Meet the man dreaming of a 'space bridge' between UAE and US

Precious Payload chief Andrew Maximov believes the space industry will open up to smaller players

Andrew Maximov, co-founder and CEO of Precious Payload
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To understand the global space industry in 2020, look no further than a Silicon Valley-funded start-up founded by two Russian expatriates based in Abu Dhabi and New York that is aiming to be the Expedia of rocket launches.

Precious Payload is an international and entrepreneurial effort, gaining traction among investors at a moment of massive change for the development of space and new innovations in satellites and the rockets that carry them to orbit.

The company, which closed its first fund-raising round in July, with California venture capital firm Draper Associates leading the round, is online software for companies and entrepreneurs to manage missions with rocket and satellite providers.

"There's a need to create industry standards on a rocket space mission," co-founder and chief executive Andrew Maximov told The National, from the company's office at Hub71 in Abu Dhabi. "Let's not call them rockets. These are shipping containers, and a satellite is cargo. This is a commodity problem."

It can take between 18 months to four years to get a space mission off the ground, with an average of 26 logistics-related milestones to hit before lift-off including permissions and licences, Mr Maximov said.

For example, a UAE satellite hitching a ride on a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket needs to comply to standards set by the UAE, the US and from the host country if the spaceport is located somewhere other than the US.

"Over time, and one by one, we can shrink the time for all start-ups to launch a satellite into orbit," Mr Maximov added.

Reducing the lead time and bureaucracy is important if the space industry is to realise its commercial potential – and the next decade is critical.

In 2010, it cost an average of $40,000 per kilogram to launch a satellite into space, and typically only one would make up the payload on a single rocket. Today, with the proliferation of lighter, small satellites and ride-share missions, multiple satellites can be sent on a smaller rocket for an eighth of the price.

In the coming decade, constellations of small satellites – weighing less than 500 kilos – will lift off from Earth each day at a more economical $500 per kilo.

"The satellite industry is in the throes of a radical transformation," Adnan Al Muhairi, deputy chief technical officer at UAE satellite firm Yahsat, which is wholly owned by Mubadala, previously told The National.

New technology is bringing these market opportunities within reach for the first time, Mr Al Muhairi said, and enticing entrepreneurs to the satellite industry.

LEO is more than 50 times closer than where traditional internet satellites orbit, enabling newer smaller satellites to send data back to Earth at speeds comparable to fibre-optic and broadband networks.

This kind of 24/7 high-speed Earth observation has applications in agriculture, climate science, fossil fuel discovery and monitoring, among other major industries both for-profit and in the public interest.

“The promise of triggering technological and commercial breakthroughs and new actors – including developing countries, private firms and even individuals – are now active in an arena once dominated almost exclusively by the US and Russia,” Mr Al Muhairi said.

The space sector is largely controlled by major defence contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Airbus, and a handful of players catering to the private sector, like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But Mr Maximov believes a platform like Precious Payload could further open up the industry to new, smaller players.

Prior to pitching to Tim Draper in San Mateo, California, the company was earning between 2 to 10 per cent commission on an average $500,000 average deal size for one of its clients to book a trip on an available rocket.

Following $1.4 million in venture capital, the company is changing its model so that customers can pay a monthly subscription of around $100 to $250 per user to gain access to mission management software.

"Eighty per cent of space missions fall into buckets of observation or communication and this software [model] helps to fill in paperwork and match with suppliers," Mr Maximov said.

"I want to build a space bridge between the UAE and Silicon Valley," he added, with an aim of helping entrepreneurs with their eyes on space to go from an idea to building to licensing to launch rockets and be insured against damage or system failures once in orbit.

The UAE Space Agency's signature on the Artemis Accords, an international treaty by US space agency Nasa that outlines responsible and peaceful space exploration, signalled to Mr Maximov that he chose to set up shop in the right place.

"Only eight countries signed that document," he said. "No France, no Germany, but there was Japan, Canada, US and the UAE.

"That was a very bold move. That’s not just a document you sign without being able to back it up. You have to prove that you will contribute scientifically, financially, commercially and you have to be an active member."