To Build or Buy: Finding the Best Path to Satellite Development

Today, every company or organization that plans to launch a satellite is faced with a question: Is it better to build or buy?

Traditionally, developing and launching a satellite was largely any in-house operation that may have integrated existing technologies, but required development from the ground up. Today, engineers have access to more off-the-shelf components, systems, and even complete satellites than ever before, which they can use to meet their design and mission objectives.

So, which path is better: developing a custom satellite, or utilizing a pre-developed solution?

The State of the Market

At a recent conference, an analyst from Northern Sky Research reported that over the past year, the number of satellites being manufactured in-house had increased from 32% to 48%.

This seems counter intuitive.  As more readymade options become available, wouldn’t the drive for efficiency suggest that more companies would adopt pre-made options?

Some analysis from NSR points to the core forces influencing this decision:

“The market saw a large uptake in funding due to renewed financing vehicles such as SPACs and extensive venture capital investments that strengthened the space value chain. And this extra liquidity created a new path to innovation that many manufacturers have taken in-house.”

To put another spin on the same data: developing your own solutions costs more than using something off the shelf. This suggests that some form of the “buy” model of satellite construction may be a more efficient option.

The Hybrid Option

Of course, this isn’t a binary option where engineers have to choose from either building everything from scratch or picking a ready-to-launch commercially available satellite.

There are a number of existing systems, components, and standards that can speed development and improve efficiency without requiring compromises in capability or customization.

Motiv’s own ModuLink system can add systems like robotic arms, connectors, sensors, and more to a wide variety of satellite designs and applications.  ModuLink gives engineers the option to design satellites for customized goals and applications and then quickly and efficiently reach those goals with ready-made components that easily integrate into a broader ecosystem.

For an even deeper level of customization, Motiv’s motor controllers are popular with engineers developing ground-up customized  satellite systems.  They offer incredibly varied capabilities suitable for a range of missions and applications, along with space-capable proven designs, and can often speed development times while reducing costs when compared to building custom motor controllers from the ground up. .

The Impact of ISAM

In April, the White House released the “In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing National Strategy”, or ISAM.  This document represents a collaboration between 12 unique government agencies, including NASA, all four branches of the United States Military, DARPA, the FAA, and others.

It lays out the government’s strategic goals for these space-based operations.

Several of ISAM’s strategic goals might directly influence the decision to “build or buy”.

First, several of ISAM’s core aims touch on the concept of creating standards so that in-space operations can be performed by different satellitesfrom different manufacturers working and interfacing together.

Systems like ModuLink can help to make this a reality by embracing standardized, open communication and connection protocols.

Second, several ISAM goals support the concept of sustaining and accelerating the commercial space industry.  When projects like OSAM-2 (in many ways a predecessor to ISAM) utilize systems like Motiv’s xLink robotic arm, not only do the projects benefit from faster and more efficient development, but they also help to support this core ISAM goal and enable private space companies to use new technologies and platforms.

Making a Final Decision

Every satellite development project is unique, with its own goals, requirements, and limitations. So there is no “one size fits all” answer to the “build or buy” question.

However, as more options for satellites and satellite components and systems become available, and goals like the ISAM strategy become further developed, it’s likely that last years’ increase in in-house satellite manufacturing will represent a deviation from the broader trend. The benefits of at least integrating proven, ready-made, and adaptable systems and components are too attractive to ignore.

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