Competing with Uncle Sam’s free space offerings

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun11,2024

In the ever-evolving landscape of the commercial space industry, some sectors face a unique challenge: convincing customers to pay for services that the U.S. government provides at no cost. This situation is particularly evident in the realms of space domain awareness and alternative positioning, navigation, and timing (Alt-PNT) services.

Space domain awareness, which involves tracking objects in orbit and assessing potential collision risks or hostile threats, is a critical aspect of modern space operations. The U.S. Space Command offers free access to the Space-Track.org catalog, providing a basic capability to any organization. Similarly, the Alt-PNT sector offers alternative sources of positioning, navigation, and timing data that do not rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS).

At first glance, attempting to sell something that the government provides for free seems like a doomed business strategy. But a recent report by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton finds that both space domain awareness and Alt-PNT are among the most vibrant sectors of the space economy developing impactful technologies for national security.

Eric Lo, head of commercial space integration programs at Booz Allen, noted that traditional defense contractors dominate the military space domain awareness business. However, the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC) is poised to play a significant role in defining the market.

A civilian space traffic management system currently in development by OSC is being structured with tiers of services. This system will allow users to choose the basic free data but also give companies an opportunity to sell additional value-added services.

CATCHING THE MILITARY’S EYE

For space domain awareness startups, one of the biggest hurdles is simply getting on the government’s radar, Lo said.

He advises startups to be proactive about getting in front of key stakeholders through accelerator programs held at the U.S. Space Force’s TAP Lab (Technology, Applications, and Process) based in Colorado. These programs immerse companies alongside Space Force personnel, challenging them to help solve real operational problems.

There are also growing opportunities for space domain awareness players in the international market, said Taylor Rhoten, a tech scout at Booz Allen.

“What I’ve been hearing across the board from startups is that a lot of their international customers don’t want to be necessarily beholden to a free U.S. service,” Rhoten said. “So they’re actually seeing a lot of demand to build services for allied countries, and that is creating major opportunities.”

In the Alt-PNT arena, companies aren’t aiming to completely replace GPS, which is entrenched across virtually every sector of the modern economy. Instead, Alt-PNT providers are trying to make a compelling case that organizations need a robust backup plan and complementary capabilities that exceed what the legacy GPS constellation can deliver.

The reality is that GPS, while immensely capable, has inherent vulnerabilities. Adversaries can jam or spoof its relatively weak signals, Lo noted. GPS also lacks the redundancy and precision required for the next generation of autonomous vehicles, such as self-driving cars.

THE ANDURIL MODEL

As space domain awareness and Alt- PNT providers chart a path to greater adoption, they could take a page from the playbook of Anduril Industries, the defense technology startup that takes an almost consumer tech approach, Rhoten suggested.

Anduril designs products proactively, betting that the innovative capabilities will resonate with military customers eager to get a competitive edge over adversaries. This strategy seems to be paying off, as in just a few years Anduril has inked U.S. defense contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for autonomous surveillance towers, counter-drone defenses, and AI-powered command software.

To be sure, selling to the military remains an immense challenge for non-traditional players, especially in sectors where they are competing against government-provided systems. However, there is a growing recognition that traditional procurement cycles simply cannot keep pace. The message to companies is to carve out their niche and attract customers who demand more than the basic capabilities available for free.

This article first appeared in the June 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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