Received his bachelor’s degree from the HSE Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM) in 2009 and his PhD from MIEM in 2012. Anton Sivkov began working as a grade II engineer in the digital device development department of OJSC Avionica in 2007. Later, in 2012, he became Chief Engineer at Sputnix Ltd, a private Russian company that manufactures high-tech microsatellite components and technologies, as well as microsatellite-based services. He is currently Chief Electronics Developer and the Head Design Engineer for the electronic components of key Sputnix devices.
«Building satellites is truly a dream come true»
About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
The Russian engineer is no longer someone in an oversized sweater who likes the mountains and spends all their time in a garage tinkering with engines. Today’s engineers create developmental constructions for elementary school children. They study the economics of the space market and put the satellites they design into orbit. In the latest edition of Success Builder, MIEM graduate Anton Sivkov discusses how satellites are different from Legos, what Star Trek can add to a good education, and why there is no need to wear tin foil hats, even at a time when space is teeming with satellites.
What do you think of the stereotype that there are two types of people – techies and those into the humanities? Did MIEM help you determine which of these you were?
I got through my first two years of school largely thanks to inertia. I didn’t really understand what engineering was or how to use it in real life. I correctly guessed that mathematical analysis, physics, linear algebra, etc. all made up a necessary foundation, but I then realized that I didn’t have enough practical experience using this knowledge. So it all began my third year at the university. They started teaching us how the world works – from DC motors to electronic stability programs. We learned how to use this all in real life, and this is how engineering entered my life. But I decided first to work more with my hands, and I didn’t reach the path that ultimately led me to space technology until after I started working at a defence plant.
I’ve always dreamed about space, and I admit I’m a big Star Trek fan and watch anything with the word 'star' in it
When you started working at the plant, did you ever get disappointed when a good theory would look different in practice?
In my junior year, we started learning about mechanics, and I found electromechanics to be pretty damn interesting. But I didn’t know how to do this, and I wanted to work with my hands. No one let me touch anything at the plant though, and I moved from the micromechanics department, where engines are made, to the digital device development department, which is where I found what I really needed to do be doing. I immediately started developing devices and programming. So I kept working with digital technology, not mechanical structure design.
commercial microsatellites ranging from 1 kg to 50 kg were put into orbit in 2014.
Source: SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc.
So you’re not at all able to get your hands dirty at work? What is an engineer’s work process like?
You always have to use your brain first, and you have to understand which developments need to be made. Then you have to do calculations and as a result of these calculations, you put your ‘blueprints’ into production. It’s fun work; you create a list of necessary electronic components, and then my favourite part, you select the hardware components that have to be included in the technical specification requirements. It’s a lot like building with Legos, and it’s an amazing feeling when everything comes together! But it still might not work. In engineering, very little ever works out perfectly the first time. You can start building a satellite, for example, with a soldering iron. When I get a finished device, this is exactly what I do. I also got to work a lot with my hands when we were assembling our microsatellite at Sputnix. Practically all of the devices there we developed ourselves, including, of course, the onboard cable network.
Overall, practice shows that anything good takes about nine months to create [laughs]. We get to work with our hands quite a bit really. Our broadcast engineer, for example, made radio beacons for hamsters, and then released them into the wild and tracked the radio waves. This was not because he liked making fun of the hamsters, but because he wanted to study animal migration. The right radio beacon was released after nine months of experimentation, by the way.
How did you end up working for a satellite manufacturer like Sputnix?
The electronics wing at Sputnix is like my baby. I don’t mean to say that I developed everything myself; we have an incredible team of engineers, and we’re all so closely connected that I like to think of things this way. When I was at the defence factory, I didn’t feel like anything benefited anyone, and there was just no professional growth. Fortunately, I had a friend who was a mathematician at ScanEx, a company that takes pictures of the earth and then sells them to companies like Yandex Maps. He was responsible for developing stabilization systems for scientific research satellites. The project turned into a separate startup, and the project received a grant from Skolkovo. This is when they asked me to come work for them as an engineer. Building satellites is truly a dream come true. I’ve always dreamed about space, and I admit I’m a big Star Trek fan and watch anything with the word “star” in it.
