We are continuing the series of articles devoted to private astronautics in Russia. We already wrote about such companies as: CosmoCourse, Lin Industrial, SPUTNIX, Yaliny, Azmerit and Gaskol, as well as the Mayak and Quazar Space projects. Today we are going to tell about the first private company that is engaged in the development of ultra-small space devices of the CubeSat class — Astronomikon.
— Please tell us a few words about yourself and your company.
— Malygin Denis Vladimirovich, a technology broker, CEO / Chief Designer of the Design Laboratory of Ultra-Small Spacecraft Astronomikon Ltd. The laboratory has modern equipment and software for the design and production of ultra-small space devices (nano-satellites) and systems on their base. The Mission Control Center with the command and telemetry radio link operates in the lab. The main product of the Astronomikon lab are ultra-small spacecraft of the CubeSat format, as well as nano- and picosatellites for different purposes and with different functional. Laboratory staff consists of specialists in the fields of electrical engineering and robotics, space device engineering and mechatronics. The laboratory products are intended for scientific, educational and technological experiments in outer space.
The employees of the Astronomikon lab conduct a complete cycle of research and development work in the design, assembly, configuration and maintenance of spacecraft of the ultra-small class.
— Who had the idea of creating the company?
— It all started when I was still a student of the Baltic State Technical University. I constantly had an idea that it is necessary to engage in practical work. In the sense that you need to think about the future — where to apply your strength, knowledge and skills. And, finally I joined the international project Tempus-CRIST, the purpose of which was to spread the concept of nano-satellites. This is how I met space technologies.
I then studied at TU Berlin where I saw how things are going in Germany on this topic. After returning to Russia the Astronomikon laboratory was founded at the university as a student project. After that I began forming the team (at that time we met with Maxim Malyy, head of Quazar Space) and working out of my ideas concerning the development of nano-satellites. There were a lot of different options, a bunch of technical solutions and proposals. But one thing was clear — it was necessary to move from a student project into something more serious.
Many companies with which we have tried to make contact turned away from us because of the fact that since we are a student project therefore we are “not serious”. Then, the project on nano-satellite development was moved into the research field — that is, many of the participants began to write dissertations and coursework, as well as started working on their Candidate of Science theses on topics close to ultra-small spacecraft (USS); write research papers, etc. But then another issue emerged — where to get the funding. The university did not see much perspective in the researches on USS, so the funding remained at the level of support of simple student papers. However, we managed to get at first some grants from the government (Bortnik Fund, St. Petersburg).
In the end, the next stage of the project was to redirect the project into the commercial field. The first step was the setting up of an “individual entrepreneur” company (note — Russian basic company type, easier to form and operate than an Ltd.). That means that we could perceive commercial activity — buy the necessary components (companies that we were interested in did not work with non-businesses) and at the same time enjoy the benefits of the lack of a legal entity. After working out many ideas, in the end the major focus was selected as the development of our own platform as a tool for the execution of all tasks in space. By focusing on this option a key product emerged — the “Sinergija” (note — “synergy” in Russian) platform. It is, if one can say so, a constructor with its architecture and ideology for the manufacturing of a nano-satellite. A laboratory of nano-satellites from a student project turned into a Laboratory Astronomikon Ltd. which is a resident of Skolkovo in Moscow and at the same time has a branch in St. Petersburg. The rest of the fields on the application of nano-satellites remained as the next stage of work. Maxim from Quazar Space took one of the fields to develop that area, for which he gets a special thank you :).
— What is the structure of your company? Do you have many employees?
— On the legal side — a classic Ltd. and in turns of the hierarchy I developed a concept of the minimum number of employees in the sense that I hire them through outsourcing. It is convenient — you are looking for a professional in his field for a specific task and discuss with him the time and the cost of solving the problem. This helps to minimize losses. Having permanent staff in a company means to impose certain financial problems. Moreover, the people who participate in this project work when they want, how much they want and in that way as they want (even at home, even on the other side of the Earth); the only thing is important — the solution of the problem. In general, there are around dozen employees.
— How one can get a job at your company? What education is required?
— There is a certain concept used for the search of partners / employees which is as follows: I am not interested in education, regalia, one’s beliefs or preferences — the important thing is whether the person can solve the problem, the answer to which I am interested or not. It is easy to get into the team — show a desire. At the same time some are trying to send their long portfolio and so on. In general, as a rule, I do not read them. If you are interested in the project on nano-satellies — write on our e-mail what you can do, what do you want to do in the project. And from then on we will discuss it in person.
Moreover there are some general offers for students, young scientists and researchers. They lay in the fact that the company has an understanding of how to support the young innovator — there are many grants and subsidies from the government. But many students do not know about them, and if they do, there is no understanding of how to take advantage of it. We, though, can offer a research-ready theme for such a talented person and we help him to get a grant. It is so to speak the basic foundation, in addition to the salary on which we agree on. And everyone is happy — we have the technology, the researcher has his work financed and gets experience, the government — a report that states that it does not waste taxpayers’ money.
