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'Good enough' is best for satellite startup Axelspace

Yuya Nakamura founded Axelspace after successfully creating a mock satellite. Pictured here is a half-size model of a cubesat.

TOKYO -- A startup born in a Japanese university is trying to bring about a price revolution in the aerospace industry by being "good enough" instead of nearly perfect. 

     Tokyo-based Axelspace, which develops small, inexpensive satellites, plans to launch its second commercial unit by the end of this year. Axlespace's cheapest model costs about one-tenth as much as conventional satellites. By lowering their cost, satellite users can gather much more data. Yuya Nakamura, founder and president of the startup, explained the secret of cost-effective satellite development in an interview with The Nikkei.

     The company's cube-shaped microsatellites, or "cubesats" measure 50cm on a side and weigh 60kg. That makes them half as large and only 20% as heavy as a standard satellite built by NEC, a big Japanese electronics company. Axelspace devices cost less than 1 billion yen ($7.95 million) apiece, including launch costs, which is 10-20% as much as it costs other major manufacturers to put satellites in orbit.

Count on it

"We first launched a mock satellite made of a trash can that had some electronic parts. It was the start of our challenge," said Nakamura. Prior to founding Axelspace in 2008, Nakamura was doing postgraduate research in aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo.     

     The secret to cost control comes from the concept of "moderate reliability" engineering, advocated by Shinichi Nakasuka, a University of Tokyo professor who was Nakamura's academic adviser. According this principle, instruments are designed to deliver a reasonable degree of performance and reliability, rather than being built to the highly exacting tolerances typical in the aerospace business. This keeps costs down. The quality standards set by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, for example, are extremely high, requiring multiple backups for many systems and the development of custom-made components.  

     Axelspace takes a different approach, buying many of its parts off the shelf and sometimes making purchases online. The company's gyroscopes, which control the satellite's attitude, are a modified version of a commercially available product used in ground-based equipment.  

     The company also works hard to keep personnel costs down. These typically account for 70-80% of total development costs. Whereas the big satellite manufacturers manually solder components onto circuit boards to make them more resistant to heat and vibration during launch, Axelspace automates this process. This is sufficient to meet quality standards, according to the company. 

     Axelspace also simplifies performance testing. It uses a university lab to simulate a vacuum chamber which mimics conditions in outer space. The lab is suitable for testing the "durability and radiation issues under conditions in space, where temperatures range from minus 150 C to 120 C," Nakamura said.

The smartphone of satellites

One of the benefits of smaller, lighter satellites is that a single rocket can be used to launch more than one at a time. That allows launch costs to be shared. "If conventional satellites are mainframe computers, our satellites are smartphones," said Nakamura. 

     Axelspace first succeeded in putting inexpensive commercial satellites in orbit thanks to an order from meteorological information provider Weathernews, which wanted low-cost image and meteorological data from satellites. In 2013, Axlespace's first commercial cubesat was flung into space. Unfortunately, the company did not make a profit from that effort: The images captured by the satellites could not be retained due to an error by the launch company.   

     The startup will give it another try by the end of the year, launching an observation satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a mission to find new shipping routes through the Arctic.

     Shipping companies around the world are interested in finding new routes to shorten the distance between Europe and Asia, thereby saving time and fuel. The problem is the huge icebergs that lie in the path of cargo ships. With low-cost satellite data on the size, location and movement of icebergs, shipping companies will be able to choose the optimal route. Such images cost about 1 million yen each at the moment. Axelspace is trying to put them within the shippers' budgets. 

     That is not the limit of its ambition. The company plans in 2017 to begin launching a constellation of up to 50 satellites in a relatively low orbit between the North and South poles. These could provide real-time observations of most of the planet. In addition to images, the satellites will use radar to gather a wealth of weather, crop, soil and other data useful for agriculture. 

     Axelspace makes its money by developing satellites, and through sales of related equipment. Its backers include well-known individual investors. But the constellation project will require funding of about 20 billion yen. The startup plans a capital increase of 2 billion yen soon. After that, it will begin planning an initial public offering of its shares.

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