I thought only government institutions were able to put things into space, but you’re a private company, right?
ScanEx ended up developing an orientation and stabilization system for the Chibis-M microsatellite, which was built by the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The project was successful, as Chibis was in orbit for the set timeframe and [laughs] successfully became a member of ‘team Pacific ocean’ when it burnt up in the atmosphere after three years. ScanEx then thought, ‘why not make our own apparatus?’ You have to pay to use data from other satellites, but having your own allows you to use it another way. So ScanEx created its own space startup, Sputnix, out of the department that developed the Chibis system, and the company carried out its first project using the grant from Skolkovo. So we’re simultaneously a private and a government-owned company.
In Russia, the government is the main customer as far as satellites are concerned, and this customer has certain stereotypes, in my opinion. But we believe that our work will gradually change these stereotypes and that the government will start trusting private companies. There are quite a few educational and academic projects that have no need for secrecy, and with these projects, we are able to develop satellites in a way that is much more efficient and profitable.
The graduate of a Russian university knows everything about everything, but has quite a small amount of practical experience
Can anyone go and order a satellite for themselves?
They can, but the question is why? Satellites aren’t built for no reason; they have a specific purpose. If we’re talking about MTS [a leading Russian telecommunications operator], they buy satellites for radio communications and digital television purposes, for example. Additionally, satellites are very expensive, and today’s technological progress in this field is aimed at making them smaller. It costs 20,000 euro per kilogram to launch a space device, and if you want to launch one that weighs one and a half tons, you better set aside a few million euro just to use the launch device, not counting development costs and the cost of other components. This is why the entire space industry in Europe and the U.S. is currently thinking about how to fit one and a half tons into 300 kilograms, and a lot of startups are now trying to operate in this niche. Small satellites have to be able to function like their bigger counterparts. Take micro- and nanosatellites for example. A microsatellite weighs up to 100 kilograms, and this is the niche we are trying to fill with our Plug and Play technology, the first of its kind in Russia. This approach allows us to lower the weight and cost of the satellite, as well as the development time. As a result, a much wider range of customers can carry out their projects.
Why is the government still trying to develop satellites itself even though it has long been able to turn to private manufacturers?
There’s the misunderstanding that space is an arena mostly for defence technologies and for companies that have already proven themselves trustworthy. There’s also a more social problem at work here – the government cannot fully rely on private manufacturers because it’s forced to maintain its own enterprises. You need about 50 people to assemble a satellite, but a company has, for example, 500 employees who all need to be given work.
Some things are still changing, and the media has reported on the government’s desire to work with the private space industry. After all, a lot of companies, like our own, have lower costs and can carry out projects more quickly.
Another problem with having the government as your customer is the available hardware. A lot of foreign companies are able to take advantage of all the achievements and developments that have been made, but the main thing is that a lot of these components can be purchased openly online. In our case, however, we are required to use Russian-made components. We can do this, but it’s just hard to find them, and there’s no information out there anywhere. This is why you have to spend a great deal of time picking out all the right parts.
were made by Roscosmos in 2015, one of which was unsuccessful.
Do you currently work in the defence industry?
There’s an interest in it, but so far we haven’t done anything for these kinds of projects. [Deputy Prime Minister] Dmitry Rogozin says that there will be a mutual working relationship between the government and the private space industry by 2020. If we don’t die of starvation first, then there’s no question this will happen. Sputnix has now started working on projects that the government finds more interesting and civilian-focused. For example, Sputnix developed the Tabletsat Constructor kit, which consists of several cheaper components that allow students to get a sense of what engineering is like with their own two hands. They are able to assemble an apparatus and write a code to make it all work. Our constructor kits are currently being produced en masse, and they’re being sent to different children’s science and technology centres around Russia. We also participated in the development of an anthropomorphic robot for Roscosmos that will be used at the International Space Station.
