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The space industry’s new bet: putting an “app store” in orbit

Technicians and scientists work in a clean room, as final tests are made on WorldView-3, right, a new high-resolution imaging satellite owned by commercial satellite company DigitalGlobe, at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo., on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. The initial launch window is Aug. 13-14. From its planned orbit of about 383 miles, the satellite will be capable of capturing images of objects as small as 1 foot across, although government security regulations prevent the company from selling images with resolution finer than about 20 inches.
AP/Brennan Linsley
The next generation of satellite companies won’t need to worry about clean rooms.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

The influx of Silicon Valley talent and money into the space sector has naturally brought with it some classic Silicon Valley business plans—and now, space firms are eager to replicate the market-creating power of an app store in orbit.

Apple’s iPhone, the proliferation of mobile OS devices in the Android family, and distributed computing platforms like Amazon’s cloud have given software developers a standard platform for their applications, leading to a host of innovative uses for your phone—and a plethora of successful companies. Arguably, bringing similar kinds of standardization and predictability to space hardware—and specifically, to groups of satellites—could create a similar opportunity, albeit it at a much higher altitude.

“We want to change the way people interact with space systems, to make it into a software problem instead of a hardware problem,” Vector Space Systems CEO Jim Cantrell tells Quartz. “It’s more relevant to the way our society solves problems today.”

In other words, the next generation of satellite entrepreneurs shouldn’t have to worry about carefully building satellites in clean rooms, plotting orbital mechanics, and finding a rocket to launch on. They can just think of space as a place where a unique collection of hardware can provide useful data and communications options.

To that end, Vector, a company that is developing a small rocket to deliver small satellites to space, is also investing in a software development kit for a platform called Galactic Sky. The kit will allow developers to build and test an application that could operate on satellites with standardized communications and sensing equipment. After developing their program, they would upload it into the constellation and begin operating it for profit.

The goal of creating an Amazon cloud-style computing environment in space is still years away for Vector. The company’s near-term goal is to finish development of its rocket, which is being financed by NASA and the Department of Defense, and construction of a factory in Tucson, Arizona. Vector aims to start conducting launches for small-satellite customers by early 2018. But it’s already laying the groundwork for an app-style space economy with its latest client. The firm recently announced a $60 million agreement to launch six satellites built by York Space Systems, a company that is developing a standardized satellite body—”the Model T of space,” in the words of York CEO Dirk Wallinger—with a similar plan to lower barriers to orbital technology development.

York plans to fly several missions in the coming years on behalf of varied clients, demonstrating a new laser-communications technology, weather-tracking radar, and a still-confidential government project all mounted on a single, mass-produced satellite body. When it comes to the development of a standardized satellite platform with Vector, Wallinger says, “I suspect there will be some cooperation in the future.”

Vector and York are not the only companies with a platform-centric approach to the space business. Entrepreneur Naveen Jain has a similar vision for his company, Moon Express, which earlier this year became the first private company to win government approval for a lunar mission. Jain sees his firm acting as a platform for entrepreneurs seeking to do business on the moon, handling “last mile access” for the Facebooks and Googles of the new space economy.

Even Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, a traditional aerospace contractor with a long pedigree in comparison to the newer space companies, has endorsed a new corporate vision where low earth orbit ”becomes the app store of space to do all sorts of economic activities ties there, things we haven’t even thought about today.”

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