Terran Orbital Taps into Booming Small Satellite Market

The company is expanding its satellite business and plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Florida.

Satellite builder Terran Orbital Corporation is compiling a growth trajectory analogous to some of its satellite launches. The company has announced contracts and awards totaling over $170 million since September 2021, including multiple agreements with government and commercial customers. It is planning to build one of the largest satellite manufacturing complexes in the world in Florida and is significantly expanding its existing commercial facility in California.

The company also recently announced plans to go public with Tailwind Two Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) formed for the purpose of effecting a merger, capital share exchange, or other business combination. Tailwind Two has invested extensively in founder-run businesses similar to Terran Orbital, with notable success in the space industry.

Constellation Connections

In one of the more noteworthy recent wins, Terran Orbital subsidiary PredaSAR Corporation was awarded a $2 million contract to support an on-orbit cooperative demonstration between its PredaSAR satellite constellation and the U.S. government’s Blackjack satellite constellation. The contract, awarded by the U.S. Space Systems Command (SSC) in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), is intended to demonstrate that the two constellations can be linked, strengthening U.S. Department of Defense capabilities while also leveraging the commercial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data capabilities of industry partners.

PredaSAR, which is building a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) constellation of 48 satellites to serve both government and commercial clients, is planning to launch its first satellite in Q4 2022. Blackjack, a joint effort of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), SSC and AFRL, is a technology program to demonstrate the military utility and operational concepts of proliferated low-Earth orbit (pLEO) architectures.

PredaSAR plans to launch its first satellite in Q4 2022. (Image credit: PredaSAR.)

PredaSAR plans to launch its first satellite in Q4 2022. (Image credit: PredaSAR.)

The PredaSAR-Blackjack cooperative aims to “demonstrate that satellite constellations as networks can be linked together,” said Marco Villa, Terran Orbital’s chief revenue officer and executive vice president. The connection of constellations launched in different orbits will challenge the team to “take hardware, software and vehicles and find optimal condition where they can cross-link with each other,” he noted.

Terran Orbital chairman and CEO Marc Bell said that the project shows how direct communication between satellites “is much faster than sending signals to the ground. It’s very energy efficient. The optical technology is not new but the cost has come down.”

From SSC’s perspective, the interoperability demonstration plays a key role in reducing the risk of building hybrid space architectures and maximizing the utility of commercial services, according to Lt. Col. Tim Trimailo, SSC’s pLEO program manager. The SSC has two main objectives in the PredaSAR contract, said Trimailo: 1) demonstrating the ability to move commercial satellite data into a government network and down to tactical users as quickly as possible; and 2) incentivizing commercial satellite service providers to incorporate government-compliant cross-links on their constellations. “We’re looking [for service providers] to integrate these high-speed optical cross-links so we can pull the data into our networks and make them accessible to the tactical warfighter at the speed of need,” he noted.

Another key benefit of the project is the opportunity “to work with multiple modalities of data,” said Wellesley Pereira, AFRL’s space vehicles directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, N. Mex. By linking satellite constellations, data in various forms, such as visible, infrared and radar, can be “fused together” to create more valuable data, he noted. Along with providing additional data, the team aims to establish faster data transfer between constellations or across constellations.

Constellation Connections

In addition to the PredaSAR contract, Terran Orbital has landed several other key projects. In February, the company was awarded a contract by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics to provide three microsatellite class satellites, launch procurement, integration and operations in support of product demonstration. “This contract award provides an exciting opportunity for the company to demonstrate our capabilities as a small satellite provider delivering cost-effective end-to-end solutions enabling missions,” said Bell.

Terran and Lockheed Martin have teamed on several other projects, including a 2020 contract to build satellites for the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency using small buses from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., a Terran Orbital company. Lockheed Martin also worked with Tyvak on a mesh network in space demonstration known as Pony Express.

In another significant win, Tyvak was awarded the Precise Space Flight Experiment by the AFRL to develop a spacecraft for new very low-Earth orbit (VLEO) missions. The Precise experiment will examine ionization processes in the ionosphere, the ionized gas region between 90 and 600 km altitude that impacts radio propagation. The contract was awarded through SSC’s Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), which connects the DoD with technology innovators and creators. A 2024 launch is planned.

In December, Terran Orbital announced the successful stationing of the EchoStar Global 3 small satellite into its final operational orbit. Tyvak designed, manufactured and operates the satellite on behalf of EchoStar Corporation, a global provider of satellite communication solutions. The stationing trajectory included the furthest and most rapid altitude change ever achieved by a nano-satellite, according to Terran Orbital. It also included a 1.5° inclination change to place the satellite at the exact altitude and inclination required for its mission.

“Nano-satellites were not previously able to maneuver like this once placed in orbit,” said Bell. “The ability to conduct both significant altitude and inclination changes enables less expensive, faster ‘last-mile’ delivery of a satellite to desired orbits.”

These projects and others have led Terran Orbital to undertake significant facility expansions. In September 2021, Terran Orbital announced plans to invest $300 million and build what the company believes will be one of the largest satellite manufacturing complexes in the world in Brevard County, Fla. Once completed, the 660,000-square-foot facility will manufacture 1,000 complete satellites and over 1 million satellite components per year, creating approximately 2,100 new jobs on Florida’s Space Coast. The company is also adding 60,000 square feet of space for assembly and production at its facility in Irvine, Calif.

Even with ambitious plans in sight, Boca Raton, Fla.-based Terran Orbital is pledging to maintain a managed growth strategy and avoid becoming “overstretched,” according to Villa. “We have been diligent in growing in a way that’s conducive to the amount of business we are doing.”

Satellite Market Booms

Terran Orbital’s growth coincides with a rapidly expanding small satellite market—generally encompassing satellites under 1,200 kg (2,600 lb). Within that market, nano-satellites (those ranging from 1.1 to 10 kg) and microsatellites (those 11 to 200 kg) appear particularly positioned for rapid growth. According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global nano-satellite and microsatellite industry was valued at $2.23 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $8.69 billion by 2030.

According to the report, an increase in production and the launch of CubeSats—cube-shaped satellites measuring approximately 10 cm in each direction—have contributed to the boom. Terran Orbital subsidiary Tyvak was founded by Jordi Puig-Suari, who was the coinventor of the CubeSat.

Based on the number of end users, the commercial segment contributed to more than three-fourths of the global nano-satellite and microsatellite market revenue in 2020 and is projected to maintain the lion’s share of revenue from 2021 to 2030, according to the report. Based on application, the Earth observation segment accounted for more than half of the global nano-satellite and microsatellite market share in 2020 and is anticipated to retain a similar share. The report found that the communications segment is expected to grow significantly by 2030 due to an increase in demand for faster and secure communications throughout the world.

Meanwhile, NASA recently voiced concerns over the number of satellites in orbit. In a February letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), NASA noted that approximately 25,000 total objects are currently tracked on-orbit and that an additional 30,000 satellites are being proposed for LEO by SpaceX in an amended FCC application for SpaceX’s Starlink Gen 2 system. NASA recommended that “SpaceX generate analysis demonstrating the auto-maneuver capability is sufficiently scalable to the entire proposed constellation size … while accounting for challenges in flying lower altitudes during greater solar activity.”

Along with SpaceX’s plans, a bevy of other companies and agencies around the world have plans to launch satellites in the next few years. Some sources estimate that over 50,000 satellites will be launched into space over the next decade. The activities of Terran Orbital and other small satellite vendors will make this an interesting market to watch.