In what ways do you work with universities, specifically MIEM?
Universities serve as an experimental platform for us. When we started designing our Aurora microsatellite, I began looking for places to conduct testing at, and I remembered that MIEM has a really cool space safety laboratory. We visited MIEM with an entire list of questions, and the professors explained exactly how to avoid any mistakes. We use MIEM’s useful technologies and in this sense, we are integrators for them. And there are numerous examples like this, as there’s no shortage of scientific projects out there. In addition, we commission various research projects at the universities – there’s no sense in developing absolutely all technologies yourself.
Universities might also be interested in working together on educational projects. MIEM, for example, recently opened the Mission Control Centre, and now the institute can work with not only our satellites, but with others’ as well. Additionally, students are able to develop and fine-tune their software on real objects to check how their mathematical models work together (for example, an ICA model in orbit or a control system for antennae). In addition to the Mission Control Centre, we really want to build a laboratory for testing small satellite orientation systems, and in this sense MIEM might become one of the few universities in the world that is capable of developing, testing, and controlling satellites. We are calling this laboratory the laboratory of dreams [laughs].
Aside from creating the constructor, how else do you take part in educating children and youth?
Sputnix has always been interested in partnering up with different universities, while several universities have expressed their own interest in working with us, including Tomsk Polytechnic University, the Siberian State Aerospace University, and others. This mostly involves student internships during which they learn how to build, prepare, and launch satellites. We’re also able to educate students outside of our work with the universities. Students can do things ranging from working with a soldering iron to programming. But you can’t really teach them much in just two months. Another project concerns a laboratory within the university where students start building satellites. This is a longer project after which your resume will include a pretty interesting line: ‘Participated in the construction of a satellite that has already been in orbit for a year.’ This would be an exciting project, but it’s currently on hold until financing is confirmed.
If you could, what would you change about education in the science and technology field?
Here, unlike at schools abroad, our students are only given a theoretical education, and a very fundamental one at that. That’s the cost of an academic education. If we look at MIT's projects, for example, we see that students there work with their hands. They build electric motorcycles that are just as much a part of the degree as research and academics. This is why our engineers are open to anything, and like myself, they come to a company and over the course of their work they understand how to use their hands in science.
But still, how does our education system differ from the West’s? Only in terms of fundamental and theoretical knowledge?
The graduate of a Russian university knows everything about everything, but has quite a small amount of practical experience. For example, our chief programmer had no former experience with satellites, but he graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute and knew how to make a drone. Knowledge of mathematics and control law allowed him to easily handle the algorithms and develop a program for our MKA. Working with space has its own unique characteristics, just like working with cars does, but the laws of mechanics and physics are the same no matter where you are.
Currently, the American CubeSat is popular. It’s a satellite in the shape of a 10x10x10 cm cube and weighs a kilogram
Have you never been intrigued by the idea of moving abroad for work?
I’m Russian and wouldn’t be able to live in that atmosphere because I’ve been spoiled by our government. Even though we criticize it left and right, we have a lot of freedom and opportunities. We’re forming a Russian market, and we can do anything here. It’s just bad that we only have one customer, and we don’t have something like Harvard with a billion-dollar foundation that allows it to conduct research and launch spacecraft independently.
We went to the Technical University of Berlin once, and I didn’t speak a word of English there – all of the professors were Russian. There’s something in science called the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), which is a purely Russian invention that helps classify and standardize all of the inventions that have been created. People joke about this, but TRIZ helps us understand inventions even though it doesn’t help us come up with new ones. A business plan can even be made using TRIZ. It turned out to be a very necessary field. Not many people know about it in our country, and there’s not even a class on it even though our TRIZ specialists work as consultants for Opel, Samsung, and other top companies.
All cell phone operators seem to be putting satellites into orbit. Will we ever run out of space for them?
Satellites are in orbit at a range of between 400 km and 800 km, which is a big area even considering the fact that there are already an unbelievable number of satellites there. We’ve gotten warnings a few times before that we’re dangerously close to someone else’s spacecraft. The owners wrote us and asked if everything was okay because they got an alert thanks to a telemetry board. Geosynchronous satellites are much more complicated – space is like gold there.
