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Spacecraft as the ultimate IoT device - with Jim Cantrell, CEO at Phantom Space.

Introduction

Space is the ultimate destination for the Internet of Things technology. Satellites are a perfect example of IoT devices operating in hard-to-reach places.

Jim Cantrell, the CEO at Phantom Space, shares his 30+ years of experience with me during this discussion.

We covered several important topics, including:

  • How has the space industry evolved over the years?
  • What is the concept of software-defined satellites?
  • How can we protect satellites from cyber-attacks?
  • What factors impact satellites’ lifespan?
  • What are the cost factors of getting things into space, and how do you reduce them?

That is just a small subset of the subjects we discussed.

Video

Below, you can find my notes from this meeting.

Meeting Notes

Jim’s Track Record

  • Worked at the French space agency and in the former Soviet Union.
  • Helped start SpaceX in 2001.
  • Involved in 11 startups over 30 years.
  • Currently, he is the CEO of Phantom Space, building launch vehicles and satellites.

Space as Ultimate Destination for IoT Devices

  • IoT involves taking data from machines and transmitting it to users.
  • Terrestrial networks currently support IoT.
  • Space networks can enable global monitoring and control of remote machinery.

Managing Satellite Density

  • Space is vast, with crowded and uncrowded areas.
  • Satellites need to be placed in different orbits to avoid collisions and allow natural atmospheric cleansing.
  • Innovation in space transportation systems is crucial for satellite replacement and technology upgrades.
  • Government regulation for third-party collision insurance can incentivize responsible satellite placement.
  • US Air Force’s system tracks objects in orbit and shares data for monitoring.

Satellite Lifespan and Upgrades

  • Satellites are designed to operate for roughly ten years in orbit, mainly limited by power and solar panel degradation due to radiation.
  • Solar panels degrade over time, reducing the satellite’s power supply.
  • Satellites also die if they run out of fuel for maneuvering.
  • Hardware components are not easily upgraded.
  • Software upgrades, similar to consumer electronics, are being implemented to extend satellite lifespan.

Electronics Design for Satellites

  • In the past, radiation-hardened electronics were used to protect against radiation damage in space.
  • High-energy particles can cause damage to electronics.
  • Today, commercial electronics are used in satellites, often with redundancy or voting architectures, to mitigate potential damage.
  • Solar cells still face degradation over time, posing a challenge to satellite longevity.

Software-Defined Satellites

  • Satellites are moving towards a software-defined model, similar to computers and smartphones.
  • Different functionalities can be run simultaneously within the satellite, allowing for more flexibility and adaptability.
  • The concept allows for multiple satellite personalities to operate simultaneously, with the ability to route data to different parts of the satellite as needed.

Defending Satellites Against Cyber Attacks

  • Cyber attacks targeting satellites are a growing concern.
  • There is a need to defend both existing satellites in orbit and future satellite designs against such attacks.
  • The vulnerability of satellites to cyber attacks, especially those already in orbit, is a significant but often overlooked issue.
  • Incidents like the one involving Starlink highlight the potential risks posed by cyber-attacks on satellites.

Concerns about Satellite Security

  • Encryption was used in old systems to prevent unauthorized access to satellites.
  • Ground stations would communicate directly with the satellite using encrypted traffic.
  • With the shift to networked systems, similar issues to Internet-connected devices arise.
  • US Air Force makes efforts to identify vulnerabilities of satellites operating in orbit.

Impact of Quantum Computing

  • Quantum computers will break encryption.
  • There is a risk of compromising data security in space and financial systems.
  • Finding solutions to this security threat is not apparent.

Space Situation Awareness Sensors

  • Various sensors are used for space situation awareness.
  • Examples include startrackers and telescopes.
  • It is vital to understand “what” is in space and what it is “doing” for commercial and national security purposes.

Making Space More Accessible

  • Jim’s vision is to make space more accessible and cost-effective.
  • He leverages Henry Ford’s mass manufacturing approach.
  • My guest underlined the importance of infrastructure, such as launch vehicles and data backhaul, in the commercial space industry.

Cost Reduction Strategies

  • Building a lot of identical launch vehicles and satellites to reduce costs.
  • Small size allows for launching equivalent mass to space with more vehicles.
  • Reusability, as proven by SpaceX, reduces replacement costs.
  • A greater number of launches enables amortization of staff costs.
  • Working on launch sites to increase availability and throughput.

Launch Range Sites and Regulatory Authorities

  • Launch sites are limited and strategically located.
  • Launching over water is preferred to minimize risk to people.
  • Jim highlighted the future potential for launching from inland areas.

Satellite Services and Operational Management

  • Phantom Space aims to provide the Satellite-as-a-Service and manage operational complexity.
  • Managing complexity becomes easier with experience and established procedures.

Advice for entering the Space Business

  • Passion is the key; you must love the work you are doing.
  • Collaboration and raising money are essential due to the scale and capital requirements.
  • Consider starting with less ambitious projects and gaining experience.
  • Be open to opportunities, even if they seem unconventional or ambitious.
  • Respect experience over technology supremacy.

Let me know what the most valuable takeaway for you!

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