Innovating in Space


Creating a portfolio of space innovation projects takes experience, talent and an open mind.

Yasrine Ibnyahya is the Senior Director of the Advanced Concepts and Technologies, a team she designed to lead Inmarsat’s efforts in space technology innovation. This team of pioneers takes a unique approach to innovation, treating each project as if they were venture capitalists (VC) assessing its value and potential.

Just as a VC might, the team has a portfolio of space technology innovation projects running at all times, with varying levels of complexity and differing timelines, which are spread across several sectors. Some opportunities may succeed, whilst others may not, which is why they believe that it’s always good to have a few irons in the fire, so to speak.

“What’s key for me is that we always operate with an ‘experimentation mindset’ and iterate with the customer in the room,” shares Ibnyahya. “The reason that’s important is that you may set out to solve one problem but actually, there's a whole suite of other problems to be solved that only the customer knows,” she continues. “And by working hand in hand, developing a proof of concept with the end user, you get a much better designed technical solution.”

Yasrine Ibnyahya
MHI JAXA Tanegashima Space Center


Ibnyahya explains that this kind of problem solving is precisely why she finds innovation so exciting. “You start the project thinking you’ve identified a problem to solve, yet when you present that solution to the customer, they see so many other benefits that you hadn't originally thought of,” she reinforces.

That’s exactly what happened in the development of Inmarsat’s new satellite-based rocket launch telemetry system, InRange. The in-orbit telemetry relay service for rockets was recently awarded a National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP) contract by the UK Space Agency and is now underway.

InRange is a ground-breaking solution for launch vehicle operators offering them real time information on the trajectory of their rocket without having blackout zones, which are commonplace. The systems used today require data to be sent over ground stations that are pointed toward the sky. When rockets are between two ground stations that are separated by an ocean, for example, no telemetry information about the health of a rocket is available within what is termed a ‘blackout zone’.

Early in the development of the InRange concept, once the technology had been validated and demonstrated, the Advanced Concepts and Technologies team set out to engage a customer. They took their presentation on an international roadshow of sorts, seeking out the best launch vehicle customers around the world – and one became captivated with the idea.

H3 launch vehicle

Putting the customer first

That customer was Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), who were keen to work with Inmarsat on their new H3 rocket. The Inmarsat team were thrilled to be working with MHI, especially as Inmarsat had already placed an order to be the first commercial customer for the H3 launch vehicle. They immediately began developing this project alongside MHI, designing it to fit perfectly with their specific constraints.

This meant MHI were heavily involved in the design of the InRange solution, from the system to the architecture. They were also involved in the selection of other partners, who are building the solution, as they have an inherent interest in product and service delivery.

The other partners that came on board were Safran Data Systems, to provide the transmitter to be installed on the rocket and Haigh-Farr Inc., who are building the antenna system. “Both partners are at the top of their game with vast amounts of experience, so matched with MHI and with Inmarsat to provide a highly reliable service, it’s the perfect combination to deliver a very sustainable solution for the future,” shares Ibnyahya.

A solution with benefits

One of the most satisfying elements of this project, says Ibnyahya, was the response from the customer, who was able to see so many more benefits than her team had originally thought of. One of those benefits, for example, is that operationally, it makes their lives so much easier as they only have to deal with a single provider (Inmarsat) for the telemetry service.

On top of that, launch operators had to narrow down their launch window to ensure their rocket passed over these ground stations at the right time, which had a negative impact on the fuel consumption of the rockets. “So, by talking to the potential customer, we realised that beyond our intended benefit of continuous real time telemetry, customers also benefit from the ability to have new optimal trajectories, as well as improving operational costs and the speed at which they can launch rockets,” explains Ibnyahya.

“And most importantly now, because they have optimised their trajectory, they can consume less fuel on the rocket or lift heavier spacecraft, allowing for additional technology onboard for a more competitive rocket while  remaining more friendly to the environment” she reveals.

The reliability of L-band

Part of the innovation process is to apply proven technology to new solutions. Inmarsat’s L-band satellite network has been used for safety services since the company’s inception 40 years ago and is depended upon for its seamless global coverage along with 99.9% network reliability. It is these capabilities that the team are applying to InRange to provide a highly reliable solution for launch vehicles.

“That global coverage is key,” says Ibnyahya. “It means we can enable any launch vehicle with the same solution, over any launch pad in the world, perhaps providing the opportunity to create new launch pads that people may not have considered before,” she suggests.

L-band is also very effective and robust to weather conditions, meaning it only requires a low-cost antenna solution. On top of benefits of the frequency, the fact that our L-band capacity is provided from geostationary orbit is key to the coverage and simplicity of the solution. Finally, add to that Inmarsat’s operational resilience and 24/7 support, which is vital for launch vehicles. It’s easy to see why this solution provides launch operators with new levels of freedom and simplicity.

Inmarsat-4 satellite

Seizing opportunities

Identifying the growing demand in the launch vehicle market enabled the Advanced Concepts and Technologies team to quickly seize on the opportunity to provide better satellite capabilities. These capabilities don’t only provide launch vehicle operators with the ability to track their rockets but also the flexibility to be able to quickly replan launches, as their frequency increases.

Also, NASA, which has traditionally handled satellite tracking of launch vehicles, particularly for science missions, has recently announced it is retiring its service and will not be replacing it, making space for new commercial operators.

The innovation doesn’t end there 

With Ibnyahya at the helm of the Advanced Concepts and Technologies team, there will be no rest in seeking out further opportunities to innovate within the space technology sector. Given her well-rounded experience, she has a unique end to end view of the space sector and keeps an eye on the technology trends in the world on a daily basis, making the connections to see where they can bring value to Inmarsat and the world.  

“I work with a lot with startups as well, and they bring in fresh energy and allow us to keep our eyes open to what's happening out there,” explains Ibnyahya. “And we enable them as much as we can because their success is our success,” she concludes. With the experience, talent and attitude behind the drive for innovation at Inmarsat, we see only promise when it comes to supporting many more successes.