Almost like parking in the city.
The biggest problem is not with the number of satellites, but with the radio frequency band. Moscow has 10 frequencies, and you can’t get many more than that. The same thing goes for satellites. If two devices are flying next to one another, each might stop the other from receiving data. And it’s problematic to get the okay for a certain frequency, especially since everything is busy with military frequencies in our country, and we are automatically subject to a ton of additional permits.
Who has the most satellites in orbit?
At one time, the USSR had satellites over all of us, and to this day you hear people say that they heard about some satellite coming back to life and about how some radio enthusiasts found it and it responded to them. But there are more international projects now. Russia produces and launches mostly complex spacecraft used for taking detailed photos of earth – things like GLONASS, communications satellites, and special communications satellites. Russia doesn’t have many small satellites though. Currently, the American CubeSat is popular. It’s a satellite in the shape of a 10x10x10 cm cube and weighs a kilogram.
How do you ‘carry’ a satellite into space?
With the Dnepr rocket. It’s a converted intercontinental ballistic missile. The warhead was removed and replaced with a nose cone, and satellites were put on it. A private company, Kosmotras, currently carries out these launches.
What’s the most expensive part of a satellite?
Here it’s important to differentiate between material factors and nonmaterial factors. The most important aspect of a satellite’s design is the people, both in a literal and a figurative sense. The team is very valuable. Plus, there are of course several components that you can’t just buy in a store. The solar panel, for example, is the simplest and longest lasting fuel source, but there are also nuclear reactors. This concerns deep space though. Also, cameras and other scientific equipment are things without which the construction of specific MKA would not be necessary.
What is the overall cost of a spacecraft?
Our satellite cost around $1.5 million, but this isn’t very much by space standards. For an entire year, a team of 20 people work on the satellite, running tests and such, which is always very expensive. But the most expensive thing isn’t putting the thing together, but making it so it survives the tests and shows that it is reliable and can make it through a rocket launch. The man-hours spent on this step are never cheap.
What effect do satellites have on people? You don’t think it’s time to start wearing tin foil hats?
Satellites have only positive effects on people. This of course does not include the times you sit for three days straight reconstructing a satellite because you accidentally burnt up the fuel source two weeks before testing.
active satellites make up Russia’s satellite constellation.
Microsatellites are incredibly important for building large spacecraft and/or for space missions because they are a way of testing out different devices in space. We gather statistics that allow us to understand if a certain element can be used, for example, in a mission to mars. If we’re talking about satellites as a whole, then we’re talking communications, television, and science – the Hubble telescope that we all love, for example.
Do you think you’d ever like to work on your own business project? How simple would this be for someone in the field of science?
Three years ago, the term ‘venture capital investment’ sounded nonsensical to me, but everything became clearer when I started at Sputnix in 2012. I went to the Skolkovo Space Cluster Friends Club several times [a meeting for members of the space community there and a platform for them to talk about their projects], and tortured our general director with questions, after which the entire financing process became more or less clear to me, I think. You need to want something, and it’s not a bad idea to go to different events to meet the right people and to figure out where to find the right investor for your project. Out of curiosity, I went to several ‘Open Innovations’ meetings and tried to talk with people about investing, and I realized that there aren’t that many venture capital funds in Russia that are ready to invest in scientific project. These are too long-term of investments.
What do you think of the HSE-MIEM merger? Does this open up new opportunities for you to work with the university?
At first I was a conservative opponent, but now I view the merger more positively. A certain synergy is taking place between MIEM and HSE, as these amazing universities are surrounded by a lot of investors that will allow MIEM to turn into the type of university capable of creating different tech startups. HSE understands how to start and run a business, while MIEM knows how to make good engineers great, and only these two schools have such potential. Plus it would be cool to teach engineers more about economics. This ensures that all projects have a future, while the engineers will have additional financial support.