On April 12th, 2021 it was 60 years since the first human travelled into space. Many other accomplishments and even more new technologies were reached and invented by then. Today, aerospace is a flourishing business sector with constantly increasing numbers, guided by billionaire-backed Companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX. So, it is no surprise that venture capitalists are concentrating their efforts and resources to ensure themselves the best investment opportunities in this industry. According to Space Angels, in fact, Venture capitalists invested $5.8 billion in 178 commercial space start-ups worldwide in 2019, making it the biggest year for private aerospace investments. To be fair, aerospace is such a wide area that active start-ups in this field are heterogeneous and diverse: characteristic this, that make them appealing and fun to study. For this reason, we are going to talk about some of the most promising aero-space start-ups which, we are sure, will revolutionize the way we travel into space, the way we communicate and even our life on Earth.
Despite travelling into space is a dream of many, few people manage to achieve such a success. This is because living without gravity is no joke and astronauts, in addition to a great theorical and technical preparation, need to have a super physical endurance. One of the great challenges of floating into space is that food is not very good and must be prepared in determined ways (you cannot cook it!). Onto this consideration, Italian start-up Tiberino, founded by Raffaele Tiberino, decided to become the first ever company to produce food for astronauts. It was a long journey before Tiberino was selected by Nasa to provide food to their aerospace programs; Tiberino went through a lot of research and experimentation to understand how to create a balanced diet which could give the correct intake of vitamins and minerals. Not only that, the Italian Company does not forget about the mouth-watering element when it comes to nutrition: for these reasons its menu includes cous-cous, orecchiette, risotto and soups (there is plenty of vegan recipes as well). Its founder, during an interview with Forbes, has claimed that in 2020, despite Covid-19 pandemic, Tiberino’s revenues increased of 50%; also, he showed his ambitiousness by saying that his dream is discovering new cooking systems activable on extra-Earth surfaces like the Moon or Mars. It would not be bad to eat a good plate of carbonara on the red planet!
Sadly, one of the human activity shortcomings is polluting. Everywhere we go we leave garbage and waste behind. Space is no exception of this rule since there are lots of dismissed satellites and loads of debris orbiting around the Earth. Despite international Law establishes that each quarter-century every not-functioning hardware should be picked up from space, Nasa esteems that only 20/30% of this mass is cleaned up: just to have a brighter idea of the problem, for three thousand of active satellites there is 9 million tons of unusable materials, Nasa says. Fortunately, Astroscale, a Japanese start-up, developed a system which will make possible to ‘sweep’ space from all the junk: on March, 23rd the start-up has launched its first demonstrative mission, using their Elsa-d, a small spacecraft (175kg) equipped with a magnet and stacked together with a replica debris (needed for the demonstration). With their End-of-Life Service Astroscale will manage to search, inspect and rendezvous the debris thanks to its proximity rendezvous technologies; then, it will do the magnetic docking and finally it will drop the debris in the Earth atmosphere (where it will eventually burn).
After talking about space-sweepers and astronomic orecchiette, let’s come back to something more traditional: rocket building. Relativity space is one of the main leaders in this field and it received 500million financing (until November 2020). Unlike other rocket manufacturing companies Relativity space has decided to embrace a new strategy, building its rockets with multiple 3D printers, developed in-house. Its first rocket will be Terran-1, the first to be 95% made by 3D printers. Zach Dunn, Relativity’s vice-president of factory development claims its simpler process of construction will allow them to turn raw materials into a rocket in less than 60 days. Despite many other rocket-builders are sceptical about 3D-printing method of construction, Relativity team believe aero-space manufacturing did not follow the automotive example and, on the contrary, it extended the time needed for rocket production: they think 3D printing is the future of this industry and will allow human beings to program space travels more rapidly.
GIF: A footage of Relativity team building its rockets.
Satellites have many applications. One of them is taking picture of the Earth from space. Although it might seem peculiar, there are two big problems in taking a picture from the space: light and clouds. These two obstacles make difficult for satellites to obtain high resolution images and, sometimes, make it impossible to actually shoot a photo. Capella space, a United Stated company founded in 2016 by Payam Banazadeh, came up with an idea that could solve such a problem; the idea of Banazadeh, a former engineer at Nasa jet propulsion laboratory, is developing space-based radar Earth observation satellites equipped with synthetic-aperture radar that can penetrate clouds and work at night. To simplify a lot, SAR working principle is similar to a collage of photos of the same object: with SAR it is possible to observe a point P by taking multiple pictures of it from different angulation in order to form a complete picture. Capella plans to deploy a fleet of small radar satellites to provide regularly updated imagery to the U.S. government and commercial customers. Capella is building and launching an initial block of seven "Whitney-class" satellites to provide high-resolution, radar imagery. Sequoia, the first of the group, launched in August 2020.
On the left: functioning principle of SAR. On the right: A picture taken with SAR technology
The last start-up we want to introduce is not directly linked with space, but it is yet in the aero-space sector. To be honest, it is a small start-up which raised 8million in the last round of investment, but it has a great idea which we believe should be reported. Dash systems took off after its CEO, Joel Ifill, thought about the delivery system in distant or disaster-stricken destinations. It is very difficult and expensive to get to places like the rural community of Alaska, and the delays are very common. So, thanks to his engineering background and expertise in building guided bombs for the military, he came up with the idea of cutting off the ‘extra step’ of the delivery system. Usually, air-based delivery consists of 4 steps: first, an item is transported from a warehouse to an airport; then, it travels by train to arrive to a major hub where a cargo or another plane will take to its regional destination; finally, local delivery system will complete the job, delivering it on family’s doorsteps. Joel thought about the process and started ideating a system to literally drop packages from the airplane: so, he started designing Dash systems’ pods, a sort of skydiving system which is attached to packages and can fly using its ‘tails’ which follow a pre-programmed route; it is also equipped with a landing and slowing down mechanisms. Up to now, they have dropped 5,000 pounds of cargo in their Alaska pilot flights. The $8 million seed round was led by 8VC: it should help scale the team, Ifill said, and further develop the distribution and pod tech, which is functional but far from being finalized.
(If you want to discover more about Dash systems idea):