HOW TO BUILD SOMETHING THAT’S GOING UP TO SPACE IN LESS THAN A YEAR?
Innovation and an agile methodology are two of the guiding principles that drive the success of our research and development process at Kepler. These principles help us to maintain a high level of adaptation to the challenges of designing, building and launching satellites to space.
Nanosatellites are part of a newer breed of spacecraft. Designed to last between 2 to 5 years depending on their size. With lower mass and power consumption, these little space birds can carry out missions reserved for their traditional ancestors at a fraction of the cost to design, build and launch.
The nanosatellite (also known as CubeSat) standard was introduced in 2000 as a platform for scientists to test out new technologies and carry out experiments on orbit. Since then, the New Space industry has come to embrace the benefits of working within a standard platform, using off-the-shelf components and standard launch vehicles to help get the satellite to orbit, and to market, quickly.
This standardization of satellites has opened the door for new business ventures, small satellite manufacturers and operators, custom parts providers for bespoke missions, online shops for CubeSats and an ecosystem of energetic space entrepreneurs.
There are tremendous parallels between the satellite industry today and the standardization that occurred in the PC industry over the 1980s. In the course of a decade, computing power saw exponential growth, while PC prices fell from approximately $2,500 to under $500. Mainly, because common standards, modular design, and simple assembly of the PC made it possible to reduce costs and outsource production and even assembly. It took many years for PCs standards to evolve and mature to the point where today the cost to design and manufacture PCs is extraordinarily low.
Some of the advantages of CubeSats are compounding. For instance, low-Earth orbit has a far less extreme radiation environment than higher orbits, lowering costs by using consumer-grade rather than radiation-hardened electronics. The reduced link distance to assets on Earth also means a reduced size of satellite for the same data rate and a reduced power consumption for user devices on the ground.
INNOVATION IN THE NEW SPACE INDUSTRY
Kepler’s first low-Earth orbit nanosatellite went from design to orbit in less than 12 months. This rapid pace of development allows us to take advantage of the latest technology advancements. For example, a crucial component of our nanosatellite is the Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), which is the backbone of our software-defined radio (SDR). Its processing power nearly doubles every year as the transistors inside become small. With a design cycle less than 12 months, this allows us to keep our satellite fleet to be constantly supporting top-notch technology.
HOW WE BUILD - AN AGILE METHODOLOGY
FAST AND BETTER
Often times, it’s not how much you accomplish that matters but rather how fast you tackled the challenges with the resources at hand and how much you learn from your experiments. At Kepler, this principle is used across all departments, from sales to manufacturing. Borrowing from the world of software development, we employ an agile methodology to our satellite hardware and software design. Our approach to design is highly iterative and we add features and make changes to our design incrementally to continuously improve performance throughout the design cycles.
Each design cycle for KIPP’s payload lasted about 2-3 months, wherein we designed, built, and tested a completely new iteration of the payload hardware during each design “loop”. The result was that we were able to rapidly debug and identify problems in the system very early in the overall development cycle, greatly minimizing the risk of issues when on orbit. As a result, Kepler’s custom-designed payload on KIPP is a tried, true and tested version (iteration four!) of the high data rate Ku band SDR and antenna. The mantra of Kepler has always been to “make it work, then make it good. Only after that can you make it great”.