Harmony: enabling the future of the lunar industry

Author: Carlos M. Entrena Utrilla

Adapted by: Alicia Vílchez Bedmar

New year, new blog post! It’s been a busy Q4 for us last year, with plenty of events, travelling, and a ramp up in all the behind-the-scenes work that makes a startup become reality. Our blog activity slowed down and it’s about time that we started publishing again!

Table of contents:

  1. The basic needs of the lunar industry

  2. Why are lunar communications still an issue?

  3. Only a startup can own the lunar communications market

2022 is set out to be the year of the lunar industry, so we are highly optimistic for Plus Ultra Space and our lunar ambitions. This will be the year of our first lunar customers, our first satellite contracts, and our first launch preparations. Why are we so convinced? Simple: Harmony brings the best comms & nav solution to the scene. Our customers say it, our partners say it and, of course, we say it. Here’s why!

The basic needs of the lunar industry

We have talked before about how Harmony came to be. The rationale was simple (as I like things to be): we focused on identifying and solving what the lunar industry needs to take off once and for all. Namely, we focused on:

  1. Reducing mission risks, with accurate navigation and continuous telemetry capabilities.

  2. Enabling new lunar missions, with coverage on the far side and lunar poles.

  3. Improving mission return, with higher data rates and continuous connectivity that enables new operations (e.g., 4K streaming or real-time remote operations).

  4. Reducing mission costs, with smaller comms equipment and end-to-end services.

I say we “focused” but, in reality, we’re dealing with all the immediate needs of the lunar industry. Without safer, cheaper, more accessible, and more productive lunar missions, the idea of going to the Moon to stay is just a dream. And the truth is, we need all of these things to happen. Anything that falls short will still leave an industry that is dependent on government funding for its existence.

This focus on the needs of the customer is something that is sorely lacking in the space industry in general. Government, corporate, and individual interests abound, and these usually define what kind of missions are designed and launched. Don’t get me wrong: these interests are all legitimate. However, doing business means focusing on the customer first, and having your stakeholders design the product without the customer is a recipe for failure.

Why are lunar communications still an issue?

If what the industry needs is so obvious, the immediate question is: why has no one solved it yet? Or why is no one planning to solve it? Well, at least one company is do it, Plus Ultra Space! However, it has taken the industry the best part of 2 years to recognize that our plan is the most suitable for it. We see it some recent developments in the industry. Here are some examples:

  • When Argotec announced their lunar constellation in April 2020, they were planning a low-data-rate system using 6U cubesats. Their latest iteration, based on their presentations at several events, now aims for up to 100 Mbps (sounds familiar?) with 55 kg satellites.

  • When SSTL started working on Lunar Pathfinder, they believed 2 Mbps would be suitable for missions in 2024. However, NASA’s recent Source Sought Notice for the Near Space Network already asked for 100 Mbps by 2024 (this number again!) and is asking for continuous connectivity for crewed missions (Lunar Pathfinder will likely be dead on arrival, but that’s a topic for another day…).

  • Companies like Lockheed Martin or Intuitive Machines, who design their own lunar landers, have just recently started working on their own lunar comms systems (Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin), both include constellations of satellites in lunar orbit, instead of previously favored architectures like Lagrange relays or highly elliptical orbits.

Map of Near Space Network by NASA
Map of Near Space Network direct-to-Earth and space relay communications infrastructure. NASA, 2021.

We’re seeing the industry slowly moving towards the level of service that Harmony has always been designed to offer. The market needs are becoming so overwhelmingly noticeable that companies are trying to overcome their institutional constraints: moving away from old satellite designs, including requirements from outside their government sponsors, taking additional risks in terms of capabilities… The industry is definitely trying.

And this is just the start of it. We expect the demand for lunar communications and navigation services to become obvious this year, as NASA announces their first mission to the lunar far side and the Artemis program progresses. Some other companies might try to join the party, but they’ll likely be too late: the first one or two players to start providing proper services in lunar orbit will win the gauntlet and own the market during the 2020s.

And the keyword here is “proper”. Services that do not meet the basic needs of the lunar industry listed before will not achieve a market-leading position. In other words: there will be many copycats, but only Harmony is poised to own the lunar comms & nav market.

Only Harmony enables the future lunar economy

We say this with full confidence: Harmony is the only planned service that offers the services that the lunar industry needs. That is:

  1. True global coverage.

  2. GPS-like navigation

  3. Continuous, on-demand service (24/7!)

  4. High data rates (100 Mbps per user!)

  5. Low-cost, end-to-end solution (small user terminals, full service in orbit and on the surface).

Our architecture is designed to offer high-quality comms & nav anywhere on the Moon, anytime. Architectures can be copied, but no one is planning a Harmony-like system yet. A quick review of our competition will clearly show that:

  • Most companies use highly elliptical frozen orbits, which impose higher requirements on the customers’ communications systems and prevent global coverage.

