SpaceFab.US CEO Randy Chung: U.S. Government Is Providing an Encouraging Environment for Commercial Spaceflight
Spaceflight has become something a private company could do on par with nation states relatively recently, however, there are numerous examples of commercial firms launching their own spacecraft these days. Some of them even go as far as to plan mining operations on asteroids, despite the existing legal ambiguity of such endeavors.
In order to take a closer look at this new reality of private companies going far beyond the skies, lawless.tech contacted Randy Chung, CEO and founder of SpaceFab.US, a company that is currently engaged in building space telescopes, which seems to be their way of raising money for a way more ambitious goal of eventually mining metals from asteroids.
lawless.tech: Could you tell us about yourself? How and why did you get into the space industry? Were you inspired by some science fiction or maybe led by the scientific interest?
Randy Chung: My first job after graduating from college was as an electrical engineer at the Space and Communications Division of Hughes Aircraft, a company that despite its name, actually did not make aircraft. Instead, it made electronics and products that used a lot of electronics, including satellites. I was in the Telemetry and Control department, working on a satellite to be used for maritime communications. Satellite work was not quite to my liking, mainly because of its very conservative and slow pace. I was able to transfer to a group that designed integrated circuits for digital signal processing. I stayed with integrated circuit design for much of my career, designing and inventing circuits (I have fifteen patents) at a variety of commercial companies.
I had a bright idea about accelerating video delivery over the Internet, and started a software oriented company with a little money from friends and family investors. The company was not really able to grow nor make money, though it did last for more than ten years, which is longer than many startups. I did learn a lot from that effort. I learned that investment money gets spent frighteningly fast, that I shouldn’t have started the company without a really good idea about who the customers would be and how much they would buy, and that counting on a big company acquisition to save the day was a bad idea. I also learned it is really hard raising investment money.
Around 2010, I came up with an idea for accelerating ions that could be used for boosting the power of ion engines for space travel. I discovered that there were several organizations focused on interstellar travel, such as 100 Year Starship, Icarus Interstellar, Initiative for Interstellar Studies, and others. The Internet allowed me to access a great deal of information on satellites, rockets, and space travel, and my interest in space really soared.
lawless.tech: Why did SpaceFab.US decide to create a telescope and altogether take that niche?
Randy Chung: I thought more about ion engines and how a powerful low cost ion engine might be used for asteroid mining and space manufacturing. I loved all of those ideas.
However, I couldn’t come up with any business plans that made sense for a startup. The ion engine idea looked like it would require the least money (still requiring millions of dollars), but the market seemed very limited. Also, the development time and the sales cycle looked to be very long. The asteroid mining and space manufacturing businesses would require even more time, and need much more capital. It seemed impossible to raise it. So we (by this time my co-founder Sean League had joined SpaceFab.US) decided to look for the simplest space-related product or service that could make money, not require too much capital, and would be a stepping stone toward our final goals of asteroid mining and space manufacturing. Sean had a background in astronomy and telescopes, so after studying the different space telescope designs and the space telescope markets, we came up with an approach that will let us build very competitive space telescopes for a variety of markets.
Existing space telescopes, including Earth observation telescopes, have been expensive because they have used spacecraft buses that are based on legacy designs, where as little risk is taken as possible. They also make use of the highest performance and highest cost approaches to optical design, and their power consumption is high, which makes the satellites large and heavy, which increases the cost of designing, manufacturing, testing, and launching the satellite. Our approach is to design a spacecraft bus that is optimized for a space telescope and making it as small and light as possible. We also decided to use the most modern electronics, materials, and communication systems which we can also use for our asteroid missions. So we believe we have a smaller, lower weight, lower cost space telescope with more features than any comparable satellite, and we will be able to leverage all of our technologies for future deep space missions.
lawless.tech: The company has plans regarding asteroid mining and product manufacturing in space. So, why did you start off with telescopes, not space mining tools?
Randy Chung: We started with space telescopes because there is an existing and known market, while we could find no existing market for products or tools for asteroid mining and space manufacturing. Our space telescope is multi-functional and designed for multiple markets, such as astronomy and Earth observation.
lawless.tech: How could a telescope accessible to everyone be monetized?
Randy Chung: We plan to sell space telescope time to anyone in the world, with the exception of those subject to the US trade embargoes and sanctions. For astronomy, we will sell telescope time by the minute or hour, to the general public, to amateur astronomers, and professional astronomers. For Earth observation, we will sell imagery by the square kilometer. Our space telescope is unique, designed to be used for astronomy when orbiting the night side of the Earth and for Earth observation when orbiting the daylight side, essentially doubling the available market.
lawless.tech: There is a possibility to place telescopes on asteroids, space stations and other objects, but SpaceFab will launch a mobile telescope. Why so? What are the advantages of mobile telescopes compared to those static?
