A Fireside Chat with Fabien Apper from U-space
This week, Space Talos had the amazing opportunity to talk with Fabien Apper, CEO of U-Space, and share their biggest accomplishments, their greatest challenges and their plans for the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and about U-Space? Why did you choose to get into the development of nanosatellites?
I graduated from the engineering school Isae Supaero in Toulouse, France. During this period, I had the chance to work on nanosatellite projects such as EntrySat and EyeSat, two student projects of complete nanosatellites. I quickly realized that there was a real potential, an emerging market for nanosatellites. Then, I combined my passion for space with my desire to create and share projects within a team.
I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. In fact, at ISAE I was the director responsible for the Jazz band and I also created a technical club dedicated to CubeSat projects. I really like the thrill of putting together a team to take on new challenges! In addition, what I like about nanosatellites is the fact you can really see all the steps and aspects of a project from start to finish, unlike with larger satellites.
As a result of this, I decided to create U-Space with my two co-founders Antoine and Nicolas, that I met when we were interns on the EyeSat project in 2014/2015. We told ourselves that we would finish building EyeSat, a student demonstration nanosatellite, and, once the satellite was launched, we would set up our company. We realized it would be an amazing opportunity to offer a complete service providing end-to-end missions with satellites. Seeing how fast the Americans were advancing on the subject, we wanted to make things happen.
What orbits are you most focused on? Does your work include deep space or interplanetary missions? If so, what are the biggest obstacles you need to tackle?
The current demand is mainly for low earth orbits. In addition, the current technology allows us to meet the market demand while deep space does not have well-defined commercial needs yet. It also has requirements and expectations for more resilient technologies due to radiation.
We are mainly working on polar orbits. In fact, the coverage is wider and there are more launches planned for this orbit. Making it the most accessible at the moment.
In general, deep space nanosatellites are sent on maritime ships and detached when in orbit. Deep space is very exciting and we are open to projects, especially with space agencies such as the ESA.
However, this type of mission remains complex at the sight of the difficulties encountered. For example, the further away we are from the sun, the more area of solar cells we need.
In terms of radiation protection, how are your products shielded?
We use a natural shielding by the structure of our products. In low orbit, this is not a primary concern because of the low radiation present in the area.
Currently, our products are shielded by an aluminum structure for our current missions.
In your opinion, what do you think are the greatest pain points or typical mistakes made in relation to radiation shielding?
In my opinion, in terms of radiation protection, the most common errors are:
- To not protect against SEU. They are energetic particles that hit the satellite and create a local event. These events can be non-destructive but they can cause corruption in the satellite memory! To protect our products from this we use error-correcting codes and function triplication.
- A less common problem is not having the SEL protection circuit. In fact, when a very energetic particle hits certain components, like transistors, it creates an overcurrent that can burn the component in the end!
- On the payload side, an important point that many may overlook is the choice of optics for observation missions.
Actually, UV rays tend to darken optics. Certain COTS optics may be very sensitive to this phenomenon and can deteriorate very rapidly.
Finally, I can also mention that the accumulated doses of small particles make the satellite equipment age prematurely and become non-functional. This is why good shielding is so important.
Which project are you most proud of? Why is it important?
Eyesat has a great impact on our company. In fact, the majority of our team came from this project and allowed us to establish the company. We also have several other projects in progress which are going to be a real adventure!
For now, let’s get back to Eyesat which was very interesting for us. This project allowed us to obtain our status of system builder and integrator by allowing us to approach and create each part of the nanosatellite, and this in its entirety, in all autonomy. We could learn everything by ourselves.
What impressed me the most was the first station pass when we were all in the control center waiting for the satellite to talk to us. We were all stressed while waiting for the reception of this first signal. What I loved was that moment of joy when we saw the first data arrive and the relief when we saw progressively all the vital parameters of the satellite were functioning well.
As a matter of fact, EyeSat is the french nanosatellite that beats the record of in-orbit life. It was the 2nd 3U CubeSat to be launched in France and was one of the most performing CubeSats in the world.
Could you shed some light on your most significant challenges when designing nanosatellites? How did you manage to overcome them?
During our projects, we had to deal with many anomalies but we were able to bounce back and find solutions. Most of the time, it could be design issues that had to be modified at the last moment. In addition, it could be suppliers that were no more present and therefore changed equipment at the last moment for example.
What is U-Space planning for the future? Any exciting developments you would like to share?
Particularly the development of new innovative and high-performance products. The U-Space nanosatellite is an ultra-integrated satellite that enables new production approaches with much lighter and more competitive means than the higher-end satellite ranges. U-Space is developing the next generation of nanosatellites with a guaranteed lifetime of 7 years, 3 to 5 times more power, and an unmatched pointing accuracy of 0.01°.
In order to follow through on its commitment, U-Space will develop several ranges of satellites divided by need, and offer its clients customized, high-performance missions at a low-cost thanks to our industrial tools enabling us to produce nanosatellites in large series.
Who else is on your team at U-Space? Perhaps, you could share some information about your colleagues and investors.
We do not have any investors at the moment. Since the beginning of our adventure, we have a team of engineers with strong designing skills from the EyeSat project, for the most part!
The U-Space team is currently composed of 15 experts in all fields covering every aspect of the design of a nanosatellite, and most of them have years of experience with the implementation of nanosatellites. The U-Space team has the ability to create complex and complete space systems thanks to their technical skills and the availability of advanced technologies and means of control, such as algorithms, simulators, softwares and finally, tests provided and mastered in-house.
U-Space has built an advisory board. It allows the young company to develop thanks to the experience of recognized people in the field.
What advice would you give to new enthusiastic space entrepreneurs that want to join the space industry?
I would tell them to do it out of passion and not for profit, the desire for success or for money. Then, it’s important to rely on a solid technical basis with the help of experts, a space agency or a laboratory for example, and especially, to have contacts, which is very important.
There are essential qualities to embark on this adventure such as being patient, taking a step back, being available, and having great resistance to stress. Above all, you always have to think about tomorrow, projecting oneself, thinking about one’s objectives and never stop dreaming.
Staying curious and open to others is also essential to go further and build your project! Every day is a new challenge, stay optimistic for your team and always push your limits. Keep calm and keep exploring.