Sputnix, a Skolkovo resident company, will launch a batch of commercial satellites on Saturday, March 20, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The devices will be used for Earth observation and among them is a Tunisian-funded satellite, representing the first North African satellite to go into orbit. Sputnix is the only commercial satellite company in Russia that provides multiple services, including education, data provision, and satellite assembly. Sk.ru spoke with the company CEO, Vladislav Ivanenko, to find out more about the commercial space sector and where Sputnix is going.
Satellites being prepared for the March 20 launch. Photo supplied by Sputnix.
Sixty-four years have passed since the USSR’s Sputnik 1, the first manmade Earth satellite, went into orbit on a 21-day mission, and it would set a trend for the coming decades for humans to continue exploring near-Earth space. As the world’s two superpowers of the 20th century competed with one another by way of their space programs, so too would other countries join the space race. The industry has changed much in the last six decades, not just in terms of technological development, but also in terms of the move from state-funded space programs towards a boom in the commercial space sector; the first private sector satellite went into space in 1962 – AT&T’s Telestar – and transmitted the first live transatlantic telecast. Nowadays, companies small and large around the world are popping up with their own developments to contribute to humanity’s efforts to explore space; perhaps the most notable example in recent years is the advent of SpaceX’s reusable rockets, which are revolutionizing the space industry with the aim to reduce costs. Likewise, the decreasing size and increasing capacity of satellites is further lowering the cost of space launches, which are still expensive, even with reusable rockets.
Sputnix is part of this privatization drive and is leading the way in Russia by offering a number of services that include building satellites, building earth-based guidance systems, data recording, experimental equipment, and equipment for space education.
At 9AM (GMT+6) March 20, 2021, the company is launching a number of small satellites from Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan. These are among a larger group of small satellites belonging to international clients from Japan, the UAE, Italy, South Korea, Israel, Thailand, Canada, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, the UK, Spain, Slovakia, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.
The Sputnix satellites are the Zorkii, CubeSX-HSE and CubeSX-Sirius-HSE, which are to be used for distance earth observation. The other two satellites are from international clients, including Tunisia. Tunis Challenge ONE will be the country’s first satellite and March 20 also marks Tunisia’s Independence Day.
Satellite fit-check preparation. Video: Sputnix
Sputnix is one of the Skolkovo Foundation’s longstanding companies and the CEO, Vladislav Ivanenko, was keen to talk about its current work and the direction it may head in the future.
“This all began in 2013 and at the time the Skolkovo Foundation played a very helpful role in the creation of the company,” said Mr. Ivanenko. “We received a grant, everything got done quite quickly, we made our first satellite and they helped us build and launch it. At that time, we were a startup and we received many useful benefits; if they hadn’t been available, then the company would not have gotten past the first stage. We were the first private company in Russia to launch a commercial satellite and after we got past the first stage, we could fend for ourselves.”
Sputnix – a diversified business model
What sets Sputnix apart from many other companies in the global market is its diversified business model, which its head describes as a necessary strategy to survive and grow in the private space sector.
“Why do we have a diversified business model?” asked Mr. Ivanenko. “We began by developing our own satellite and launching it, but there are many such companies out there that do the same thing. Because of the difficulties in getting all the right equipment, some of it from abroad, we decided to make our own equipment instead. When we made another satellite and launched it, we ran into another obstacle which was the question of who would control it. To solve that issue, we created our own transport control center right here at Skolkovo.”
The company is currently launching a program for schoolkids and students to make their own satellites, with between fifty and a hundred satellites expected go into orbit over the next five years. While Sputnix has its own control center, the issue of who would control such a large volume of satellites remains.
With this in mind and the apparent high demand for specialists, Mr. Ivanenko and his team decided to corner the market and train new specialists on how to run satellites. They discovered this new sector while providing researchers with data during their collaboration with Moscow State University (MSU); Sputnix itself controlled the satellites, put the satellite data into cloud, and MSU scientists downloaded it to use for their research.
Sputnix CEO, Vladislav Ivanenko. Photo supplied by Sputnix.
“The result is that our diversification model now includes training,” said Mr. Ivanenko, “because when a buyer comes to buy a satellite, they want training in how to use it. They want the whole package; they want the device, they want to learn how to put it together, how to launch it, how to control it, and how to gather data. Universities also want it and so does the educational sector in general. If we know how to do it, why not teach pupils and students? Turnkey solutions like this are in demand, particularly on the international market. When a university approaches and says, ‘We have created a space center and a laboratory, can you give us some devices and teach us how to assemble them?’ Such knowledge comes at a price.”
It’s this business model that has helped the company survive for the last ten years, because it doesn’t just build satellites, but sells equipment, control centers, and education. According to Mr. Ivanenko, the problem with other startups is that most are doing only one or perhaps two things, giving themselves only a narrow margin of the market.
That’s not where it ends, though, because a growing direction for the company is in satellite data.
“A big problem is that there isn’t much original data.”