Randy Chung: We looked at putting a telescope on the International Space Station, which has the advantage of a low orbital height of 400 km, making it easier to get increased ground resolution. However, the ISS has a significant vibration problem and an attached telescope would require vibration dampening. Also, many Earth observation telescopes are in a sun synchronous polar orbit, which is different than the ISS orbit. Finally, many Earth observation satellites are built as constellations of multiple satellites, and there is only one ISS.
We’d be open to putting a fixed telescope on an asteroid if there is an assured customer, but the orbital period of the asteroid could be an issue. It might be easier to just stay with free floating space telescopes with sunshades.
lawless.tech: Sean League, co-founder of SpaceFab told OPT that the telescope would be launched in late 2019, and the company has already secured two spots on SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Could you tell us a little bit more about this deal?
Randy Chung: We have a handshake deal for a rideshare when a partner company launches their communications satellite. The communications satellite business is very volatile, so we may not be able to count on this deal. We plan to raise additional funds for the launch, just in case.
lawless.tech: What were the most significant problems, both legal and technical, that you faced during the development of your space telescope, if any?
Randy Chung: Up to this point, there haven’t been any significant technical issues. The biggest issue has been fundraising. We have raised a seed round of funds, and we should be able to finish our physical satellite design, and given that, we feel we should be able to raise enough funds for building, testing, and launching the flight model and then reaching financial break-even. On the legal side, the current US administration seems committed to easing regulations on commercial space companies.
lawless.tech: According to The Registration Convention of 1975, all spaceships, spacecrafts and objects launched into outer space should be properly registered with the specific U.N. Register. What are the relevant requirements in the U.S.? What does the procedure of registering look like there? Is it hard to meet all the requirements?
Randy Chung: We haven’t gone through the registration process yet, but we do not expect any complications. The U.S. government is providing an encouraging environment for commercial spaceflight.
lawless.tech: Is it possible to hack an artificial space object and take control over it? How do companies protect their spacecraft?
Randy Chung: It is certainly possible to hack a satellite, although it’s not easy. We plan to use strong encryption for all communication.
lawless.tech: Let’s get back to asteroid mining. Do you think it is necessary to update the relevant international agreements in order to explicitly regulate the exploitation of space resources, and to define that space resources could be a property of private companies?
Randy Chung: We aren’t legal experts. Our understanding is that asteroid material can be utilized. And according to NASA criteria, metal asteroids are unlikely to have life, and we are currently only interested in metal asteroids.
lawless.tech: Recently President Trump ordered to establish so-called Space Force. What do you think about potential militarization of the outer space? Is Mr. Trump’s proposal realistic and necessary, in your opinion?
Randy Chung: No one knows what the Space Force’s mandate will be, it is still up to the US Congress. I don’t know what problem the President is trying to solve.
lawless.tech: The technological advancement and further space exploration could make the colonization of the Moon and Mars more likely. How, in your opinion, people and nation states should regulate the colonies out there? Is it necessary to create new laws specifically for space colonies, or the existing international legislation would suffice?
Randy Chung: There should be agreements on non-interference, first of all. Perhaps they can start out as informal agreements, then codified later. I think it is inevitable that there will be disputes, but I have no idea how disputes will be resolved.
As far as colonies, if there is no “territory”, then whose laws apply? I don’t have any answers, just questions.
As it seems, the United States have already ensured that their private companies feel free and safe in space, which apparently isn’t the case for lots of other jurisdictions that still heavily rely on government-backed projects whenever it comes for space exploration. Still, as private space flights become increasingly mundane, most other countries will have to adapt their legal framework to the new age of space exploration, otherwise this whole realm will experience a serious imbalance, both economical and political.
Still, creating a big business for space operation isn’t easy, and in no small part due to the enormous amounts of money it requires. So, some companies start little in order to raise some initial funds. SpaceFab isn’t the only company that started with manufacturing space telescopes while having something more ambitious in mind. Thus, Planetary Resources backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and filmmaker James Cameron is the industry’s leader now. As an additional bonus, a space telescope would be a great aid for those seeking an asteroid to mine.
As for the legal side of the issue, the first problems are likely to arise when the first company makes it to an asteroid and actually mines something. It seems that, even though the U.S. government is offering private companies really friendly terms for their space operations, and assuming that most other space powers do the same, the legal framework for such endeavors would still be years behind the industry’s actual needs. Considering the astronomical amounts of money buried in those space rocks, it will theoretically have mind-blowing ramifications for the entire planet Earth.
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