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Tiny satellites present big opportunity for UP startup

Jan 4, 2018

The Next Idea

A nanosatellite at the 2015 NASA showcase.
Credit TACOPHISH05 / FLICKR - http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

Innovation centers can come in all shapes, sizes, and locations.

That's the message from Orbion Space Technology, a recent grand prize winner in this year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.

Brad King is CEO of Orbion Space Technology and a professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. He joined The Next Idea to talk about nanosatellites and the future of commercial space.

Read highlights below, or listen to the full conversation at the bottom of the post.

Satellites 101

“Satellites have been around for a long time. Typically, they’ve been the size of school busses. They’ve cost so much money that only nation-states or giant corporations could afford them. So their functionality was limited.

“But over the past five years there’s been a sea change, and satellites now are small enough to hold in your hand. They’re called nanosatellites."

Who puts these satellites into orbit?

“This is commercial space now. The cost to build and launch a nanosatellite is now about the same as the cost to build and launch a software app. So what that’s done is created dozens or hundreds of garage, hacker startup business that are trying to come up with the next idea to revolutionize their corner of the business world using space. So it feels a lot like the internet revolution.

“Who’s going to use these? We don’t quite know, but the potentials are huge.

“It’s really the wild wild west out there. Anyone can put a satellite anywhere, anytime they want, and there’s no regulation. So that’s a little bit scary from a regulation standpoint, but from an entrepreneur’s standpoint, it smells a whole like opportunity.”

Michigan’s role in the “space business ecosystem”

“When people think of space, they think of Silicon Valley, they think of Florida, they think of California, and what we like to say is, ‘Michigan is as close to outer space as anywhere on the planet, so why not here?’

“And what this looks like is a vehicle revolution. There is a need for thousands of new types of vehicles. They need to be manufactured, and there needs to be a supply chain set up. And that’s what Michigan is fantastic at.

“So at its core, although we build Xenon Plasma Thrusters that sound sexy and exotic, really what we’re doing is we’re building engines here in Michigan. We’re building engines for a new demand in vehicles.”

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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