Atomos 2023 in Review

Our first two spacecraft are ready to launch!

Quark-LITE and Gluon through Assembly, Integration, and Test

We started 2023 with twelve months to complete the development and build our first two spacecraft. We needed to double the size of our engineering team, find and move into a new facility, commission a new cleanroom before beginning spacecraft assembly, and stick to a $12M mission budget.

In Q1, we emailed a stack of purchase orders and job offers, suffered a banking crisis, laughed off absurd requests from prospective landlords (no, we're not putting three years of lease payments in escrow), and negotiated a lease with a good long-term partner. We were finally moving out of the makeshift autobody garage that smelled heavily of oil and forced everyone to work in t-shirts and shorts in the summer.

Unfortunately, permitting delayed our move, and instead of building two spacecraft in 20,000 sqft, we had to make it work with just 5,000. It was tight and ventilation was poor. The team not only managed to build two spacecraft, but solved a mouse problem, brownouts from insufficient building power, and an internet provider that turned off service (and couldn't get it back on for two weeks) because they thought there was no way two different companies could occupy the same building at the same time. All of these issues we were discovering in parallel with our landlord, for whom we were the first tenant moving into the recently purchased building. We've learned more about City of Broomfield Building Codes than is necessary for an aerospace startup, but the year closed out in a better place. The renovations were completed, the permits were issued, and we gained access to all 20,000 sqft.

At times, it felt like we weren't going to get there. In the thick of these challenges, it's easy to focus on the negative. Start-ups are hard. Not every vendor delivered on time (or even in the right quarter), not every technical solution worked (a thermal protection issue was discovered just before it would have become fatal), and not every facility upgrade panned out (air bearings don't work on polished concrete). But with an incredible team, you can continue moving forward to what will be a historic mission. Quark-LITE and Gluon will perform the first US low Earth orbit commercial rendezvous and docking and the first commercial spacecraft refueling. This mission matures our foundational technology. Twelve months after closing our Series A and moving toward Mission-1 at full speed, we've maintained our schedule and budget and are excited to show the world what our team is capable of.

While we couldn't feature everyone who has put in the tiring hours to get Mission-1 where it is, we wanted to showcase the work done to get us to this point. Check out an inspiring overview of Mission-1 (complete with sexy spacecraft images). Click the link below to watch the video.

Mission-1 Overview Video

‍We'd not be here without the impressive team who made this possible: Leah, Lucas, Julian, Josh, Chandler, Olagappan, Stephen, Steven, Lindsay, Ryan, Dave, Russ, Isabella, Will, Jacob, Tim, Chelsea, Zach, Mitch, Sam, Keith, Ben, Katie, Meredith, Chad, Nick, Kieran, Nathan, and our formidable Chief Engineer, Scott.

Where we doubled down

Planning and Execution

Building ambitious and complex hardware rapidly and cost-effectively requires adequate planning. No plan survives contact with the [realities of assembly, integration, and test], and as a start-up, you're not moving fast enough if a few balls aren't dropped. Yet, as one of the experienced consultants with whom we work likes to say, you can't build spacecraft with a "series of diving catches snatching victory from the jaws of defeat." Our program management maintained an intimate understanding of task interdependencies to allow the inevitable replanning when there is a perturbation - a vendor being four months late, or the flight computers failing thermal vacuum acceptance testing, or a component manufacturing defect being uncovered in the middle of spacecraft environmental testing.

We credit our momentum with serious commercial customers with our technical breadth and our ability to execute to plan. As a prospective customer recently said to us, "you're the first proposal we received where the program plan wasn't effectively 'trust us' with a smiley face."

Staying Frugal

A vice of aerospace and the progeny of cost-plus contracting is simply solving engineering challenges with money. SpaceX, better than any aerospace company before them, turned that on its head and showed the value of engineering for cost instead of solely engineering for performance. This is how we’ve run Atomos. Frugality breeds innovation. But it’s more than engineering a cheaper solution: it’s dramatically changing the economics of the market. As an example, a similar mission to our Mission-1 (with, admittedly, fancier robotics), Orbital Express, was a $230M program compared to our $12M mission, which includes two spacecraft.

