base for their plans to mine Helium-3 from the moon.

2019 has been the biggest year yet for Exodus, with our trips to London Tech Week and our participation in the Australian finals of Pitch at Palace being obvious highlights.  The number of extraordinarily talented entrepreneurs at these events alone has been a huge inspiration to us.   We’ve also given speeches at a number of other events, continued to explore funding opportunities, and kept our research ticking along in the background.

As we close out 2019 and think about what 2020 will bring, I (Mike) want to take a moment to wish everyone a happy holiday season on behalf of the whole Exodus team.  We could not have made it this far without the encouragement of our mentors and supporters, so all the best to you and yours, and let’s hope that 2020 sees us all achieving our goals, and more!

Seven Questions for Exodus

I recently finished reading “Zero to One”, the international bestselling book by Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and Palantir.  Although I didn’t agree with everything in the book, there is much to recommend about it, particularly the set of seven questions listed towards the end of the book.  These questions are what the author proposes that every startup company should be able to answer, and I wanted to relate some of our thinking on this below.

Firstly, a quick note about last week’s post, playfully titled Attention: Don’t Sponsor Exodus!  Some of the feedback we received was that this may have caused some confusion, especially for those who only came across the title in their media feeds, and didn’t have time to discover the tongue-in-cheek nature of the article.  So to clarify: we would love for you to download our Sponsorship Prospectus and think about how sponsoring us as a space company could help elevate your company’s profile.  For as little as AU$10,000 per year, sponsor companies could build a relationship with Exodus Space Systems that will help spread the excitement of Australian space exploration, could help those companies better take advantage of the growing space industry themselves, while helping us develop new technology that will benefit people in space and on Earth alike.

Here are the seven questions I mentioned, which Peter Thiel advocates every startup company be able to answer:

  1. The Engineering Question: Is your technology at least an order of magnitude better than the competition?
  2. The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start the business?
  3. The Monopoly Question: Are you going to start with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question: Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question: Can you deliver your product to paying customers?
  6. The Durability Question: Will your market advantage persist, decades from now?
  7. The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity?

For those readers who want to have a deep dive conversation into the answers Exodus Space Systems has for these questions, I encourage you to contact us.  This also applies if you’re interested in sponsorship, equity investment, or can even see your company being a future customer of our space debris cleanup services.

Let’s go through each question one-by one:

