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SpaceX rocket launches 88 spacecraft, then aces landing

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent dozens of satellites into orbit today with a launch that featured an unusual on-the-ground touchdown for its first-stage booster.

Eighty-eight spacecraft were packed aboard the rocket, which took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida heading for a pole-to-pole orbit. That sun-synchronous orbit is typically preferred for Earth observation satellites, of which there were plenty.

Two of the spacecraft were Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. One of the Sherpas used a electric propulsion system to maneuver in space and deploy satellites into different orbits. The other was a free-flier.

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LeoStella makes a bigger mark in the satellite market

SpaceX is getting set to launch scores of satellites for its Transporter-2 rideshare mission, and one of those satellites marks a milestone for LeoStella.

Loft Orbital’s satellite, known as YAM-3 (“Yet Another Mission-3”), is the first of its kind built for San Francisco-based Loft Orbital by LeoStella, a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space.

All of the satellites previously shipped out from LeoStella’s factory in Tukwila, Wash., were built for BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation.

“This is the first satellite LeoStella has delivered to a customer other than BlackSky,” Brian Rider, LeoStella’s chief technology officer, told GeekWire in an email. “LeoStella successfully tailored its core production satellite as a multi-mission bus to support Loft, on a very different payload and mission. Loft is our first customer for which we applied this approach.”

YAM-3 will host a variety of payloads — including a demonstration for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack satellite constellation program, and an Internet of Things telecom payload for Eutelsat. The satellite is part of a broader contract that calls on LeoStella to build and integrate satellite buses for several upcoming Loft Orbital missions.

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How LeoStella uses software to track satellite hardware

TUKWILA, Wash. — LeoStella’s satellite factory has tons of hardware spread out over 22,000 square feet of space, but the secret ingredient for its manufacturing process may well be the software.

“What you see here is the physical layout,” Brian Rider, LeoStella’s chief technology officer, told us during a tour of the satellite venture’s headquarters in Tukwila, just south of Seattle. “But what’s a little bit harder to see is the digital process behind it.”

LeoStella, a joint venture co-owned by BlackSky Holdings and Thales Alenia Space, relies on a workflow management system that tracks satellite components all the way through design and manufacturing. Employees use a digital dashboard to make sure that every part is in its proper place at the proper time.

“It’s truly not just a paperless process, but it’s a digital, intelligent manufacturing approach,” Rider explained. “We can record all of our manufacturing details. We can do statistical process control and understand where we have areas where we can make our systems less restrictive, or more restrictive to improve product quality.”

The facility itself is designed to maximize efficiency for turning out up to 40 satellites per year, including two satellites per month for BlackSky’s Earth-observation constellation. The interior of a standard-issue building in a suburban business park was extensively remodeled when LeoStella took over the space in 2018.

“Not many companies have the chance to take a step back and start from a clean sheet of paper, and really think about all the aspects that make satellite production possible and efficient and affordable,” Rider said. “That’s what we did at LeoStella.”

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LeoStella will help build space traffic trackers

Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella will oversee the assembly of the first three satellites for a constellation that’s designed to keep track of space traffic.

LeoStella’s new project is part of a bigger contract between Canada’s NorthStar Earth and Space on one hand, and Europe’s Thales Alenia Space on the other.

NorthStar says its Skylark satellite constellation will be part of the world’s first commercial space-based environmental and near-space monitoring system. The satellites will be tasked with monitoring thousands of natural and human-made objects in low Earth orbit, and sounding an alert if a collision risk is detected.

That sort of space situational awareness is expected to become more important as thousands more satellites — including spacecraft for the SpaceX Starlink, OneWeb and Amazon Kuiper broadband data networks — are launched in the years ahead.

“We are here to make space safe for doing business, now and into the future,” Stewart Bain, NorthStar’s CEO and co-founder, said in a news release.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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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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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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How the Seattle area became a satellite hotspot

SpaceX employees in Redmond
SpaceX employees in Redmond, Wash., give a cheer during the countdown to a Falcon 9 rocket launch that put dozens of Redmond-built SpaceX Starlink satellites in orbit on Nov. 11. (SpaceX via YouTube)

Seattle may not be the best place to put a launch pad, but the region is turning into one of the most prolific satellite production centers in the United States.

“How many of you know that Washington state is actually one of the world’s leading satellite manufacturers?” Roger Myers, a longtime aerospace executive who is currently president-elect of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, asked during a session of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s Economic Leadership Forum on Nov. 18.

In terms of sheer mass and revenue, Colorado-based Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s satellite operation in California still have bragging rights.

But when you tally up how many satellites have been launched in the past couple of years, it’s hard to beat SpaceX’s satellite development and manufacturing facility in Redmond, Wash.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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LeoStella will build SpaceBelt cloud satellites

SpaceBelt satellites
The SpaceBelt data storage constellation takes advantage of a ring of satellites in low Earth orbit as well as geostationary satellites in higher orbits. (Cloud Constellation Illustration)

Cloud Constellation Corp. has chosen LeoStella, the U.S.-European joint venture based in Tukwila, Wash., to build satellites for its cloud-based data storage service.

The satellite constellation, known as SpaceBelt, is scheduled to go into operation in late 2021. It’s designed to give customers a secure place in space to park sensitive data, accessible only through Cloud Constellation’s telecommunications links.

“It’s basically the cloud transformation of space,” chief commercial officer Dennis Gatens told GeekWire in advance of today’s announcement.

The SpaceBelt concept calls for putting 10 satellites in equatorial low Earth orbit (or LEO), at an altitude of about 400 miles (650 to 700 kilometers), with third-party satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) providing the connections to Cloud Constellation’s proprietary data terminals on the ground. Such a system combines the accessibility of GEO satellites with the low cost of LEO satellites.

Cloud Constellation CEO Cliff Beek said that LeoStella, a joint venture created last year by Europe’s Thales Alenia Space and Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, was chosen not only because its pricing was “very competitive,” but also because it promised to deliver all 10 satellites in 24 months.

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New CEO takes over at LeoStella satellite venture

Mike Hettich
Mike Hettich has taken over as LeoStella’s CEO. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

TUKWILA, Wash. — Mike Hettich has finally completed his transition from chief learning officer to chief executive officer at LeoStella, the satellite manufacturing joint venture headquartered here.

Hettich came to LeoStella from Kirkland, Wash.-based Astronics Advanced Electronic Systems, where he served as vice president for 19 years.

For the past few weeks, he’s been learning the ropes at the Tukwila development and manufacturing facility from Chris Chautard, who stepped down from the CEO post and is returning to his home base at Thales Alenia Space in France. In an interview, Hettich joked that “chief learning officer” came the closest to describing his role during the transition.

Today marked Hettich’s first day as LeoStella’s CEO.

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LeoStella moves ahead with satellite factory

LeoStella site
LeoStella’s satellite manufacturing facility will be in a business park in Tukwila. (Sabey Photo)

TUKWILA, Wash. — Today it’s an empty office building in a business park south of Seattle, not far from a Mexican restaurant and an organic nursery. But within just a few months, the place will be turning out two to three satellites per month for a U.S.-European joint venture called LeoStella.

Get the full story on GeekWire.