Today we will talk again about private Russian astronautics. We already wrote about such companies as CosmoCourse, Lin Industrial, Azmerit and Gaskol, as well as the Mayak and Quazar Space projects. In today’s material we have one more company — SPUTNIX. This is the company that launched the first Russian private satellite, develops microsatellites and service systems for them, control and satellites data receiving stations and also ground infrastructure for the functionality tests.
Stanislav Karpenko, the commercial director of the company, has answered our questions.
— Stanislav, hello. Please tell us a few words about yourself and your company.
— I am a 2001 graduate of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University with a degree related to the design and management of spacecraft. Since the beginning of the 2000s I had interest in small satellites in terms of building their orientation and stabilization systems, numerical simulation; just due to my own interest in the topic. In 2009–2011 there were a lot of unique opportunities both in the hardware creation for microsatellites and in the company setting up; a good team came together, a satellite successfully flew with our control system, Skolkovo has appeared with its capabilities to support our technological startup. At the junction of these events SPUTNIX has appeared, which successfully functions till date.
— When and who got the idea of creating SPUTNIX? How was the organization created?
— In 2011 after the successful launch and operation of the Chibis-M microsatellite, developed by the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where our orientation and stabilization system was installed, we (V. E. Gershenzon, Andrey Potapov, CEO of SCANEX, I, as head of the satellite technologies laboratory at SCANEX, the guys from our laboratory) had the confidence that our team can do more than just develop separate on-board systems. We were convinced that the era of small satellites is coming, which will effectively complement large spacecrafts with their capabilities. We decided to take the risk and after separating from our parent company SCANEX we started our independent voyage, dreaming to take over the microsatellite technology market in our country. Receiving the Skolkovo Foundation grant has made it a reality.
— If not a secret, what is the structure of the company? How many employees?
— The company has about thirty people. Six of these people are the administration and management, the rest — technical specialists: programmers, electronicians, design engineers, mathematicians, electronics assemblers. We are a completely private company with a clear and transparent organizational and legal structure.
— Were there are difficulties during the registration of the company? After all, you are one of the first private space companies in Russia. What kind of relationship do you have with the state? Do you have any support? If yes, what kind of?
— No, there were no particular difficulties. Perhaps in many ways it has become possible due to the fact that from the very beginning we were residents of Skolkovo. This state institution has helped us and continues to help in different aspects of our business. This is the most striking example of our successful interaction with the state. In the rest we are a usual ltd. company which complies with all the laws, though we are involved in a rather unusual for our country business.
— How one can get a job at your company? What education is required?
— We did not declare any public vacations until recently, but, nevertheless, we receive from time to time job requests and we pleasantly consider them. We try to meet and talk with the most interesting people and we employ specialists that fit us. The main criteria are: the person is interested in astronautics, understands why he comes to us, had a good education, is sociable and positive — we are working in a team and the mood of each specialist is important. It is important that the expert was aimed at the result and even if something does not turn out at first, the person would not give up and will pursue the result. It is also important that he could lead his project from concept, through implementation and to the operation, being responsible for all stages of its life cycle. This means the need to study close to your specialization tasks, interaction with other specialists and so on. In general, it creates the preconditions for creativity, though it imposes greater responsibility on the developer.
— Who are your potential clients? Do you have orders only from Russia or there are also foreign?
— Potential customers are scientific, industrial, educational organizations in Russia, which would like to carry out technological and educational experiments in space. It is much easier to create and launch a small satellite into space, though not very long-lived (up to five years), than wait for tens of years for the launch of a large supersatellite, which might also not work after the launch or can join the submarine satellite fleet in the Pacific Ocean. There are also foreign customers who have long realized the benefits of small satellite projects over large ones and already use them for quite some time.
— If a person or a company will decide to launch a small satellite, what can you offer them?
— If the maximum, we offer a turnkey project: we will help formulate the problem in terms that are understandable to satellite builders, will design the machine for the task set with a transparent cost structure and clear timelines and milestones, will find the carrier for the launch of the apparatus, will help bringing the device to the launch site and attach it to a rocket. After launch, we take the control and teach the client how to manage it, help him in difficult situations and most importantly we make sure the customer receives the required information from the device.
— What projects are you working on right now? What are the largest and the most interesting contracts?
— Of course, our main works are satellite projects. There are several potential customers with whom we are working for a long time: we assure them that we can manufacture for them a competitive machine. Yes, the implementation of the satellite project may take several years but a significant and of course the most important part of the work are pre-contract negotiations, which we are actively involved in. We also separately implement educational projects in the field of space technology and for us they all are a step towards the development and improvement of our satellite technologies as well as training of employees for companies like ours.
— Are your satellites more or less expensive than of the competition? If cheaper — how?
— Our satellites are in most cases cheaper that these of the competitors due to the fact that their hardware is our own technology or the technology of our Russian partners. We are gradually improving them, polish and try to reduce the price by adapting our hardware to customer requirements.
— What difficulties did you have in your work?
