Space startup okapi orbits: their software prevents satellite collisions

Their software prevents satellites from becoming space junk

Professional photo Fiona Mathewson

Space X and Amazon plan to launch thousands of satellites into space. This also increases the risk of collisions. The space startup of Kristina Nikolaus wants to have found a solution.

Kristina Nikolaus responded to a notice on the TU Braunschweig bulletin board - and landed her startup Okapi Orbits

When you think of space, you think of infinite expanses. To astronauts who do three flips while brushing their teeth. But also a few satellites flying around, supplying the world population with one of the most important resources of modern life: the internet.

While we cling to our outdated space fantasies, Kristina Nikolaus, founder of the space startup Okapi Orbits, looks at the current dangers in orbit. More and more satellites are under threat, the 27-year-old tells Grunderszene. According to Statista, just under 5.000 satellites in space. At the same time, according to Nikolaus, over 900.000 debris particles at a speed of 28.000 kilometers per hour through orbit. Even the smallest metal shards can cause immense damage and destroy entire satellites, which in turn produce even more junk.

Changing lanes for satellites

Space startup Okapi Orbits helps companies avoid such collisions. The prediction starts with observation via the software’s dashboard, Nikolaus explains. The program collects space observation data from a variety of sources, such as data centers from around the world. Then the software superimposes the data sets to create a situation picture of space. Using artificial intelligence, the program tries to figure out how likely it is that two objects will get too close to each other. Both the customer using the software and the startup keep track of this data at all times. If there is a risk of a collision, the space startup’s software calculates an evasive maneuver and informs its customers about it. Clients can then decide whether or not to initiate a lane change in space. Okapi Orbits itself does not perform maneuvers.

Customers buy subscription licenses for the software, which they pay monthly or once a year. The founder does not want to reveal how much the space startup is charging for the product. Nikolaus also does not want to give any information about the number of buyers. The customers are companies whose satellites, weighing between 100 and 500 kilograms, are among the smaller objects. They use it mainly for Earth observation, taking infrared images of the Earth. Other customers provide broadband Internet from orbit.

Tricky dodges in space

Santa Claus remembers the first order quite clearly. Her phone rang, a strange voice rang out. One company needed Nicholas’ help. A satellite orbiting through orbit was in danger of being torn into a hundred pieces in the event of a collision with a rocket part. "We had to do something." Even though Nikolaus’ product hadn’t even been on the market yet and only a beta version existed. The probability of a collision with the remains of a missile is said to have been over 50 percent on that day. "Normally we are in the per mille range," explains the founder.

Space startup okapi orbits: their software prevents satellite collisions

Nicholas has always had a soft spot for science, numbers, dates and facts. And the startup’s software has something to do with it all. Using artificial intelligence, the software locates satellites in space and calculates the probability of a collision with another object. If a satellite is about to collide, the software makes a maneuver recommendation. Similar to changing lanes on the expressway. Except that these are satellites that dodge millimeter-sized metal shards instead of bicyclists.

Nikolaus co-founders Christopher Kebschull, Jonas Radtke and Sven Muller had recognized the problem around the emerging scrap in space many years ago. In 2015, they launched their first research projects at TU Braunschweig. In 2018, they had gone looking for reinforcements — via a call on the university’s bulletin board. The then 23-year-old Nicholas was interested and has since helped build Okapi Orbits.

Startup instead of career at Daimler

Yet the now 27-year-old has a somewhat different background than her fellow founders. Instead of aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering, she completed a dual degree in business administration in Heidenheim, Baden-Wuerttemberg, and worked for Daimler in marketing and sales. She gained experience at Mercedes in customer service. Did an internship in Malaysia. Lived in Siberia for half a year. Actually, the perfect prerequisites for a steep career in the Group, not? "Yes, but in my early 20s, I didn’t want to spend my life working for a corporation," explains Nikolaus. This was followed by a master’s degree in technology-oriented management at the Technical University of Braunschweig – and a career as a founder.

In 2020, Forbes listed the founder, who has a Kazakh immigrant background, in the 30 under 30 list for exceptional young people in Germany – as a pioneer in the New Space movement. At Okapi Orbits, the founder mainly takes care of administrative tasks, organizes investor funds, writes applications and contacts customers.

Companies like SpaceX drive demand

Financially, Okapi Orbits is supported by a few business angels, including Ingo Luge, who sits on the supervisory boards of Thyssen Krupp and Eon, among others. Michael Oxfort is also one of the company’s backers and is named as a business angel in the list of shareholders. Previously, he was manager of Black Bridge, a company that uses five satellites to collect Earth observation data.

Now the founding team of Okapi Orbits wants to collect more money and is in the last phase of fundraising. Santa Claus now wants to give it another go. She wants to make Okapi "really big," she enthuses. "Tonight I have a pitch training session. This is followed by a Q&A with an existing investor." Thereby their day started early. Before our conversation that morning, she answered questions from an interested VC, whom she declined to name.

Startups offering solutions to the increasing litter in space are becoming more important. One reason for this is the private space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The multi-billionaire’s company is planning to invest in the expansion of a broadband Internet connection 12.Launching 000 satellites into orbit. Amazon also plans around 3.The aim of the project is to launch more than 000 satellites into space by the end of 2022 – in order to provide remote areas with better Internet access. Nikolaus therefore expects demand for programs like hers to increase in the future.

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