  • No one is aiming for GPS-like navigation, preferring instead to provide only two-way navigation or to act as repeaters for the weak GNSS signals that reach the Moon (which also needs a large antenna on the spacecraft to receive them).

  • Only recently have some players (see Argotec’s example above) started to aim for 100 Mbps per user. However, most plans still aim for S-band or X-band systems only, which will also increase the requirements on the customer side if they want to reach those data rates.

  • No one aims for an end-to-end solution, providing only limited coverage in orbit (if any).

Infographic about Plus Ultra Space's main services and solutions.
Harmony is the only planned service that offers the services that the lunar industry needs.

These and more examples show that the lunar industry is still struggling to put the customers’ needs first. The selection of orbits and frequencies, and the types of services, indicate that most of our competitors are still putting a higher weight on their needs than on the customer’s.

Frozen orbits are great for stationkeeping, but the higher communications distance and its variation mean that the customers’ systems need to be larger and require more power. Two-way navigation is perfectly suitable for early services but means that smaller assets like rovers would require larger comms equipment to access the navigation service and puts a limit on the number of assets that can be located simultaneously. S- and X-band systems are more mature, but they require larger antennas than higher frequencies (e.g., Ka-band). Looking at these systems, all I see is “we want to reduce our risk, and it’ll be the customers’ problem to see how they can pay for it”. Not the right approach for a commercial service.

This preference for the reduction of risk rather than cost (incl. service cost) is the key differentiator of Harmony’s design philosophy vs the competition.

Harmony is designed to minimize the burden on the customer, aiming to be an enabler for other lunar business cases.

This implies not only providing a better service but also doing it in a way that it’s the cheapest and most reliable way for the customer. If we need to take a hit in cost and risk so that our customers don’t, we’ll take it. None of our competitors has this approach.

Only a startup can own the lunar communications market

As easy as this idea might be, not all companies can do it. The only way to offer a Harmony-like service is by being a startup. All other players have too many constraints already on themselves.

Think about the large aerospace contractors: they have large workforces, ties to government and launch providers, established supply chains, existing corporate agreements… all of which conspire against taking higher risk with the system. Of course, a large contractor like Lockheed or Airbus has the know-how and experience to build Harmony, but in the commercial arena they’d be doing so with both their hands tied behind their back.

Only a startup can take higher risks with components, systems, and pricing, and only a startup can focus exclusively on their customers’ needs, placing any other potential stakeholders on the background.

A great example of this would be our launch agreement with Rocket Factory Augsburg: not only did we manage to have an insanely good pricing (which I sadly can’t disclose!) but also allowed ourselves to place the launch risk of our very first satellite with an unproven launch provider. Our entire business lies on the success of that launch.

Would you imagine an old space contractor working under a space agency taking advantage of that? They’d have to launch with Arianespace, or SpaceX, or ULA, and pay 10-20x or even more for each of their launches.

Apply this to all other systems of the satellite and you arrive to the key differentiation of Harmony: its affordability. We expect to have the best pricing in the market and be unmatched by our competitors. This will not only be thanks to our pricing strategy (which I’ll talk about in a future post), but mainly thanks to our position as a startup. We can build and launch our satellites as we please, aiming for the most cost-effective solution.

Graphic about Plus Ultra being the most affordable option with the best quality offered.
As a startup, we can build and launch our satellites as we please, aiming for the most cost-effective solution.

Now, some of you might be thinking that being the cheapest isn’t really a good thing. In the end it will lead to a “race to the bottom” situation, like it’s happening in GEO. And you would be correct. However, being cheap will be key to access the lunar market.

Lunar missions are already expensive enough as they are, and only a fraction of their cost goes to communications.

NASA’s paying around USD 100M per mission, and about 1-2% of that cost traditionally goes to the ground segment and communications. How much can you make the cost grow to afford your new, shiny communications? One might think that improving mission return by an order of magnitude is extremely valuable, but that would be the wrong measuring stick.

The right question is: how much will your customers be willing to pay before they just decide to build it on their own? After all, all of them are space companies, all of them work on the Moon, and none better than them know their requirements. Will they dedicate 5% of their mission cost to communications? 10%? 20%? You’re eating into their margins, and they have to accept your mission risk anyway.

If you also consider the current concept that space companies need to vertically integrate, how expensive do you think you can be before they just build the system themselves? Even if it’s inferior, and more expensive, it’d still be theirs and they’d be controlling the risk, which usually makes people comfortable enough to take a hit in cost.

In the lunar communications market, it won’t be enough to be first, or be the best. It will also be necessary to be affordable. Only Harmony gathers all those qualities!

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