The spark came when Rafael Jorda Siquier was still a teenager, in his first year at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona. With some friends, he had mounted a camera on a helium balloon and sent it into the upper atmosphere.
To his surprise, the photos that came back showed the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. “We’d taken pictures that look like they were taken from the International Space Station,” he says, “We literally felt like we were like space engineers.”
With simple components that cost less than $350, he had discovered how easy it was to capture high-resolution images of earth. And it made him wonder – what if the business of space could be cheaper and simpler? This vision led him to start Open Cosmos.
After working at space firms including Airbus’s space unit, and completing an MBA, Jorda Siquier founded Open Cosmos in 2015. He says the company seeks to “democratize” access to space by making it more affordable to more companies.
Hauling a payload on traditional satellites cost tens of millions of dollars — hitching a ride on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket, for example, costs an average of $57 million according to Air & Space magazine. But Jorda Siquier believes that by using new “nano” or “cube” satellites, costs can be slashed to as little as $634,000.
Nano satellites are small, some only centimeters across. Still, with applications in communications, food and environmental science, they are seen as on the cusp of a space technology revolution.
“Imagine you could understand how many vessels are fishing in one area and how that is impacting the biodiversity,” Jorda Siquier said. “Imagine that we could understand exactly how much plastic is being dropped into the oceans or how much energy an entire city is consuming. ”
Nano satellites are cheap and small, so that many can be launched on a scale not possible with traditional satellites. He has likened the technology’s development to the dawn of personal computers, which came as computers evolved from expensive, dispersed and large mainframe machines, into smaller, cheaper and globally networked devices.
Open Cosmos seeks to take care of pretty much everything a company might need to get a nano satellite into orbit: from design and test, to build, launch and operate. Its experts also handle the bureaucratic and legal angles.
“I realized that it was a perfect moment to make access to space much more affordable,” he said.
The company has already launched its first satellite – a 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) research satellite known as “QB1” in collaboration with a Swedish university. Design and delivery took six months.
Six more satellites are in production with the next launch scheduled for October, when Lacunasat 2B is due to blast off from French Guiana onboard a Soyuz rocket.
The telecommunications satellite will enable ground-based Internet of Things devices to communicate directly with space. It will enable a wide range of applications, including asset tracking, remote industrial monitoring, animal tracking and environmental sensing — without having to rely on terrestrial cellular networks. It may conceivably work anywhere on Earth there is satellite coverage without a need for ground infrastructure, an example of the technology’s power and reach.
For example, it is easy to imagine a company using the satellite to track a container being shipped around the world: An on-board tracker could send data to the satellite with its position from anywhere, whether it is on a ship, stored in port, or on the back of a truck, and so on.
Today, Open Cosmos employs just over 50 people and is recruiting for more than 20 open positions at its office at the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire in the UK.
Last year, the company raised $7 million in its Series A round, and investors included TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus and Microsoft’s former head of corporate strategy, Charlie Songhurst.
In the dark reaches of space, the company sees a bright future for itself. Last May it inked a deal with Amazon as one of the first customers to trial its AWS Ground Station technology – a network of satellite dishes Amazon is setting up to make such communication commonplace. In terms of other customers, Jorda Siquier remains tight-lipped, saying only that he is working with both a telecommunications firm and an “infrastructure player” on future satellites.
The space industry has taken notice. Last week the company was named the “Hottest SpaceTech Startup of 2019” at the Europas Awards – a sign that while Open Cosmos might only make small satellites, it is making a giant leap for space technology.