The most innovative space companies of 2020

As the Trump administration toyed with the idea of a Space Force, the privately funded space industry chugged along with essential (if less sexy) infrastructure and technological advances. SpaceX continued work on its Starlink mega-network of satellites, which hopes to provide high-speed internet to organizations including the U.S. Air Force in even the most remote corners of the world, while companies including Swarm Technologies, Spaceflight, and Momentus set their sights on democratizing the space industry by providing alternatives to high-tech, high price-tag options.


For building up its Starlink satellite constellation

Not just a launch company, SpaceX is quietly building its own mega-network of satellites. It launched 120 Starlink satellites (which power SpaceX’s satellite internet) in 2019, and by early 2020 plans to launch another 120. SpaceX’s ambitions seem even larger—it’s requested a license for up to 42,000 satellites. The U.S. Air Force is testing connecting to Starlink satellites on aircraft. SpaceX has raised more than $1.3 billion in new funding in 2019.


For creating sandwich-size, low-fi affordable satellites

Swarm Technologies’ “grilled-cheese-size” satellites are lower cost (and lower tech) than is typical. The constellation networks created by companies like SpaceX and OneWeb aim to provide fast, high-speed, low-latency connection to sophisticated systems operated by the likes of the U.S. Air Force—at an equally high cost. But Swarm’s technology aims to fill in the gaps for less data-intensive communications, assisting organizations that want remote access to a network but don’t necessarily need the speediest, most powerful connection. In 2019, for example, the company partnered with Ford to help it get better connectivity with cars in even the most remote parts of the world. It also partnered with the National Science Foundation to send ground station and handheld trackers to Antarctica.


For introducing “ride share” for space cargo

Spaceflight operates “ride shares” to space, allowing companies to reserve cargo space in launches for significantly lower prices than a traditional private launch. It launched its first dedicated ride share mission in late 2018, and since has been ferrying satellites for organizations including research centers, museums, middle schools, and more for both commercial and educational purposes. In addition to physically getting cargo to space, Spaceflight also helps less experienced players through the logistics of licensing and approval, and provides transparent pricing.


For designing a craft that NASA will send to explore Titan in search of E.T.

In 2019, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab’s Dragonfly craft design was selected as NASA’s next New Frontiers mission to Titan (a moon of Saturn), to search for extraterrestrial life. Dragonfly will launch in 2026, and reach the moon by 2034.


For inventing satellites that see through weather patterns—and send images to the cloud

Capella Space builds satellites that can see through clouds and weather patterns. In 2020, it will launch a constellation of satellites and ground infrastructure in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to allow instant downloads through the Amazon cloud.


For launching two human brain organoid models to the International Space Station

The respected lab-in-a-box company sent up its first experiment to the International Space Station using living brain “organoids.” Researchers will use them to study the effects of microgravity on the human brain.


For developing a promising method of using water to move satellites in orbit

Momentus is developing an innovative water-based propulsion system for moving satellites and cargo around in space. The system would allow companies to launch satellites into low orbit generally, then “drive” those satellites to correct placement.


For making more efficient satellite propulsion systems

Propulsion company Accion Systems was one of 14 U.S. companies selected in 2019 for NASA Tipping Point partnership, developing moon and Mars technologies. Accion will work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to replace the cold gas propulsion system used for interplanetary CubeSats with a more efficient ion electrospray propulsion system. The company received $3.9 million for the project, with anticipated launch in the summer of 2021.


For engineering a high-volume assemble line for satellites

In 2019, OneWeb opened the world’s first high-volume, assembly line high-facility building advanced satellites in Florida. It also successfully launched the first 6 satellites of a planned 650 in Phase 1 of a mega constellation of small satellites, delivering affordable Internet access in a joint venture with Airbus.


For attempting the first private lunar landing

In 2019, Israel-based SpaceIL came tantalizingly close to landing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. It was the first-ever attempt to deliver a privately funded lunar lander to the moon’s surface.


Other News

Fortune, February 9, 2021

Satellite startup Swarm kicks off space-based Internet service

TechCrunch, February 9, 2021

Swarm’s low-cost satellite data network is now available to commercial clients

New Zealand Herald, December 16, 2020

New Zealand company LayerX first to tap Swarm’s global satellite network

The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2021

The Tiny Satellites That Will Connect Cows, Cars and Shipping Containers to the Internet

TechCrunch, September 29, 2020

Swarm prices out its orbital IoT network’s hardware and services

SpaceNews, September 29, 2020

Swarm Technologies reveals plan to connect devices for $5 per device per month

Via Satellite, September 29, 2020

Swarm Releases Pricing and Products for Satcom Network

Bloomberg, September 29, 2020

Swarm Reveals Pricing for Its Satellite Data Network

Spacenews, August 3, 2020

Swarm works with Exolaunch to fly 24 SpaceBees on SpaceX Falcon 9

The Fast Mode, April 20, 2020

Nano satellite startup Swarm gains FCC approval for commercial launch

Total Telecom, April 7, 2020

Nano-satellite company Swarm gets US approval for commercial launch

TechCrunch, April 6, 2020

Swarm gets all the approvals it needs to begin operating its satellite connectivity service in the US

Quartz, February 11, 2020

Silicon Valley satellite startup installs ground station in Antarctica

TechCrunch, January 25, 2019

Swarm Technologies raises $25M to deploy its own 150-satellite constellation

TechCrunch, October 18, 2019

Swarm gets green light from FCC for its 150-satellite constellation

SpaceNews, October 2, 2019

Swarm of tiny satellites could relay messages by year’s end

Government Technology, September, 2019

Satellite data increasingly affordable, accessible for Gov

Via Satellite, February 6, 2019

Swarm CEO: There’s no excuse to not have global internet

Techcrunch, January 25, 2019

Swarm receives FCC approval to launch 150 satellites