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BlackSky’s latest satellite goes to work on Day One

That didn’t take long: BlackSky says the latest Earth observation satellite in its growing constellation delivered its first imagery less than a day after it was launched into orbit from New Zealand on March 22.

Once the BlackSky 7 satellite was deployed from the kick stage on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, it took mere hours for BlackSky’s team to check out the satellite and downlink pictures. Those pictures were then analyzed by BlackSky’s Spectra AI suite of machine language algorithms to identify points of interest.

For example, one of the images could be used to track progress on Perth’s Waterbank urban development site in Australia — a billion-dollar project that’s generated its share of controversy over the years.

BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said the 24-hour turnaround demonstrates how quickly BlackSky’s geospatial data platform can respond to global developments.

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BlackSky satellite venture is going public in $1.5B deal

BlackSky Holdings, which is operating a growing fleet of Earth observation satellites as well as a cloud-based platform to analyze geospatial data, says it will become a publicly traded company through a blank-check merger valued at nearly $1.5 billion.

The agreement with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. would result in BlackSky being listed on the NYSE with the ticker symbol “BKSY” in July.

It’s the latest chapter for a company that traces its roots to Seattle — and still has roughly half of its 135-employee workforce here. The other half of the operation is based in Herndon, Va.

The merger could produce as much as $450 million in net proceeds for the combined company, which would be used to extend BlackSky’s Spectra data analytics platform, expand BlackSky’s Global satellite constellation, add to the company’s array of data feeds and boost its marketing efforts.

BlackSky says its pipeline of business opportunities has grown by $1.1 billion in the past 12 months and stands at $1.7 billion today. Many of those opportunities involve contracts with government agencies in the U.S. and around the world.

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Cosmic Space

Intel office enlists AI to analyze satellite images

U.S. intelligence officials today launched a program to develop new satellite image analysis tools that use machine learning and other tricks of the artificial intelligence trade.

In a news release, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity announced that contracts for the Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique program, or SMART, have been awarded to teams led by BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, which has offices in Seattle as well as Herndon, Va.; Accenture Federal Services, with offices in Arlington, Va.; Kitware, headquartered in New York; and Systems & Technology Research in Woburn, Mass.

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BlackSky will add night vision to its satellites

BlackSky’s satellites are already producing frequently updated, high-resolution views of planet Earth — but now the company says its next-generation spacecraft will kick things up a notch.

There’ll even be night vision.

BlackSky, which has offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va., announced today that its Gen-3 Global satellites will provide pictures with 50-centimeter spatial resolution, as well as short-wave infrared sensor readings.

That level of resolution for visual imagery will be twice as sharp as the current Gen-2 satellites’ 1-meter resolution. And the short-wave infrared imaging system should be able to deliver night-vision views as well as imagery that cuts through obscuring smoke and haze.

BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole told me the upgrades will continue as his company builds out its satellite constellation in low Earth orbit. “This isn’t like the old days, when you have to have some big announcement every five years,” he said. “This is just going to be expected. Customers will expect that behind Gen-3 is going to be Gen-4.”

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SpaceX launches Starlink and BlackSky satellites

After weeks of delay, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent up 57 more satellites for its Starlink broadband internet constellation, with two BlackSky planet-watching satellites hitching a ride.

The launch was originally scheduled for June, but had to be put off several times due to technical concerns, weather delays and range schedule conflicts. This time around, the countdown proceeded smoothly to liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. ET Aug. 7 (10:12 p.m. PT Aug. 6).

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Cosmic Space

Satellites swarm to look at Beirut blast aftermath

The aftermath of this week’s Beirut chemical explosion has been covered in triplicate by U.S. satellite imaging systems — with other nations’ satellites, drones and on-the-scene videos adding perspective.

All that imagery helped outside observers quickly verify that the killing blast was caused by the blow-up of a years-old stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which is typically used as fertilizer but can be turned into dangerous explosives.

The Aug. 4 explosion killed at least 100 people, injured thousands more, sent out a shock wave that damaged buildings up to 6 miles away, and generated a seismic shock that was felt as far away as Cyprus.

BlackSky is due to have two more Global satellites launched as soon as this week, as rideshare payloads on a SpaceX Falcon 9 under an arrangement with Seattle’s Spaceflight Inc. They’re among the first satellites built for BlackSky by Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Europe’s Thales Alenia Space. The deployment timetable calls for 16 BlackSky satellites to be on duty in low Earth orbit by early next year.

Two of BlackSky’s competitors, Planet and Maxar Technologies, also shared before-and-after views of the Beirut blast scene today:

BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet have all won study contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office, under a program aimed at assessing the companies’ ability to provide imagery for the defense and intelligence communities.

NRO says it will start a new round of commercial imagery procurements in late 2020, with an eye toward satisfying government requirements into the 2023 time frame. So the efforts to capture over Beirut isn’t merely meant to satisfy curiosity; they serve to demonstrate what the companies can do for national defense.

In addition to the satellite pictures from those three U.S. companies, there’s a surfeit of sobering imagery from other satellites and drones. Here’s a sampling:

To contribute online to Beirut relief efforts, check out the Lebanese Red Cross and Impact Lebanon on Just Giving.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

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LeoStella delivers BlackSky Earth-viewing satellites

Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella cast a spotlight today on the delivery of its first two built-from-scratch satellites for the BlackSky Earth-watching constellation ⁠— with their launch on a SpaceX rocket coming up soon.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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Japanese firms finish acquisition of Spaceflight

SpaceX SSO-A launch
One of Spaceflight’s most notable acccomplishments was the launch of 64 satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018. (SpaceX Photo)

Japan’s Mitsui & Co., working in partnership with Yamasa Co. Ltd., has completed the acquisition of Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. from its parent company, Spaceflight Industries.

Today’s announcement of the transaction’s completion follows up on February’s announcement of the sale for an undisclosed amount. Spaceflight Industries’ other subsidiary, BlackSky Global, isn’t part of the transaction and will continue to operate as a privately held company with offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va.

Spaceflight Industries also has a 50% share in LeoStella, a satellite manufacturing company based in Tukwila, Wash. The other half of that joint venture is owned by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian aerospace company.

Mitsui and Yamasa will similarly split ownership of Spaceflight Inc. as a 50-50 joint venture, operating independently with its headquarters remaining in Seattle.

The sale brings a parting of the ways for Spaceflight Inc., which focuses on arranging launch services for rideshare satellites; and BlackSky, which is building a satellite constellation for Earth observation and provides geospatial data analysis tools.

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Rules for satellite imaging get streamlined

Global satellites
An artist’s conception shows BlackSky’s Global satellites in orbit. (BlackSky Illustration)

The Commerce Department has released a new set of rules aimed at making the procedure for licensing Earth-imaging satellite systems more in tune with what’s technically possible and commercially available on the global market.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.