Q&A | ICEYE achieves the ‘impossible’ with miniature radar satellite

In January, ICEYE proved it might function an artificial aperture radar on a microsatellite. Now the corporate is making ready to launch a constellation.

This text initially appeared within the Could 14, 2018 situation of table4 journal.

Till ICEYE produced its first picture in January from a Artificial Aperture Radar (SAR) on its 70-kilogram ICEYE-X1 satellite tv for pc, many individuals mentioned microsatellites couldn’t carry out radar missions. Whereas not unattainable, it was difficult. To succeed, ICEYE’s founders Rafal Modrzewski and Pekka Laurila needed to dispense with a whole lot of the standard guidelines for constructing space-based radars. “That’s why it took us virtually 4 years from the second the thought was conceived till we launched a purposeful satellite tv for pc,” Modrzewski, ICEYE chief government, mentioned throughout an interview on the 2018 GEOINT Symposium late final month in Tampa, Florida.

Rafal Modrzewski,ICEYE chief government. Credit score: ICEYE

Earlier than founding ICEYE, Modrzewski moved from Warsaw, Poland, to Helsinki, Finland, to review radio science engineering at Aalto College and start constructing a satellite tv for pc. There, he met Laurila and the 2 enrolled in an Aalto College enterprise formation course taught by Mike Lyons, the Stanford College engineering professor who now serves as chief government of ICEYE US Inc. When he met the pair, even Lyons — an entrepreneur and investor — was skeptical of their plan however “Pekka and Rafal have been eager on getting it performed,” Lyons mentioned in a latest interview.

Modrzewski readily admits ICEYE’s satellites would fail a number of the assessments NASA spacecraft endure earlier than launch. Nonetheless, the primary satellite tv for pc is in orbit and it’s gathering SAR imagery. “It did previous this one check that was really the final word check,” Modrzewski mentioned.

I’ve heard for years that it’s unattainable to construct a SAR microsatellite.

After we had the thought for firm, we advised individuals we would have liked a small SAR and requested, “How would we go about constructing one?” Everybody mentioned, “Simply drop it. It’s unattainable.” We tried to dig somewhat deeper. What’s the unattainable half? We in a short time found it’s not as a lot unattainable because it requires a brand new take a look at a number of the necessities. We didn’t strive, by any means, to beat the legal guidelines of physics however we took one other look.

What have been the hurdles?

The aperture measurement is a hurdle. Energy is a hurdle. Lifetime is a hurdle. All of those make SAR usually difficult.

ICEYE-X1’s artificial aperture radar captured this picture of sea ice between Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia. Credit score: ICEYEY X-1 radar imagery

How did you deal with these?

You’ll be able to permit your self a smaller aperture should you select to solely take sure sorts of imagery. These photos shall be high quality. We created a low orbital obligation cycle system. If you happen to can change the facility system configuration so that you permit your self a very long time to collect the power after which can deplete it inside seconds, you’ll be able to construct a a lot smaller system as a result of your photo voltaic panels don’t should be as giant. The lifetime query is a query of reliability typically. We take a look at the reliability from the system perspective. At any given time, an arbitrary satellite tv for pc could also be turned off.

What number of satellites are in your preliminary constellation?

Eighteen. However it doesn’t imply that we’ll launch 18 satellites. We could have 18 satellites working throughout a interval of three years.

Will you launch extra?

Very a lot so. Simply to cowl for these ones that won’t carry out completely or will fail at launch.

How a lot cash have you ever raised?

We raised $13 million in personal fairness. We’ve raised an extra $7 million in grants and numerous sorts of loans both backed by the European Union or the Finnish authorities. And we’ve been producing income because the inception of the corporate. We signed our first contract with ExxonMobil again in 2015.

Was that for aerial imagery of the Arctic?

Sure. ExxonMobil was the primary one to imagine that such a system was attainable. They needed to confirm whether or not the standard can be adequate to assist them detect and discriminate between totally different ice items within the Arctic. They mentioned, “Take this technique you will have proper now, fly it over ice and analysis whether or not the decision, the signal-to-noise ratio and the incidence angle are adequate for us to have the ability to detect the ice items that we’re considering.” It was a profitable check.

