Series A, accelerated vertical integration, built (and broke) hardware, and getting ready to launch.
Though a difficult year for capital markets, with the S&P 500 down 19%, Atomos remained focused on getting our first two spacecraft to the launchpad, found new (and often frugal) solutions, built customer relationships, and closed our Series A to fully fund our first mission. As our previous 2021 Year in Review was late (sorry) and covered most of the first half of 2022, we’d love to share what we were up to in the second half of last year.
In the summer of 2022, we made the decision to change our first two spacecraft and bring in-house the majority of the subsystems that we’ve previously contracted out. The decision was made, and we moved fast; less than two months later, we redesigned the system and had some prototype hardware built and under testing.
We met with a lot of customers, signing MOUs, LOIs, and executed several more government contracts. Under the US Space Force Orbital Prime solicitation, Atomos won three of our four submitted proposals, providing an incredible opportunity to engage with government customers and end-users (including a meeting at the Pentagon). With a reverse industry day on Space Access Mobility and Logistics and an upcoming Space Mobility Conference hosted by Space Systems Command, the government’s need for services such as Atomos’s has become apparent. We signed an agreement for a future partnership with a launch provider (to be announced soon) and another for an upcoming nuclear demonstration. By the end of 2022, our commercial pipeline included $393M in signed Letters of Intent from space operators.
It was also a strong year for policy progress. Atomos presented at both of National Space Council’s sessions for In-Space Authorization and Supervision Policy and responded to the Federal Communications Commission Notice of Inquiry for In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing. Each year, we become more excited by the growing momentum around in-space services.
Where we doubled down
Build, test, fail, iterate. Computer simulations are great, but, like the blockchain, they can’t solve every problem. Sometimes you need to assemble a cheap prototype and try breaking it. At the same time, a lot of testing can happen on the ground without requiring launching numerous cubesat demos. Spend dollars where they provide the most value.
While Atomos does have serious simulation credentials—our Chief Engineer, Scott Piggott, in a previous career, being lead developer of the rendezvous simulation software used throughout the New Space economy—we solved many problems with hardware-in-the-loop tests: radio lock-up delays, sensor frame rates, customer reflectivity, and machine vision robustness. When our Mechanical Team Lead proposed 3D printing the entire spacecraft with plastic (what we eventually called Plasti-Sat), we were at first skeptical. Yet, when we moved forward with the idea, it allowed quick assembly rehearsal and uncovered several layout issues faster than carrying a multitude of detailed requirements. With a few hundred dollars of plastic filament, we’ve built and assembled our first two spacecraft three times to understand how it comes together.
Taking on more ownership of our hardware destiny felt intimidating but became necessary over time. One of Atomos’s strengths is that even as a small team, we have well-rounded experience across the value chain of spacecraft development and operations.
Early on while working with vendors, it was obvious that if we only had depth in rendezvous or propulsion, we could miss roadblocks by outsourcing our understanding of critical subsystems. Though we had our eye on bringing more in-house over time, supply chain, challenging capital markets, and vendor inflation forced our hand, and we reexamined our “make-buy” trades.
When we decided to bring the satellite structure, flight software, and avionics in-house, the team presented CAD for a new bus two days later (at happy hour). Seven weeks later, we had provisioned a new flight computer and had a mock-up of the satellite built. In the end, we reduced program costs by 50%, and opened a pathway to customize, modify, and iterate quickly. When our launch provider updated volume and load requirements, we modified our OTVs to be compliant in less than a month—with no impact to schedule or cost.
Unique Technical Approach
We started Atomos focused on an optimal long-term solution: nuclear OTVs. From that point, we worked backward and identified meaningful technical and commercial steppingstones. Our first OTV, Quark, combines ubiquitous rendezvous with high-power electric propulsion. Able to serve many logistics missions in low Earth orbit and (eventually) geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), Quark, also has the highly unique ability to dock in the fore and aft direction. This robust maneuverability is necessary for Atomos’s “split architecture,” where Quark, reverse docks to our modular locomotives while mated with a client. By separating the rendezvous vehicle with future, high-powered locomotives, Atomos has an unparalleled method for scaling toward larger missions.
When we scale into nuclear locomotives, this split architecture allows for incredibly safe, high-orbit operations. Our split architecture was born from our focus on large locomotives, but we had not publicly spoken about it. In the Fall of 2022, however, we finally received our patent on this innovative design and method of use. Quark’s fore and aft rendezvous also led to us exploring unique capabilities under two government contracts related to Space Domain Awareness and debris de-tumbling. It’s a robust little vehicle, and, as its namesake suggests, is a building block of our fleet.
Things We Learned
Building an Amazing Team
People, not patents, build spacecraft. Our greatest asset is the incredible team who come in each day to make in-space logistics possible (sometimes in a hot testing facility, cold farm, or at top of a mountain to check spacecraft sensor performance). Maintaining a high bar has a flywheel effect, and we want to be the company to work at if you’re interested in working with the best people in space logistics.
Yet, building a great team does have challenges. We’ve learned that many people love the idea of working at a start-up: excitement, close teams, fun happy hours, and career acceleration. You learn by necessity as there are seldom back-ups or resources on which you may to rely—we just need to figure it out. For all the advantages, the pace, chaos, and extreme self-reliance isn’t for everyone. Figuring out whether someone would thrive in the reality of working at a start-up has become a big part of our interview process. Aerospace is unfortunately filled with “no, because” people. Atomos is a “yes, if” team.
Through our first two rounds of funding, Atomos remained engineering-heavy, and while it served us well and allowed us (as one customer put it) to be “more sausage than sizzle”, it stretched the team as flight procurements accelerated. Though we see value in all engineers having some understanding of the full lifecycle (from budgeting to vendor management), we want our team to focus on what they’re best at: building amazing spacecraft. As such, key hires with this new funding include operations and business development support.
Atomos will launch Mission-1 in January 2024. The two vehicles (Quark-lite OTV and our Gluon “shipping container”) will demonstrate rendezvous, proximity operations (RPO), and docking. This full-sized demonstration will use our commercial docking interface, which is capable of connecting 10,000kg payloads for transport. The mission will also prove out ammonia electric propulsion and in-space refueling. To achieve this, Atomos is growing the team to over thirty and moving into a larger facility.
Mission-1 will build heritage in ways that a smaller cubesat or hosted payload demonstration would not—completing all critical operations with the same hardware and software as our second-generation systems. We will leverage experience gained on our two busses not just to swiftly enter service for commercial missions, but also to field a nuclear demonstration within the next couple of years.
Flight heritage with our fleet is the next major inflection point for us. From there, we’ll launch a full-powered Quark that enters commercial service as we begin developing Quark Mark II that will include robotic arms and serve customers in GEO as well.