  1. The Engineering Question.  Exodus Space Systems has already done over two years of conceptual R&D on our kinetic flyby solution, which we call our “Street Sweeper for Space Debris”.  By avoiding the mass costs implicit in other “rendezvous and capture” methods – propellent mass, capture mechanism mass, and deorbit mechanism mass – we are able to deorbit debris in a far more efficient manner.  No matter how cheap the cost of launch becomes, a key ratio will remain how much mass is sent to orbit, versus how much (debris) mass is removed from orbit, and on this we believe our KiSSD method is at least an order of magnitude better than other proposed active debris removal (ADR) solutions.
    Being a space-based, range-limited method makes it more politically tenable than other non-ADR methods like ground-based lasers, and it’s small size also makes it more plausible than mega-structure solutions like electrodynamic tethers.
  2. The Timing Question: As an Australian company we are in an excellent position to take advantage of recent funding developments with the Australian Government and Space Agency, as well as the exponential growth of investment in the global space sector.  We also see significant new awareness of the space debris issue within the international regulatory and space insurance sectors, mainly due to the dramatic increase in satellite constellation proposals which will increase overall risk of space debris collisions in low Earth orbit.
    We see the potential for a new space debris cleanup market in the mid-2020s, growing into a $1B annual market in the 2030s, which will likely be dominated by a few players.  Given the timeframes of both the space industry, and of developing a deep-tech startup into a commercial organisation, we believe it is best to start now.
  3. The Monopoly Question: As large as we expect the space debris cleanup market to become, it is currently small, with only one established company that will not be a direct competitor for the types of services we are planning to offer.  With sufficient support now, we believe we can establish ourselves as a premier service provider of space debris cleanup.
  4. The People Question: Our team already has significant subject matter expertise, as well as experience in advanced prototyping, capital raising and corporate governance, and active connections in both the Australian and global space industry.  Once we achieve seed funding, we plan to grow our team to include more expertise in necessary engineering sub-disciplines, data science, IP protection, marketing, business development and legal competencies.  We also place high value on investors who have experience mentoring deep-tech startups from the initial stages, right through the commercialisation process.
  5. The Distribution Question: We have identified satellite operators as our future customers, as these have the most to gain from proactive methods to lower the risk of their assets being impacted by space debris.  This is particularly true for those satellite operators with plans to launch large constellations of satellites and/or those with assets in the most debris-congested polar and sun-synchronous low Earth orbits.
    While we expect to reach out to these customers directly, we also see the satellite insurance industry and national space agencies as key enablers, as both groups have large financial incentives to provide easier ways for satellite operators to behave as good citizens.  The current moves to encourage comprehensive planning for end-of-life satellite operations as well as reducing the timeframe by which old satellites must be de-orbited are excellent, but do not account for cases where satellites are unexpectedly lost during routine operations due to space debris collision or other electrical faults.  We aim to have our KiSSD method become a new gold standard for space debris removal, and we expect these enabling parties would become active participants in this process.
  6. The Durability Question: Our market advantage, once achieved, would be due to our space debris cleanup method becoming a recognised best practice, and our brand would be reinforced as an enabler of good citizen space operators.  Once an established space operator, we would be able work on different space technologies that also add value to this brand, eventually aiming to develop those technologies that would enable a safe exodus of humanity out into space.
  7. The Secret Question: Rather than trying to mimic other space startup companies, by building more communications or imaging satellites, or trying to start yet another small rocket company, we have chosen to focus on space debris cleanup, because we have identified that it is currently a small industry, but will become a service that all satellite operators will eventually need.  We have already achieved significant traction and endorsements by narrowing our service down to a simple concept that everybody understands – “a street sweeper for space” – and we’re aiming to execute on our vision in a way that makes best use of our current key advantages.

I hope that helps you understand a little better what Exodus Space Systems is trying to do.  If you have any further questions please feel free contact us, and one of us will be happy to have a chat.

Attention: Don’t Sponsor Exodus!

Why would you even consider doing a thing like that? Are you trying to inspire people or something?

Well, lucky I found you, because I’m here to tell you that you absolutely, totally, should not sponsor Exodus Space Systems.  There are far better uses for your money than supporting a space startup with new, versatile and cost-effective technology that can help solve a global issue no one else has yet been able to effectively address. Surely you don’t think associating your brand with the wonder of space exploration is going to be a good thing?

I want you to make a choice with your head, not your heart. Yes, I know we all grew up on stories that featured humankind out amongst the stars, and we know how NASA put people on the moon and sent robots to explore other planets, but does any of that really resonate with people today? It’s not like four of the top five grossing movies of all time involve some form of space travel.

Instead, let’s look at the numbers, shall we? Morgan Stanley reports the global space industry will triple in value to over US$1T before 2040, whilst Space Angels reports that yearly private investment in space startups has gone from $500M in 2009 to more than $3B every year since 2015, including the first six months of 2019.  So while you might say the space industry has a wee smidgen of growth happening, since when did innovation in space ever drive the creation of technologies useful on Earth? (aside from solar panels, water filters, digital camera sensors, weather forecasts, GPS or the Internet).

Also, if you really wanted to solve the space debris problem, why would you locate your company in Western Australia? Surely you’d want to go somewhere with world-leading experts on tracking space objects, as well as access to vast dark skies?  You’d also definitely want to have a national space agency that saw this as a key national strength and saw space debris clean-up as a key national priority for support.

In summary, I want to advise you in the strongest possible terms that you absolutely should not download the Exodus Space Systems Sponsorship Prospectus and think about whether sponsoring Exodus is a fit for your company’s goals. There’s no telling what kinds of benefits you might suffer.

