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“We are like cabs in space” – satellite systems, orbit parameters and the technology that connects it

Liftero is a startup that has been hugely successful in just four years. The company is working with the European Space Agency and implementing bold projects that are revolutionizing the space industry. And it all started with a science club at a university.

Liftero’s beginnings

The idea to found Liftero, a startup developing space logistics systems, was born during college. More specifically – thanks to the science club AGH Space Systems, during his studies at the University of Science and Technology in Krakow. It was there that Przemyslaw Drozdz met Tomasz Palacz. After a few years, together they founded Liftero.

“In the science club we learned a lot of things. We also traveled around the world. We saw then that abroad the space industry is already developing at an advanced level” Przemek talks about the beginnings of Liftero. 

The students’ dream to address this niche in Poland quickly became a reality. Przemek adds that he saw great potential in the fact that there was a large group of people in the science club who were able to organize themselves.

“People really wanted to do this. We wanted to turn this student passion into something private, into a company. It worked out, years later”  he says.

He notes that despite considerable desire, the beginnings were not easy. The space sector is difficult and demanding. However, an organized group of people, the motivation found during the development of the study circle and the germination of the idea through years of study, made it a natural decision to start a company in the space sector.

“We had two options – go work for a space company or try something of our own. We tried it and it worked out

Cooperation and sharing of responsibilities

From the very beginning, the company was run by both Przemek and Tomek.

“One founder may not be enough. Cooperation is rather advisable” Przemek argues.

He adds that funds also often prefer startups with more than one founder. He links this to the fact that there is then less risk that the idea will not come to fruition after all.

“Although this can also be complicated. I don’t know if this isn’t one of the main reasons why startups fall apart. Because you can just not get along at some point,” he admits.

Fortunately, he and Tomek get along well with each other, ever since the aforementioned science club. 

They see the benefits in their cooperation, building something bigger together than if each were to create separately. And they divide tasks in the company between them. Liftero is divided into two main teams – mechanical-drive and electronic. Tomek manages the former, while Przemek manages the latter.

In addition, Tomek, who is defending his doctorate next year, also introduces scientific and innovative threads. And Przemek additionally handles Liftero’s communications and image.

There are also tasks they tackle together, such as fundraising.

In simple words about complex technology

Although Liftero deals with specialized technology in space, it can be explained by a down-to-earth example.

“An analogy for what we do can be rail transportation and cabs. Imagine you want to move from Warsaw to Krakow, to your home. You go from the main station in Warsaw, by train, to the station in Krakow,” says Przemek. – But then you have to get to your home. At the station in Krakow, train passengers call for a cab, which takes them to a specific place, their home. We are such a cab.”

And in space it looks like this:

Liftero’s satellite system is propelled. First there is a rocket, on board of which the Liftero space tug is mounted. That is, the satellite system. There are also several smaller satellites on board. The mission scenario is as follows: the rocket flies to a specific orbit. At the right moment, Liftero disconnects its vehicle from that rocket. And having its customers’ satellites on board, they change the particular parameters of the orbits, for specific satellites.

Liftero’s missions are thus about transport from orbit to orbit, not about transporting orbits from the ground.

It’s an expensive business

Liftero has overcome a lot of technical challenges while developing its technology.

“We’ve also managed to build an incredibly good team that already has experience in the space industry. At the moment it’s about 13 people. We have also managed to build a laboratory where we can conduct research on our technology at an adequate level for the industry,” Przemek says of Liftero’s successes.

He adds that another important achievement was the financial security for the company’s operations. He emphasizes how capital-intensive the business is. Related to this is the fact that investors, after handing over a lot of money, have to wait a relatively long time for results.

“But this is the nature of the space industry. To sell something you first have to test it in space. And in order to test it in space, you have to create this system, and the outlay there is considerable,” Przemek says.

Projects for the European Space Agency

Despite the demanding industry, Liftero has sourced and completed several projects for the European Space Agency (ESA) in just four years of the existence of the startup.

Przemek notes that this too has been quite a challenge:

“In order for the European Space Agency to entrust you with a contract you really have to prove yourself.”

However, Liftero’s co-founder says, working with such a renowned institution has had a snowball effect. The company has more and more breakthroughs and can apply for specific projects. It’s no longer just ESA that is initiating projects, but Liftero as well:

“We are aiming for ESA to fund the development of our technology, which we are developing.”

The venture that Przemek is talking about is propulsion system projects. So far, they have completed three such projects, just for ESA. They were mainly related to high-temperature testing of materials for use in space propulsion. Through this, Liftero acquires very valuable information, which is later used in the production of their thrusters.

Innovative technology and the future of space exploration

In an interview with Coopernicus, Przemek talks about Liftero’s plans for the coming years:

“Our vision is to revolutionize and change the paradigm of orbital transportation in space.”

Liftero wants to create reusable space tugs. And it’s not at all about sending its vehicles into space, which later return to Earth:

“At the moment, transportation to orbit is done in a point-to-point concept – that is, we fly from one point to another point and that’s where the mission ends. In contrast, we want to move to a hub-and-spoke model, meaning that the vehicle does some orbital transfer, moves some satellites, and its mission doesn’t end there. It returns to some hub orbit, can refuel there, intercept another packet of customer satellites and perform this maneuver again.”

Here again Przemek explains the complex technology with a simple example:

“Imagine that we have planes that fly from Warsaw to Berlin and then are thrown in the trash and scrapped after one flight. And now, this is the model that prevails in orbital transportation. And we want to change that.”

How will such technology affect the future of space exploration?

“I hope to a key degree,” laughs Przemek. – ”We will democratize access to space, meaning we will make it more accessible to satellite manufacturers and system integrators.”

He explains that the current problem is the price of launching cargo into space, which is extremely expensive. This greatly hinders the development of the entire sector. With the price reduction that Liftero’s technology wants to provide, a revolution of sorts could occur.

“We may not even realize at this point what benefits this kind of democratization of space could bring to humanity,” Przemek concludes.

Asked to pick out his guesses, Przemek gives the example of direct connectivity between satellites and our smartphones. This would provide access to the Internet through direct communication between our phone and the satellite.

“But this is already happening, the latest iPhones can already communicate this way. I was flying on a plane the other day and there was no coverage on board. My iPhone displayed a message that I could send a text message via satellite. So it’s already functioning.”

Liftero’s future

Liftero is not slowing down. And although Przemek doesn’t want to reveal details yet, there are new discoveries and projects in the near future.

Of the company’s future, he puts it in this way:

“We are a company that, in order to sell, has to demonstrate our technology in space. So, this is something that will be happening in the near future. We are thinking strongly about an orbital demonstration. That is our immediate goal. Later on, hopefully, there will already be a demonstration of the target service, along with carrying the first customers aboard our space tug. This can be expected in the near future.”

What’s more, the company also plans to expand to England. There are already steps being taken in this direction:

“So, in the future you can look out for us there as well.” –  Przemek announces.

Cover photography: Pixabay

Barbara Niemczyk
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
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Barbara Niemczyk

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