“Things might actually explode” and nine other key takeaways from Reaktor Space so far

September 6, 2016

Read time 4 min

A lot has happened since we announced our satellite mission. In just eight months, we’ve figured out how to run Node.js on a satellite, created an MVP and worked with SDR (software defined radio). We built our own ground station, started a new company and filed a lot of paperwork, plus met a ton of people working in the space industry. Now it is a good time to recap some of the key things we have learned along the way.

1.Things might actually explode.

Within a year, from fall 2014 to summer of 2015, three rockets exploded into a fiery mess: SpaceX Falcon-9, Orbital Sciences Antares and Roscosmos Proton-M. They caused a six-month delay to all subsequent launches in various space programs around the globe, Aalto-1 being one of them. A further delay came just last week, when another Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad, destroying the ‘Facebook satellite’. When you enter the space business, things can literally explode.

2. There are rules and regulations considering space. A lot of them.

Bad news: You can’t build big antennas in downtown Helsinki, point them to sky and start communicating with satellites. You need permits. We were the first commercial operator to apply for such a license in Finland, so the procedure took some extra time with the governing bodies. Now the process is underway and we are waiting for the license for switching on the transmitters.

3. Nanosat builders do not decide when to launch.

We are building small and light cubesats. They are inexpensive to launch compared to big commercial satellites. But it also means that cubesats are not (usually) the ones dictating the launch dates. A launch could cost 70 million euros and there is one primary payload onboard costing 60 million and a few cubesats costing only six figures each. If the big satellite is late for the launch schedule, small satellites that are secondary payload will have to wait.

4. Biggest surprise? Building the ground station was easy!

Not everything is hard within the space industry. We built an automated ground station in Helsinki in four months from parts ordered online. It required a lot of hours and learning new things, but in the end the biggest surprise was how easy and relatively inexpensive the process was.

5. Radiation kills CPUs – even ones on NodeJS.

The relatively groundbreaking approach of using Node.js in our satellites (see Reddit discussion here) has one major caveat: how well the complex processor environment will tolerate gamma radiation. Radiation is the biggest X factor in our project, something we can test at our facilities groundside, but will learn for real only after launch.

6. Our new company Reaktor Space Lab is doing great!

We have divided our space efforts into two companies. Reaktor Space Lab focuses on designing, building and space qualifying hardware. It has various projects in the pipeline and the team has been very influential in building two Finnish cubesats – Aalto-1 and Aalto-2 – currently waiting for launch. The main company, Reaktor, is focused on identifying the applications that require space elements.

7. Selling software inside the hardware-oriented space industry

Lots of space industry companies have developed products with NASA or ESA, creating products with zero profit. Space agencies get a functional product for their project and the company working with them gets a sellable product, like a sensor or camera. It is a win-win for both parties.

This model gets complicated with software development. The customer – in this case the agency, like ESA – gets the whole product, including the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). The developer is left with nothing to sell, with zero profit from the actual project. We had similar problems when we entered the aviation industry but managed to solve them; the same is expected to happen with the space industry as well.

8. We want to do space

During our eight-month dive into the space industry, we have realized there is a need for a modern, senior-level developer company like Reaktor. Because the space industry has been a strongly governed and closed circle, there is a lot of room for more efficient and modern methods of software development. Our space project has sparked a great deal of interest inside the company and the Reaktorians would love to get hands-on with satellites, rockets and space systems in general.

9. We need a flight reference

A flight reference a.k.a. a successful launch to space with a functional product is a crucial point for any company entering the space industry. This suits the overall Reaktor motto: things are hypotheses until you actually test them in real life. We are looking forward to Aalto-1 and Aalto-2 launches and hopefully soon after that our own Reaktor Hello World launch.

10. The Finnish Space Industry is a great community to work with

It might come as a surprise, but there have been space-related industries in Finland for 30 years already, with over a dozen active companies. They have been part of NASA and ESA projects and we are currently working together with several of them. The companies get along well and have helped us tremendously during the first eight months of our journey. A big thank you to The Finnish Amateur Radio League and the Finnish space-enthusiasts – without your help we would not have got this far.

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