This has meant compromising in certain areas, but we prefer a facility whose primary function is building spacecraft, not giving tours.

Combining Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) with Breakthrough Elements

It's tempting to build something new, but creating the optimal everything increases risk, schedule, and upfront cost. Quark fuses heritage with COTS where it makes sense. Its primary avionics are commercial industrial boards retrofitted to survive and operate in space while the custom electrical power system is cutting edge, modular and scalable, and utilizes next-generation Gallium Nitride Field Effect Transistors for intrinsic radiation tolerance. Quark's rendezvous and proximity operations sensor suite utilizes cost-effective COTS cameras, range-finders, and LiDAR from the automotive and drone industries. This is married to a software C++ framework for sensor data fusion and navigation, leveraging modern C++ concepts to promote memory and thread safety at both compile-time and run-time. Finally, our ground test bed, "The Void", is a state-of-the-art facility to test rendezvous and docking. We combine industrial robotics (again, bought on eBay) and COTS motion capture systems with bespoke 5 degree-of-freedom "floaterbots" that possess the same control systems and dynamic responses as a spacecraft.

The Void rendezvous testing facility being built

Things We Learned

Effective Partnership

In successfully getting two novel spacecraft built, we learned via a few scars.

>> 'Set it and forget it' with vendors is dangerous. No news is often bad. Sometimes it's catastrophic. A parent's level of intrusiveness is likely at the optimal level of oversight.

>> Companies with 'something to prove' are the best partners. While being an early (sometimes very early) customer has teething problems, these were the teams that stepped up to collaboratively solve problems over a weekend or holiday.

>> 'Trust, but verify.' Independently verify everything as soon possible. Components arrived with the wrong configuration, missing parts, underperforming by a material amount, 1/2" too short, or with holes in the wrong location. The pain of some of these issues could have been lessened had we caught them earlier.

Customer Selectiveness

In Q2, we saw our customer pipeline reporting delays or mission cancellations. The capital markets were still difficult, and the shift in the macro environment was severely affecting everyone. At the same time, we saw a large uptick in satellite servicing interest from legacy operators. With that, we changed our strategy and prioritized capitalized and heritage customers. We rebuilt our pipeline at Space Symposium in April. Conversations with these customers, mostly GEO operators, have matured through technical diligence for missions including life extension, inclination reduction, and end-of-life disposal. Since then, we've engaged with a few new customers, who have ambitious and exciting missions coming up. Our team is excited to support companies operating at the forefront of opportunities found beyond the atmosphere.

Investing in Sales and Marketing

The significant interest in our unique technical approach, price point, and execution excellence created a bottleneck with sales engineering support, which will be a hiring focus post Mission-1 and Series B. We underappreciated the length and depth of enterprise sales cycles. In hindsight, we would have invested in comprehensive collateral and sales support sooner to make the Q3 and Q4 flurry less chaotic.

In the coming weeks, we'll be releasing a new website and marketing materials that reflect the maturity and sophistication of our technical offerings.

What's Next

We are moving into our new home and bid bon voyage to Quark-LITE and Gluon, which we will soon be shipping to SpaceX for integration into the launch vehicle.

In Mission 1, we deploy from the Falcon 9, obtain control from our Mission Operations Center, and commission the spacecraft. We’ll perform testing for a US Government customer, change orbit with our novel propulsion system, and separate the vehicles to let them fly solo. Quark-LITE will then detect and navigate to Gluon and proceed to dock to it. We will then refuel Quark-LITE from Gluon’s tanks and ramp up the difficulty of our rendezvous testing for the remainder of the six-month mission.

Next up: build Quark and launch our second mission to execute for our commercial customers in late 2025 and early 2026. In the coming months, we'll complete the development and qualification of Quark's innovative robotics and further develop the next-generation power and propulsion system to provide chemical-like thrust with electric propulsion efficiency.

2024 will be an exciting year.

Mission-2 Quark


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