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SSL’s Adam Marks on the New Economics of Commercial Space

By | June 4, 2018
SSL Chief Strategy Officer Adam Marks.

SSL Chief Strategy Officer Adam Marks. Photo: SSL

Adam Marks joined satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (SSL) as its new chief strategy officer in early May from Thales Group, where he served as vice president of strategy and corporate development. Marks has an extensive background working with next-generation digital technologies associated with cybersecurity, mobile broadband connectivity and big data analytics. His expertise also includes mergers and acquisitions and working with U.S.-based technology start-ups. Via Satellite spoke with Marks just weeks after taking his new position about how SSL fits in parent company Maxar Technologies’ overall strategy to lead the satellite industry through its next evolution.

VIA SATELLITE: Maxar’s vertically integrated setup seems to suggest that our industry is entering into an era where space segment and ground segment worlds are merging. Are we transitioning away from “satellites” and “antennas” as individual products and into an era of delivering “complete space systems/solutions”? If so, what’s driving that change?

Marks: Today’s market demand is driven by performance and value, and that can come in an end-to-end turnkey solution or in the form of a single robotic arm, spacecraft or propulsion subsystem. I think it ultimately depends on the business case and strategic requirements of the customer.

Maxar Technologies saw the opportunity to play across the NewSpace economy value chain by combining the capabilities of our business lines, with decades of experience, to unlock new solutions and insights. We’re able to bring an integrated range of capabilities with strong commercial practices that cover the waterfront of customer needs: from satellites and on-orbit servicing and assembly, to Earth imagery, geospatial data, and advanced analytics. Especially in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) augmentation missions for government customers, we want to leverage the unique capabilities across Maxar to address complex customer problems that benefit from an end-to-end approach.

VIA SATELLITE: What role do you feel automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play in the evolution of how satellites are built and how they function in space?

Marks: Automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are essential to our Radiant Solutions business unit, which helps government and commercial customers derive insights from massive amounts of geospatial information. I expect there to be opportunities for SSL to leverage these capabilities in order to accelerate the benefits of satellite systems, including in the area of automated on-board data processing. I also see space-segment automation as increasingly key to reducing overall system costs and enabling real-time improvements to both high-throughput broadband connectivity and remote sensing platforms.

VIA SATELLITE: How will in-orbit servicing change the satellite operator business, now that some of the major operators are starting to embrace it?

Marks: Satellite servicing has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of our space infrastructure. We have the most advanced robotics capability of any satellite manufacturer, and in addition to the servicing spacecraft we are building, we are partnering with NASA on developing the capability to robotically assemble spacecraft in space. We expect the ability to repair, upgrade, and build spacecraft on orbit will reduce the amount of mass that has to be launched away from Earth’s gravitational pull and enable new architectures that couldn’t even be considered in the past. In the near-term, servicing provides satellite operators with the flexibility to delay capex decisions and get more life out of existing spacecraft. Robotics-enabled servicing also has the potential to address the increasingly critical need for space mission assurance by our government customers.

VIA SATELLITE: Will the satellite data market (specifically imagery, analytics, sensing, etc.) live up to expectations? If so/not, why?

Marks: We believe that the market value of geospatial intelligence will only continue to grow. Today it is used for national security, and for many commercial, humanitarian, and environmental applications. For example, high-resolution imagery from DigitalGlobe is used in emergency response to natural disasters, to monitor crop health and enable precision farming, and to prevent human rights abuses.

Once an organization has access to the kind of intelligence that can help fundamentally impact business decisions that lead to profitable growth, improve safety and protect nations and the environment, they only want more. I don’t see an end to this insatiable demand trend for faster revisit rates, more resilience, and more accessible big-data analytics and extracted insights, all being made available to an ever-widening set of users, which is likely to only increase over time.

VIA SATELLITE: Some satellite and aerospace companies maintain that the nature of the space business keeps them at an appropriate distance from their end-users (selling through VARs, partners). With a much wider and more diverse set of end-users now seeking Earth observation and advanced analytics solutions, will aerospace companies be able to continue operating at that distance? Or, will the industry have to learn how to engage directly with customers like farmers, smart city planners, universities, small businesses, etc.?

Marks: I think you will get a different answer depending on whether you are collecting the best sensing data for a range of customers versus if you are designing a tailored solution for a particular end-user. Maxar has businesses that depend on a high level of intimacy with its customers. Overall the digitization of our lives increasingly is forcing all types of companies, not only in aerospace and satellite, to more closely consider the customer experience and usage of and access to its products and services. That’s why Maxar companies are investing in big data platforms and storage in the cloud, which enables a variety of interfaces that are designed to meet customers at their level of proficiency whether they are developers, scientists, Geographic Information System (GIS) professionals or farmers.

VIA SATELLITE: How can commercial space achieve the same brand recognition as Silicon Valley? Both create significant disruptive technologies. Some say that access to space is, itself, the most important disruptive technology of the future. How can we better educate the public about what we’re able to do in space?

Marks: I think we are entering into a new space renaissance and commercial space is driving it with venture-backed startups and exciting new ideas that generally are good for the whole industry. As the cost of getting to orbit goes down, many more applications will increasingly become possible. And as the new applications enabled by our industry reach more people and enrich the experiences of life on Earth, so will our collective understanding and appreciation for the power of commercial space.

At the same time, I think we need to recognize that putting disruptive technology and infrastructure in space and operating it successfully poses different innovation challenges than terrestrial-based IT. Moreover, I’m encouraged that the current U.S. government administration recognizes the value of commercial space and is working with companies like SSL to bring commercially proven technologies to national security and space exploration missions. Shorter schedules and more cost-effective programs will be of great benefit to taxpayers.