ICEYE’s CFO Pekka Laurila (left) and CEO Rafal Modrzewski (proper) met at Finland’s Aalto College earlier than founding ICEYE in 2014. Credit score: ICEYE

You launched a SAR microsatellite in January on an Indian Polar Satellite tv for pc Launch Car. Do you propose to launch two extra this yr?

Sure. We’ll launch ICEYE-X2 on the Falcon 9 [Sun Synchronous Orbit A] mission and ICEYE-X3 with Rocket Lab. The second we heard concerning the first SSOA delay, we mentioned, “The one means for us to mitigate that threat is to buy one other launch.” We have been fortunate to have sufficient financing to take action. As historical past has confirmed it was a beautiful resolution.

What’s the mass of your satellites?

It varies. X1 was 70 kilograms. The design adjustments. We name it agile {hardware} improvement. We launch consecutive models and so they grow to be higher and higher. They fairly often have new options. There’s really a major enchancment between X1 and X2. A few of that’s attributed to the elevated mass. Proper now, X2 is deliberate to weigh 80 kilograms. It has a considerable quantity of enchancment. We go from 10-meter decision in X1 to lower than three-meter decision in X2

That feels like it will be well worth the weight.

That’s not the place the burden ended up being. From an engineer’s perspective, particularly if you’re in a rush, each time you end constructing a system you realize what you’ll have performed in another way should you had an opportunity to construct it once more from scratch. We apply this technique. We rebuild it using the information we discovered from the earlier unit. We managed to improve the antenna so it’s twice as giant because the earlier one nevertheless it weighs much less. Nevertheless, there are different subsystems we’re including, similar to propulsion for orbital upkeep, that carry further mass. We’re working with Enpulsion out of Austria, utilizing their ion propulsion on X2 and X3.

How many individuals work for ICEYE and the place?

75 individuals. Our basic engineering and administration is in Helsinki. Our gross sales is principally primarily based within the U.S. Our operations, customer support and FPGA programming is predicated in Warsaw. The engineering design and administration occurs in Finland. There’s at all times a lot consideration across the founders of the corporate. However they by no means do all of it themselves. It’s the total ICEYE staff that managed to efficiently launch ICEYE-X1 and construct one thing so many individuals thought was unattainable.

Ursa House Methods, below a deal introduced at GEOINT 2018 in April, will use ICEYE radar imagery such because the scene above to watch oil wells and measure international oil storage with a view to extract oil demand info for Ursa’s knowledge analytics shoppers. Credit score: ICEYE X-1 imagery with knowledge overlay

What do ICEYE photos value?

Proper now, the contracts are comparatively customized as a result of the constellation continues to be not in place. It relies on how pressing the picture is. The worth shall be totally different relying on whether or not we’ve got to ship it inside three hours or inside 30 hours. I can say the worth, even for the very best urgency picture, is decrease than $1 per sq. kilometer.

The place will you construct future satellites?

It hasn’t been determined but. We’re within the technique of determining the easiest way to construct them. Is it assembling them inhouse? Is it utilizing a third-party group to assemble them primarily based on our design? Or is it to subcontract a part of the design to a third-party group? ICEYE-X1 was totally assembled in-house. ICEYE-X2 is being partially assembled by a subcontractor primarily based in Poland. ICEYE-X3 is being partially designed by York House Methods. York is designing the bus whereas ICEYE is designing the payload. We’re buying the bus from York and launching it as ICEYE’s mission.

Every little thing you do goes in opposition to the standard methodology of freezing aerospace designs and processes and counting on heritage.

That’s right. We don’t do it on objective. We’re at all times trying by means of all these steps which were assumed to be proper and ensuring we accommodate those which are crucial or extraordinarily useful. That’s why we do run preliminary and important design opinions.

Inform me about capturing your first picture of Alaska.

I used to be working the satellite tv for pc. Half of the corporate was working the satellite tv for pc. It was inside per week of launch. After commissioning the subsystems, there was nothing left for us to do however hearth away. It turned out to be a beautiful advertising picture as a result of it seems superb. We noticed it type after about 90 minutes from when the picture was captured. We downloaded the information and we have been compressing it. It takes a set of steps. Each step, we have been in a position to see how the uncooked knowledge transferred right into a increasingly more targeted picture. We acknowledged some mountains and land options at first, which meant all the pieces was working. We have been very excited. The unattainable grew to become attainable.

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