LOGAN, Utah – After a series of spaceflight demonstrations followed by years of secrecy, NovaWurks is ready to discuss contracts, customers and expansion plans.
NovaWurks made a splash nearly a decade ago when the Southern California startup proposed constructing spacecraft with identical box-shaped modules weighing about six kilograms. The modules, now trademarked as Slegos (short for Space Legos), provide the functions of conventional components like pointing, information processing and data storage.
Designed to operate in geostationary orbit for 15 years, Slegos offer “tons of capability,” Talbot Jaeger, NovaWurks founder and chief technologist, told SpaceNews at the Small Satellite Conference.
Rather than custom-designing spacecraft to accommodate payloads, NovaWurks arranges Slego building blocks in different configurations.
“We’re not designing, we’re configuring,” Jaeger said. “Configuration doesn’t spend money on all that nonrecurring engineering.”
NovaWurks performed its first in-orbit demonstration in 2017 on the International Space Station. An astronaut assembled a small satellite by combining six modules, then called HISats, with deployable solar arrays and an electro-optical imager in the NASA-sponsored Satlet Initial Proofs and Lessons mission.
In 2018, NovaWurks’ Payload Orbital Delivery Satellite, PODSat-1, a mission funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, reached geostationary transfer orbit. PODSat-1’s four Slegos with a radio and antenna traveled to geostationary transfer orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a hosted payload that was later deployed from a Hispasat communications satellite.
Novawurks again demonstrated its modular approach through the 2018 eXperiment for Cellular Integration Technology, or eXCITe, mission. Another Falcon 9 sent eXCITe, one of 64 payloads on the rideshare flight, to low Earth orbit.
Taken together, the demonstrations provided NovaWurks with the information engineers needed to refine their approach. For more than two years, company executives revealed little about the company’s spaceflight demonstrations or future plans. At the time, NovaWurks engineers were busy upgrading Slegos.
“With all that testing, fixing, correcting, adjusting, we have a product now that is ready and we’ve got people interested,” Jaeger said. “It was hard to turn science fiction into fact. It took a lot of money and time, but it was worth it because we can change space.”
Early in-orbit demonstrations have led to contracts. To keep up, NovaWurks plans to more than double its staff by the end of the year from 20 to 50 people.
For example, NovaWurks is working with Saturn Satellite Networks to jointly develop Saturn’s NationSat, a small geostationary communications satellite.
NovaWurks also is working with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command on a mission to measure solar energy reflected and absorbed by Earth. Data will be gathered with a small telescope attached to NovaWurks Slegos. The project, called Athena, is a test of NovaWurks’ quick-turnaround capability.
During the pandemic, NovaWurks provided the Space Force with another demonstration of its quick-turnaround strategy. The Space Force gave NovaWurks three different spacecraft payloads with different thermal and field-of-view requirements. The idea was that once the Space Force selected one of the three payloads to fly, NovaWurks would have only 60 days to configure the spacecraft.
“When we said that was easy, they made 30 days a stretch goal,” said Bill Crandall, NovaWurks business development vice president.
The Space Force then selected one of the three payloads. It took NovaWurks five days to configure and turn on the spacecraft to accommodate it. The response from the Space Force was, “Okay, take that one apart and build another one,” Crandall said.
Again, it took less than five days. NovaWurks captured the process on video to share with the Space Force “because they didn’t believe it,” Jaeger said.