If a satellite breaks down in Earth orbit, the operator cannot fix it, as the US space agency Nasa once did with the faulty Hubble Telescope. The satellite is broken if the affected component is not installed twice. It can take years for a new satellite to replace the faulty satellite.
The Berlin start-up Reflex Aerospace wants to bridge this gap. “We could quickly launch a satellite that could at least partially support the functionality,” says founder Walter Ballheimer. To do this, for example, in a few weeks they will equip a standardized satellite platform with a transponder which can temporarily take over from a defective communications satellite. “We don’t pretend to replace everything, just the basic function to mitigate the loss,” he says.
These are not cubesats like the ones Ballheimer built for the Berlin start-up German Orbital Systems. He left the company in the spring because he no longer saw any prospects for himself in this area. Mini satellites the size of a shoebox are a low budget product. “Customers don’t want to spend a lot of money on them,” he says. “Applying a ‘Made in Germany’ label on it and selling it at a higher price is difficult and cannot keep up with competitors from Eastern Europe.” So he left the “featherweight class”, as he joked, and founded Reflex Aerospace two months later. This with the help of investor Alpine Space Ventures, behind which is former Space X engineer and now Mynaric boss Bulent Altan.
And such a replacement satellite at Reflex can easily weigh 400 kilograms. “The interface has to adapt, but there is no conflict with the patents,” says Ballheimer. He wants to set up this service like an insurance company and finance the business with the customer’s down payments. The founder plans to sell up to five replacement satellites per year. But given the boom in the industry, its services may soon be in higher demand. Fortune Business Insights analysts estimate that the annual satellite construction and launch systems market volume will more than double globally by 2027, from around $ 25 billion to $ 54 billion, compared to 2019.
The emergency service is not intended to become Reflex’s main activity. “A conventional satellite of this class survives in space for about 15 years,” explains Ballheimer. However, it is no longer necessary to exhaust this lifespan, especially since the satellite can soon become obsolete if a competitor follows suit with a more recent system after two years for example. His idea: Components and rocket launches are getting cheaper and cheaper, so it makes sense to replace satellites more often – that would also eliminate redundancy, at least in part, and components installed twice would no longer be needed. That’s why he came up with some sort of subscription model. “The customer would then have the option of updating their payload twice during the 15-year contract period.” Thus, the satellites could be equipped with new functions.
Used Satellites Market
He does not accept criticism that even more disused satellites are flying like garbage in Earth orbit. “It would certainly not be viable to get rid of satellites immediately after use,” he says. These satellites could be reprogrammed as needed. “This creates a market for second-hand satellites, which could also be donated to Greenpeace, for example” – for Earth observation, for example.
Ultimately, the start-up wants to earn its money with small and medium-sized constellations – for remote sensing and communication, for example. About 70 satellites each. Concretely, the company is currently participating in a consortium led by the French start-up Rovial, which is participating in an EU call for tenders for a European broadband satellite system. This also includes laser communications maker Mynaric and rocket maker Isar Aerospace. A first test mission is planned for next year. Ballheimer can also imagine not only building satellites for a constellation, but also making them work immediately – just as Space-X does with its Starlink Internet satellites.
He expects a roundtable in about a year and a half, “then we’ll need double-digit millions.” He probably wants to build the satellites in the greater Munich area. After all, the start-up service provider Isar Aerospace is just around the corner then, “there are no long transport routes”. However, software development and administration should remain in Berlin.