It’s been an exciting twelve months for Atomos after raising $5M in June, growing the team to 16, and building hardware. Looking back at what we’ve done, we are extremely proud of our crew. Everyone at Atomos is a critical contributor to the future of space, exemplifying our four values.
- Out of the Box Thinking
- Extreme Ownership
- Bias for Action
When we held our first two-day all-hands in June 2021, some were meeting in-person for the first time. Now we’ve grown into a close-knit, get-it-done team who quickly moved from paper designs to cut metal, functioning sensors, and working thrusters. We’ve made changes along the way, but the thrill of being a start-up is watching people grow as professionals and leaders. During Apollo, the average age of an engineer working on the mission was only 28 (and only 25 at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project). When you want to change the future of space transportation, sometimes having the right attitude means more than experience. That being said, our team, in previous roles, led rendezvous development on the SpaceX Cargo Dragon, commanded and controlled the ISS, deployed a machine-learning targeting algorithm to the field, and managed the development of the Orion propulsion system. Along with a couple of PhDs, we have some serious experience.
Cost and schedule are the lurking evils of many space programs, so we pride ourselves on engineering frugality with innovation. Did we buy a thermal vacuum chamber on eBay that we refurbished with parts from Lowes and Amazon? Yes (and proud of it). Building spacecraft is like investing: put money into smart technical risks because it’s hard to realize the upside when you’re too conservative. Everyone on the team should understand the company’s risk tolerance—how spending moves us above or below that line, and what is truly critical. Copy and paste from a NASA checklist is lazy engineering.
At the start of 2022, we opened our facility in Westminster, CO, and spent a day moving hardware built during the last few months out of the co-working office basement, Kieran’s garage, and Dave’s family farm. We had a new home, and we quickly turned it into a place to make spacecraft. Gone were the hallway camera tests using items lying around. Our proprietary rendezvous testbed is running (it’s dark in space and dark during tests). Quark’s sensors guide the approach to a client with a simulated space background. The client moves with a full six-degrees-of-freedom (6-DOF, six doff), driven by our space environment simulation run in our Mission Operations Center. Vanessa and Kieran monitor the spacecraft’s health as algorithms “fire” the thrusters, reacting to changes to the client spacecraft. We’re testing real sensors, running real commands, in a simulated environment. When you have a team like ours, you can do incredible engineering and de-risking on the ground.
We completed a full-power test of our primary thruster, and after looking over the data and the thermal performance (the brighter center is the plasma), the trajectory and propulsion teams agree that we’re in a good place. This important technical milestone feeds real data into our system design; we’re not basing our things on hypothetical thruster performance anymore.
Our thermal vacuum chamber (“TVAC,” tea-vac) is running (refurbished into working order in record time). A bag of chips puffs up moving from sea level to Colorado—imagine what happens in space with no atmosphere. Thermal vacuum testing makes sure that our cameras, tanks, and entire spacecraft survive the harsh environment of space. Our avionics lab is also maturing, so we can solder and test our own spacecraft circuit boards (they have an Atomos logo on them, if you were wondering). The CNC machine is cutting metal. It’s exciting to see things come off PowerPoint and into the real world. Quark and Gluon (our orbital transfer vehicle, “OTV”, and satellite shipping container, respectively) are designed, putting us in a place where we’re ready to buy flight hardware and prepare for integration and launch.
With enough engineering complete to speak with confidence to our orbital transferring capabilities (how far we can go, how fast can we get there, and how heavy can the client be), we began turning customer discovery meetings into discrete service conversations. As an OTV operator, Atomos supports a range of space ecosystems. We are the trains of space, letting rockets to what they do best: get things into orbit—we’ll take it from there. We work with launch providers to expand their offering, not compete (some of our customers are operating launch companies).
Our OTVs are powerful and versatile vehicles. How do we provide value?
- We transport satellites to their operational orbit
- We move satellites into new orbits to serve new missions or customers
- We recover satellites that didn’t make it to where they wanted to go—or move them out of the way if they stop working
- We move cargo to commercial space stations
- We help rockets comply with space debris regulations
As of this writing, we have secured, in the last six months, $363,000,000 in signed Letters of Intent from customers—detailing specific missions, timeframes, and costs. Like Atomos, they believe OTVs can reduce costs and are a valuable service to help expand their own fleet and capability. For this reason, we’re focused on getting to orbit and start delivering this vital service.
2021 was also the year we expanded the aperture on revenue possibilities. With growing activity in space and increasing debris accumulation in orbit, space domain awareness (“SDA”) and debris removal become ever more important. At the end of the year, Atomos won a Phase I Air Force AFWERX contract to look at how we can use our OTVs to help map the space environment when we’re parked and waiting for the next customer. Part of the growing use of Commercial Solutions Opening (“CSOs”), AFWERX (like its many derivatives, including SpaceWERX) has helped smaller companies break into the opaque and incumbent-rich government contracting arena. Through this program we’ve connected with government customers with whom we are working to determine the most cost-effective way to deliver SDA at the speed of relevance.
Another CSO at the start of 2022 was Orbital Prime, the first solicitation from the US government specifically looking for technologies that can solve the growing space debris problem. If you were an aerospace company with less than 500 people, you knew about Orbital Prime and were finding a way to propose as many ideas as you could. While we may never learn how many submissions the US Space Force received, our guess is many hundreds. Atomos submitted four proposals, using our OTV in unique ways to capture and deorbit debris. As of this writing, we’ve received good news we hope to share soon.
Our Next Steps
To prepare for launch in the next eighteen months, we will grow the team—adding engineers, and technicians, and those with finance, legal, human resource, and business development experience to support growing customer demand and industry adoption of orbital transfer services.