Pitch at Palace reflections

What a gigantic fortnight it has been!

Exodus Space Systems has been busy selling our idea of a street sweeper for space in a variety of different forums, and meeting some absolutely amazing people along the way.  The most high profile of these was the Pitch at Palace pitching competition, run by a magnificent worldwide organisation which was set up by his royal highness Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, in 2014.  The 2019 Australian final was hosted at Perth’s government house by WA Governor Kim Beazley.

If you’ve been reading our previous entries you’ll know that in the last week of August we pitched in the WA state final of Pitch at Palace, and as a result were selected to participate in the Australian national final on October 4th – also in Perth.  At the time, we thought we were one of the 8 WA companies selected to be amongst the 42 Australian finalists, but as it turned out, there were 13 WA companies in the final!  This was because of the wildcard system, as well as several WA companies flying interstate to qualify through other state finals.  Even though it’s a long list, I do want to acknowledge each of them individually because it was the amazing people behind these companies that made the experience what it was, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the increasingly thriving entrepreneurial scene in Perth.

First among the WA companies was eventual global finalist Orthocell, which has done some amazing work in nerve regeneration.  DiGii is social media for year 5-6 students with AI moderation to address bullying and other forms of abuse.  Noisy Guts uses a special belt sensor to non-invasively detect irritable bowel syndrome and other gut conditions.  Quipmo is recreational equipment for the moment: an online rental marketplace for travelling fun-seekers.  The Volte is a high fashion online rental marketplace that helps reduce clothing waste.  Jugglr is an online jobs platform to help new mums get back into the workforce.  Kinchip Systems improves health outcomes with better medical data management.  Assisting Your Life to Achieve (AYLA) Inc‘s “You Matter” boxes make possible the 24/7 assistance of homeless and disadvantaged people.  The Difference rounds up your electronic purchases to the nearest dollar so you can contribute “spare change” to charities of your choice.  Virtual CSI is using virtual reality as a tertiary teaching tool for crime scene investigation, MARKR Systems allows easily updatable and translatable augmented reality signage at events, and Gelavo saves food wastage by turning ugly avocados (and other fruit rejected for cosmetic reasons) into a healthy snack.

And THAT was just the WA cohort.  The two other global finalists came from interstate with powerful stories, and these were Soldier.ly who use technology to detect stress and anxiety in returning veterans, and Xceptional, who have an online jobs platform for people on the Autism Spectrum.  Additional companies from interstate who really made a strong impression on us included Augmented Bionics, who are building a non-invasive alternative to the cochlear implant.  Capricorn Power have developed a new way to convert waste heat to energy, potentially having a massive impact on climate change mitigation efforts.  Cynch helps small businesses deal with cybersecurity issues through customised programs.  Ecoblends Australia is working on a beautifully simple concept of colour-changing toilet paper to detect a number of gut-based cancers and other conditions.  Farmwall uses the power of aquaponics to bring healthy snacks into the office.  GoAct has some potentially game-changing technology for using the biomarkers found in a simple blood test to diagnose mental illness.  GoNap is a boon for parents of young children with an eco-friendly and very portable nappy kit.  HackHunter has some nifty tech to help offices secure their wifi networks by detecting malicious devices.  Kognat uses very impressive deep learning techniques to automate video editing processes.  SensaWeb has a realtime environmental radiation monitoring solution for workplaces where radiation sources are in common use.  Tendril Care is a platform for aged care service which aims to solve the more inefficient aspects of that industry, and Wheel Alert Technologies has a simple sensor for realtime monitoring of truck brake condition which will save lives and money.

The entire event was streamed live on YouTube, and you can watch it here (Exodus is on stage at 1:40:40):

We’d like to repeat our congratulations to the three companies who made it to the global finals in London, and especially would like to thank all the organisers at Pitch at Palace, as well as staff at Murdoch University for making this a well-run and an incredibly valuable event.  At least two outcomes from Pitch at Palace have resulted (in the week since Pitch at Palace) in new conversations with – and pitches to – potential investors.  Also, as we requested in our ask, we’ve now begun conversations with corporations who have both the ability and interest to help commercialise the technologies we are developing.  Hopefully more to come on this soon!