— Were there any difficulties in the registration of the company? What relationship do you have with the state? Do you have support? If yes, what kind of?
— The sole difficulty — it is hard to develop private business in our country in such a high tech field as space due to the fact that there are no game rules or they are constantly changing. That is, historically space is the research field of the government, in this case of the state-owned companies, and an attempt to develop a public-private partnership periodically runs into the main barrier — how to actually build this partnership. In general we can say that we do not use the targeted programs. To do this a lot of papers are required and there is no desire to spend time on it.
At the same time it is easy to register a company and set up a business. Problems will begin later. In order to work in the Russian astronautics one needs a license, otherwise you will not be able to work on commercial, including state, orders.
Obtaining a license is a multi-bureaucratic procedure. The main intermediate document required for licensing is the so-called certificate of availability in the company a quality management system (QMS, ISO 9001), corresponding to the condition RK-11-KT. This condition is a key text that regulates the space industry and in itself is a document for internal use only.
Many required standards are labeled as classified. As a result, in order to find out what standards your company and your products do need to meet you will have to obtain a special FSB license to access to classified information. To obtain the FSB license within the company you need to create your own “first department” with a secret room and a secret library.
However, all this can be outsourced — make an agreement with one of the subsidiary companies of Roscosmos in which everything is already there. In any case, employees of the company receive the necessary admission forms (third, and the CEO second) and can work with classified documents, in particular RK-11-KT.
The next step is getting a QMS certificate. You get a temporary certificate first and a year later, according to the audit, a permanent one. To qualify for the certificate you, among other things, must have an open-ended lease contract. But even if you finally got the license, it does not mean that you can work now.
Your direct suppliers of, for example, bearings or grease, must also have licenses for space activities. Special grease is extremely expensive: in the Russian industry it is manufactured by only two companies. The choice is so small not because it is impossible to manufacture a new, good and a cheap grease that fits the space conditions, but because having invented it you will not get to the space market if you do not have a license.
As a result, the Russian market of space components has almost no competition that would increase the quality level and the technical progress. On the other hand the price of the final product increases exponentially. Thus, we have two bearings: one is a regular model for a thousand rubles (~ $ 15.1 or € 13.6 on 29 May 2016) and the other — a licensed, roughly said, for a million (~ $ 15,100 or € 13,600). The price is their only difference.
The satellites have not only mechanical components, but also electronics. The electronic components have four classes: residential, industrial, military and space. On practice they differ in reliability: the requirements for a home PC differ from the requirements of the on-board spacecraft computer chip. In space, the chip should have a good resistance to radiation. A damaged with hard radiation chip can cause the loss of an expensive equipment. At the same time the RK-11-KT condition requires that all electronic components should be of space or military class and the latter should pass an additional Roscosmos certification.
In short, the state supports with benefits (since we are a resident of Skolkovo) and also provides grants for research.
— What projects are you working on right now? What are the largest and most interesting contracts?
— A fundamentally different approach to the ideology of building a national USS of scientific and socio-economic purpose is being developed at the Astronomikon laboratory. “Sinergija”, a multipurpose unified platform of a block-modular type, serves as a starting unit for the manufacturing of nano-satellites of the CubeSat format.
The platform is designed to provide scientific, educational and technological experiments in the outer space conditions. “Sinergija” is a USS that consists only of service subsystems. Changing of the form factor of a nano-satellite built on the basis of the “Sinergija” platform by adding additional modules, significantly expands the possibilities of installing the payload and, as a consequence, the fields of application of the spacecraft. That is, in this case it is a kit from which, depending on the task, a USS is assembled.
There is also, based on the platform, a product aimed at the production of stands for universities. If you look at the departments of technical universities, which train specialists for the space industry, it will turn out that the equipment for laboratory work and other research activity is either morally or technically outdated. Therefore, we propose a new solution in the educational field.
It is worth mentioning some contracts with: Design Bureau Arsenal, Radar mms and the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University.
— What difficulties emerged in the work?
— The problems can be divided into several categories. The first includes historical problems. Space was the prerogative of the state. Consequently, it is hard for private business to work with large companies, which have a lot of approvals, a lot of bureaucracy and so on. Also, the leadership positions are filled with people aged 50–60 and older, they have a very inert thinking. Maxim Malyy from Quazar Space commented on this point quite accurately.
The second — lack of mechanisms. That means that the law is now built in that way that you need to get a ton of approvals from various authorities in order to implement the project. The license from Roscosmos in itself is inexpensive — a couple of thousand rubles. But the accompanying bureaucratic costs which are connected to the creation of a spacecraft and its launch are very large. On average for a USS they amount to 350–500 thousand rubles (~ $ 5,300–7,570 or € 4,770–6,810). But, in order to get the permission, you need to have an approval from the major research institutes of Roscosmos. For government satellites at a total cost of one of the devices of 3 billion rubles (~ $ 45.4 million or € 40.9 million) expenditures on the chip certification amounted to 1.2 billion rubles (~ $ 18.2 million or € 16.3 million).