“Elon Musk is right to have everything under one roof at SpaceX,” said Mr. Ivanenko, "and that is what we do at Sputnix. His company makes the equipment, it makes the rockets, it launches and operates them. This way you can control the processes, the prices, the timeframes, and the quality. When you spend eight months trying to come to an agreement with a supplier for one thing, and another eight months agreeing with another supplier for a different thing, that is a waste of time. We do everything and only build devices that weigh between 100-200 kilos to avoid overstretching ourselves. The final step is selling our services. A big problem we’ve spotted is that there isn’t much original satellite data.”
According to the Sputnix CEO, data bought from other companies and from abroad is usually second-hand. The lack of original data producers makes it difficult to buy fresh data, and anything you do get on the market might have been sold and resold numerous times already. By having its own devices, Sputnix can gather and sell original, unique data.
“If you don’t have your own device,” said Mr. Ivanenko, “then you have to request the data from a provider and make an agreement with them. Then you may find that there is a six-month waiting list. With your own device you get your own data and don’t have to go through any of that. Many clients don’t even need the hardware, they just want the service you provide.”
This means that a client that needs satellite data pays for a satellite to be put into orbit, but do not want any role in the technical side of things; that is left to Sputnix as a service provider. For instance, a client might want to know the concentration of ships in the Dardanelles Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world; in such a case, the satellite is just a tool and Sputnix is providing a service.
“We know of a number of European companies that have two or three satellites for tasks like that,” said Mr. Ivanenko. “They don’t sell satellites, nor do they sell the equipment for satellites; they just provide a service. If you want, they will make a satellite, launch it and sell you that service, whether you want to find out about ocean temperatures, shipping, or wildfires. I think that that is a model for us to consider in the future, because the demand for original data is there.”
What types of data do Sputnix satellites gather?
Sputnix satellites can be applied to numerous different areas of data gathering and utilize artificial intelligence to do so. As already mentioned, the devices going into orbit on March 20 will monitor shipping lanes and conduct distance earth monitoring.
“We are launching devices for monitoring shipping lanes and they can identify freight ship movements,” said Mr. Ivanenko. “We will have this data and can supply it to clients who need it. If we were to launch a device for monitoring activity at the poles, then that could be sold to clients from the scientific sphere, for instance. It simply depends on the client. We are prepared to sell data for distance earth monitoring, which the first three satellites will be doing, and data about shipping movements. We already have a number of companies that want this data because it is original.”
Who buys such data? The buyers could be anything from shipping to insurance companies, and that appears to be the direction Sputnix is moving in, although Mr. Ivanenko would not say for certain whether they would be opening a service company in this field.
“Passing on data is a difficult job,” he said. “We provide Geoalert, a Skolkovo company, with data for its Internet of Things device. This is a kind of ‘space pager’ where you can transmit your coordinates, your temperature, heartbeat, and so on and send a message calling for help or to say that you are okay.”
A Sputnix device. Photo supplied by Sputnix.
The satellites could also generate data on illegal logging, illegal construction, and so on; this type of data could go to municipal clients.
“Our satellites can detect illegal logging. When trees are cut down out in the Taiga, it’s not easy to see evidence of this except from space. Rosleshos (Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency) can make a request to check for illegal logging, but obviously we can’t check the whole Taiga. Using AI, the satellite can analyze an archive of images and spot an area of felled trees that hadn’t been there before; that is how we can tell that illegal logging is happening. The satellite’s AI compares previous images with current ones in order to draw a conclusion. If it spots a change, it sends images of where those changes happened.
Anatoly Kopik, the director of marketing and sales at Sputnix, also cited another example where satellite data could be used to monitor illegal activities, but this time out on the oceans.
“We can observe a ship’s movements, it’s direction and speed and whether it is moving into territorial waters where fishing is banned,” he said. “We can also monitor pirate activity, although as soon as pirates get onto a ship, they switch off the transmitters. If we see that the transmitter was on and then switched off, we take an image of the area location where that anomaly happened. We can also monitor how many containers are in a port, for example, and how many cars are in a carpark. It is that detailed.”
The satellites can also be used to monitor food production and make forecasts on crop yields – corn, for example – based on a number of factors such as humidity, dryness, etc. According to Mr. Ivanenko, it can help predict global prices for corn or bread.
The Sputnix satellites go into orbit on Saturday, March 20 at 3AM (GMT) or 9AM Kazakhstan time.
“I will be glad of this achievement not just for a successful launch, but for the fact that the satellites actually work,” said Mr. Ivanenko. “We once launched two satellites and one worked within fifteen minutes while the other one didn’t work immediately. We were very worried, but it turned out that when we launched it, it had been in standby mode and the program rebooted within a day. The algorithm was designed for such a scenario where if it didn’t work, it would reboot. We sat there waiting for a whole day and then it finally worked and the relief was enormous. Any launch is a big event. You have to understand that once a satellite goes up, there’s no fixing it when it’s in orbit, so it has to succeed. You always have a nagging thought at the back of your mind saying that you missed something. We hope that our satellites going into orbit on Saturday will be a success.”
Visit the Sputnix website to find out more: https://sputnix.ru/en/