— The development of your own technologies cannot be considered painless; there were technical, technological difficulties, there were failures, but the fact of the matter is that we know our thin places and try to strengthen them, fix them. There are also the classical “teething problems” when a company stops being a startup and requires better internal structuring and adjustment of business processes, but the overcoming of these problems only strengthens us up. We were ready for them and we will overcome them.
— Did you already find investors? If not a secret, how did you find them, how did you promote (advertise) yourself?
— We meet from time to time with interesting people and are open to a dialogue with investors. At the moment we are a self-supporting company but we want to grow and investments are required for growth.
— Do you have satellites in orbit? If yes, what kind of and where are they applied, in what industry?
— Our one satellite TabletSat-Aurora works now in a limited mode or in other words in a radiobeacon mode. Nevertheless, this also may be sufficient for some educational purposes. Here, the key is that the machine is ours and we can send commands on the board without the fear that we will break something on the board.
— Do you consider space debris a serious problem? Can your satellites be utilized after the use?
— Currently debris are not a significant problem, although a couple of times in the two years we were warned from the Russian space control services on dangerously close encounters with other artificial objects in orbit. However, if the number of devices will grow at the same pace as now, the problem will inevitable arise, therefore we are interested in the technologies of disposing of satellites from the orbit. As an option, we are considering the technology of drop-down structures, which is used on the “Mayak” device developed by the Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering under the direction of Alexander Shaenko.
— Are the components of your satellites domestic? What is the percentage of foreign components?
— The element base is 80 % imported. At the same time units of a higher level, that is, devices and systems are 90 % ours (note — Russian) and we strive for 100 %. We are considering the possibility of a Russian element base, there are interesting options.
— What companies do you cooperate with, perhaps also private? Only Russian or also foreign? Do you cooperate, share experiences or only harsh competition?
— We do not have harsh competition but sometimes someone will leave some “footprints” shortly before our arrival at some customers. For example, the British company SSTL. But in general we rather cooperate with partners: help with the clients in case we cannot perform the task for some reasons, analogously we are also being helped.
— What is your relationship with other private space companies (CosmoCourse, Dauria Aerospace, SpaceX and so on)?
— We have taken different niches in the field of microsatellite technologies, so our interests actually do not collide. Quite the contrary: we are, for example, cooperating with Dauria, are preparing to cooperate with CosmoCourse, have performed an interesting task for Yaliny. We did not cooperate with SpaceX yet, but hopefully sooner or later our paths will cross: here or in the near-Earth orbit or on Mars.
— Do you cooperate with institutes and universities? Do you maybe give lectures or take interns?
— Yes, we are happy to cooperate with smart teams aimed at a specific result, from universities, scientific organizations and the industry. This includes the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics (professor M. Y. Ovchinnikov), the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, the Russian Space Research Institute, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the Samara State Aerospace University, the Siberian State Aerospace University, the Lavochkin Research and Production Association, the Moscow Aviation Institute, the Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering (A. Shaenko) and several others. We take interns, including foreigners; this year there will be nearly ten people — from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University and Skoltech. We have interesting projects for them — we would do them by ourselves if we had time. By the way, together with the University of engineering, in May within the framework of World Skills Russia 2016 we organize a new competence — “Engineer of Space Systems” where we invite teams of private space enterprises and the traditional space industry to try to compete in the assembly of microsatellites from standard components and conduct its ground tests. I am sure it will be an interesting spectacle!
— Do you like your job?
— Yes, very much. This job is very versatile, but in any way it gives me an opportunity to realize my ideas and even affect somewhere on the cosmic future of my country. It can be difficult but, in general, it gives satisfaction.
— What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to change or enlarge your field of activity?
— Yes, we need to grow in an effort to improve the technologies and trying to create more and more complex devices of the cosmic purpose, while not forgetting about its commercial efficiency and competitiveness. We need to raise new engineering staff which will sooner or later come work at us, this is also part of our mission. In general, I have a vision of the development of astronautics in our country and in the world and we want to go step by step towards its realization. Viam supervadet vadens.
— Maybe you would like to add something: life principles, ideas about the industry, work or something else?
— In countries with a purely market-based approach private space, apparently, is the highest achievement, the main goal-setting. But I am sure this approach has its limits of applicability.
From a market point of view, whatever Elon Musk would say about the flight to Mars and the manifest destiny of the United States, this project could never be private because of the enormous cost and the inability to recoup them in the foreseeable future.
I think the space is not a market — it is an idea. It is needed by the humanity, to each of us for our own reasons: the desire of liberty, new discoveries, independence and so on. But to lead the voluntary efforts of the humanity on the implementation of this idea, clear definition of objectives is required. It should be said to everybody that space is not for the military, not for the supermen, scientists or engineers — it is for each of us and the aim would be the creation of comfortable living conditions in the near-Earth orbit for an average person. Then the goals of private companies, like ours, are reduced to the development of the appropriate technologies which are applicable to current “terrestrial” problems. This is our chance and the chance of many other private space companies which I am sure will appear in our country.