The third is the financial issue. Investors are reluctant to invest money in such projects. Everyone wants here and now. Such trick does not work in space. It takes time. Entry threshold in the industry for a private company that wants to work on government procurements is about $ 10 million (this is approximately how much the founders of Dauria Aerospace had to invest in the company). This is a “turnkey” solution, everything is included: production, people, rent. But this spending amount is due to the regulations, otherwise it would be two people in a temporarily rented garage, and in fact this is how the company Planet Labs started.
— Who orders your satellites? Do you have orders from Russia or there are also foreign?
— We both have Russian and foreign orders. In Russia we can mention the order for new developments which are required by state-owned companies (80 % or the orders come from them). The client needs a new vision of certain elements and / or of the spacecraft nodes; thus, it is easier to hire a company than to work out a new project within the company and so we get an order. From foreign the most recent is China. Recently, our platform has gone to Shanghai.
— What satellites do you have in orbit (if you already have)? Where are your satellites applied, in which sectors?
— It did not come yet to the launch. However, this moment is approaching — much has been done, the main thing now is the working out all systems.
Among recent it is worth noting the work with the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University in the field of reception and transmission of coordinates from moving objects. A new technology of signal reception AIS (Automatic Identification System) is developed, which is placed on ships.
The analysis showed that one of the promising options is the creation of a space system based on nano-satellites, that solves the problem of signal reception of the AIS transmitters and the transmitters placed on the aircraft. These transmitters are now used on many ships and aircraft and their number is growing. The information obtained from them is required to control the sea and air traffic, has demand on the market and the appropriate commercial potential. The proposed space system will solve important practical problems and therefore, it is monetizable. Space systems of a similar purpose are currently being developed abroad. By creating this potential space system, Russia will have an independent source of information, not subject to sanctions. The cost of creating and operation of the space system will be relatively small compared with the space systems of the traditional type with large spacecrafts.
And in general, the application scope is broad:
- Establishing and maintaining communications, meteorological observations, navigation, study and observation of the Earth’s surface.
- Observation of the Moon, the Sun, the solar system planets, asteroids and comets, taking photos of space objects, measuring their gravitational and magnetic fields, the study of radiation and the surrounding plasma.
- Tracking of the movement of objects in space; research of microparticles in space.
- Providing amateur radio connection.
- Testing new technologies and approbation of scientific hypotheses.
- Measuring the parameters of the ionosphere under quiet and disturbed conditions using spaced satellites.
- The study of polar lights above the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
- Carrying out scientific experiments and testing of complex systems in space for extended time intervals.
- Carrying out unique and complex chemical, biological, medical and other experiments under high vacuum conditions.
— Which companies do you cooperate with, perhaps they are also private? Only Russian or also foreign? Maybe you adopt experience from someone?
— There are plans to work with SPUTNIX. We actively develop partnership with the Arsenal Design Bureau. Regarding foreign partners we have Progress Industrial Systems SA (Switzerland) as well as the German company TEPROSA GmbH with whom we plan to implement a lot.
— Do you collaborate with institutes and universities? Perhaps, you give lectures or take interns?
— Besides working with institutes (St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, St. Petersburg Electrotechnical University) we are trying to develop a relationship with colleges: for example, with the Radio-Technical College on the Vasilyevsky Island.
We give lectures and seminars, however, we are mainly guests to discuss certain specific questions. In terms of interns we also have experience: we have worked with students from St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Tomsk Polytechnic University, Baltic State Technical University, St. Petersburg Electrotechnical University, ITMO University.
— What are your plans for the future?
— The main idea is the unfolding of our own production, our own production line. That, in my opinion, will allow us to manufacture any products, try the most incredible and various projects, both for space and for Earth, and also experiment as much as we wish without depending on anyone. And if you have your own machines and premises you will always have food and shelter :).
— Perhaps, you would like to add something: life principles, ideas about the industry, work or something else?
— Originating during the arms race and sponsored entirely by the government the space (or more accurately, military space) industry had a purely practical role: its task was to ensure the major powers with the technologies that can be used in the potential nuclear war. All the other ideas of space exploration were likely to be a side effect. This is why all the previous years the world space industry was in a deep ideological crisis.
To change this situation ideological breakthroughs are necessary. However, not just fantastic ideas, but something based on real achievements. What do we need now from outer space? In what does the new phase of space development radically differs from the previous one? This means that the technology which will be used should be qualitatively different. This is a completely new paradigm. The initiative must come not from the state but from the business. Why? Business is always interested in the return of the investment.
The state cannot monetize the technology — only business can do that. Americans at some point decided that where business problems are solved we give the priority to the private astronautics and are looking a way to interact with it. Thus, I believe that it is necessary to follow in this direction and develop private initiatives, including those in the space sector.