Lastly, it was a pleasure to be invited to speak at UWA on Wednesday, 9th of October for the Australian Institute of Physics (WA) quarterly meeting.  Being able to speak for one hour (rather than the 3 minutes or 30 seconds at Pitch at Palace) was quite a different kind of presentation, and it meant being able to do a deep dive into Exodus’ technical plans with a number of scientists present, which led to some very good audience questions! One unexpected result from this is that we’ve had a request to speak to some school kids about the exciting things that can happen when you study STEM subjects, which is something we’re definitely open to doing more.  If you want to know more about this, or want to hear more about why Exodus would be a great company to invest in or sponsor, please get in touch!

Exodus at Bloom and on 6PR radio.

A really important aspect of any public outreach work that Exodus does is helping to normalise the space industry as something real and tangible that can be invested in, provide valuable outcomes and jobs to “ordinary” people.   We’re helping to communicate the important message that if you work in the space ecosystem, you no longer have to fit into the mould of “the right stuff” Apollo astronauts and rocket scientists in order to participate.  We all use the internet, GPS, weather and other satellite-provided services, so we all have useful feedback to give as to how these services can be better.

Take the exciting recent announcement of a further $150 million being allocated to the Australian space Agency  – funds that will help Australian companies participate in NASA’s Artemis program that will return humankind to the moon.  Maybe this will build on Australia’s mining & remote operations experience, our business innovation sector, our world-class scientific researchers, or all of the above, but you can bet that this will have massive knock-on effects throughout the economy and our society more broadly.  The aim is to triple the size of the Australian space sector to $12 billion and create around 20,000 extra jobs by 2030.  Those aren’t all going to be high tech jobs, but it is important that people have a better intuitive feel for some of the quirks of working in the space environment.

It was great to talk to students at the Bloom WA entrepreneurial hub about what Exodus is doing to solve the Space debris problem, as well as Mike’s personal entrepreneurial journey, including what we learn’t from our recent trip to London Tech Week with Startup Catalyst.  We started with a video of the well known game and space-simulator, Kerbal Space Program, showing a replay of the test Mike (yours truly) gave himself years ago when deciding to switch fields and join the new space industry.  Did I understand (at least in theory), how we landed men on the moon, and returned them to the Earth safely?

If you can do this in Kerbal Space Program – I recommend this test to anyone interested in improving their knowledge about space – then you understand many of the issues of operating in space, even if – like us – you only plan to work on the rocket payloads.  Exodus might have no plan to design or operate rockets, but we will certainly need to have a good understanding of those requirements.  Narrating this video I was able to talk about the need to use rockets in stages (the parts of the rocket that get used up, then break off and fall away), and how – simply by the nature of what is required to get to space – this has created a significant amount of space debris all by itself.

Another important aspect demonstrated was how using simulators like drives the development of an intuitive understanding of orbital dynamics – since nothing in space moves in straight lines – and also how to make two objects meet in space at a given time and place.  It is this understanding that led to Exodus’ Kinetic Solution for Space Debris (KiSSD), which is different from other space debris removal methods in that we have no plans to match speeds with each piece of debris – a process which requires extra propellent and inhibits the scalability of the debris removal process.  Understanding how to remove space debris kinetically with a low speed flyby (~200m/s) whilst still taking care not to fragment the debris, is a key aspect of the method, and the basis of why we think we will be able to leapfrog the competition in the growing space debris removal market.

Lastly, it was great fun to be invited to speak with Jon Lewis on 6PR radio, who invited me onto the show to talk about space debris for his late-night audience, and answer a few questions from his listeners.  Always a breath of fresh air to talk to, Jon is doing some great work helping people to think about topics that might not normally come up.  We might be up to our eyeballs in planning and applications, but we’re always happy to come talk to an interested audience, and there are a few more engagements coming up, so contact us if you’d like to know more.