Fiction Science Club

Chasing SpaceX: The new space race gets a reality check

Can anyone keep up with SpaceX in the commercial space race?

It might be one of the four companies profiled in “When the Heavens Went on Sale” — a new book written by Ashlee Vance, the tech journalist who chronicled SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s feats and foibles eight years ago.

Or it might be one of the dozens of other space ventures that have risen up to seek their fortune on the final frontier. Or maybe no one.

The space race’s ultimate prizes may still be up for grabs, but in Vance’s view, one thing is clear: There wouldn’t be a race if it weren’t for Musk and SpaceX.

“Elon sort of set this whole thing in motion,” Vance says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “My book is more or less a story of people who want to be the next Elon Musk.”


NRO strikes multibillion-dollar deals for satellite images

Three satellite imaging companies are in line to receive billions of dollars from the National Reconnaissance Office over the next decade, thanks to a string of contracts announced today.

The companies are the same satellite operators who won study contracts from the NRO three years ago: BlackSkyMaxar Technologies and Planet.

BlackSky, which got its start in Seattle and is now headquartered in Virginia, says its contract for Electro-Optical Commercial Layer imagery sets up a five-year base subscription with a starting value of $85.5 million, plus options to extend the contract to 10 years. If all options are exercised, total contract value would be $1.021 billion.

Colorado-based Maxar, which was the first to provide commercial satellite imagery to the NRO, would be paid $300 million per year for the first five years, plus options for $1.74 billion in the following five years. Total potential value would be $3.24 billion. California-based Planet didn’t disclose the value of its contract.

BlackSky’s stock nearly doubled in value today, ending the trading session at $2.33 per share. Maxar’s share price rose almost 18% to close at $28.86. Meanwhile, Planet’s stock was up 14%, finishing up at $5.73.

Frequently updated commercial imaging has proven its value to the U.S. intelligence community in crises such as the war in Ukraine. The NRO said today’s deals represent the agency’s largest-ever commercial imagery contract effort.

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.


SpaceX sends Starlink and Planet satellites to orbit

SpaceX today launched dozens more of its Starlink broadband internet satellites, plus three piggyback satellites for Planet — marking the first of the company’s in-house rideshare deliveries to orbit.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


Images stream in from a new crop of satellites

Beijing as seen by SkySat
A satellite image of Beijing, captured by one of Planet’s SkySat spacecraft, shows the Chinese capital’s futuristic high-speed rail station toward the left edge of the frame. (Planet Photo)

More than 100 payloads have been put into orbit over the past couple of weeks, including 64 satellites riding a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and 31 satellites that were launched by an Indian PSLV rocket.

Some of those satellites are already beaming back pictures of our planet. For example, Planet has shared images from both of the SkySat high-resolution imaging satellites that served as the lead payloads for Seattle-based Spaceflight’s dedicated rideshare launch on the Falcon 9. That mission, known as the SmallSat Express or SSO-A, lifted off on Dec. 3 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

One of the pictures features the Beijing South Railway Station, a futuristic-looking, clamshell-like terminal that serves as the Chinese capital’s stopping point for high-speed trains from Tianjin and Shanghai. The other image focuses on the Capibaribe River running through the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Planet Labs to acquire Google’s satellite venture

An artist’s conception shows Terra Bella’s SkySat satelltes in orbit. (Terra Bella Illustration)
An artist’s conception shows Terra Bella’s SkySat satelltes in orbit. (Terra Bella Illustration)

Planet Labs says it has struck a deal to acquire Google’s Terra Bella satellite imaging operation and its constellation of SkySat satellites, less than three years after Google bought the operation for $500 million.

Financial terms for the acquisition weren’t announced.

The deal includes a multi-year contract under which San Francisco-based Planet would sell satellite data to Google.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Planet lands in Seattle to work on satellite data

Karthik Govindhasamy
Karthik Govindhasamy, Planet’s chief technology officer and executive vice president of engineering, shows off a mural that depicts Dove satellites being deployed from the International Space Station. The mural graces the reception area of Planet’s Bellevue office. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Planet has landed … in the Seattle area.

The upstart satellite imaging company formerly known as Planet Labs has moved into a 3,000-square-foot office in Bellevue’s Northup North Office Park, and plans to have 10 software engineers working there by the end of the year.

Two engineers were hired for the office as of this week, when GeekWire paid a visit. That’s not counting Karthik Govindhasamy, a former Microsoft and Nokia engineer who is now Planet’s chief technology officer and executive vice president of engineering.

Govindhasamy is in charge of the Bellevue office, and he’s happy to be part of the Seattle area’s growing space community.

“We wanted to be close to the ecosystem,” Govindhasamy said. “SpaceX is nearby. Microsoft is in the neighborhood.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.