Categories
GeekWire

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.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Microsoft launches into cloud space race with Amazon

Call it the Clash of the Cloud Titans: Today Microsoft is taking the wraps off Azure Orbital, a cloud-based satellite data processing platform that competes with Amazon Web Services’ Ground Station offering.

The launch of Azure Orbital, timed for this week’s Microsoft Ignite conference for developers, can be taken as another sign that the final frontier is the next frontier for cloud computing.

“Essentially, we’re building a ‘ground station as a service,’ ” Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, told GeekWire in advance of today’s unveiling.

“Satellites are becoming more and more important for a variety of reasons,” he said. “When it comes to cloud and data processing, obviously the cloud is a key part of any solution that goes into leveraging satellites, whether it’s imaging for weather, or natural disasters or ground communications.”

Like AWS Ground Station, Azure Orbital makes it possible for satellite operators to control their spacecraft via the cloud, or integrate satellite data with cloud-based storage and processing.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Pentagon awards $282 million for satellite constellation

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems will share $281.6 million in contracts from the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to build the first 20 satellites for a new military data network with global reach.

The network will be capable of sending targeting data directly from a remote-sensing satellite in space to a weapons platform on the ground, making use of laser communications between satellites in low Earth orbit. By the late 2020s, the system is expected to play a key role in countering emerging threats such as hypersonic attack vehicles.

The National Defense Space Architecture is the first major project for the Space Development Agency, which was created last year to foster military technologies on the high frontier.

“This is a very important step toward building the National Defense Space Architecture. It represents one of the Space Development Agency’s first major contract activities, and it might also highlight the importance of SDA — its ability to quickly obligate appropriate funds and execute toward their mission,” Mark Lewis, acting deputy under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters.

“As the Netflix ‘Space Force’ series likes to say, space is hard,” he said. “Space is hard, but sometimes we make it harder than it has to be. The SDA is showing us that sometimes we don’t need to make it that hard.”

The two Colorado-based companies receiving awards today will build 10 satellites each for the first phase of the project, known as Tranche 0. Lockheed Martin is due to receive $187,542,641 under the terms of a firm, fixed-price contract. York Space Systems, a relative newcomer in the satellite industry, will receive $94,036,666.

Tranch 0’s data-transport-layer satellites are to be launched no later than September 2022, with a “capstone” demonstration of the mesh network’s capabilities planned in late 2022 or early 2023.

SDA Director Derek Tournear said today’s contracts represent the first step for a network that will comprise hundreds of satellites by 2026.

“We’re pushing on completely developing a new architecture that breaks the old model,” Tournear said. A big part of the new model will involve relying on commercial providers and “spiral development” to add innovations as the constellation is built out, he said.

“We’ll see this as an era of new space, basically showing the concept that you can utilize commoditized components in a very rapid manner to meet military utility and military specifications,” Tournear said.

Each set of 10 spacecraft will include seven equipped with the hardware for four laser-enabled optical cross-links between satellites. The other three satellites will have two optical cross-links, plus a standard Link 16 transceiver to communicate with ground installations.

Tournear said the satellites will be interoperable with other commercial and military space assets — including remote-sensing spacecraft, military communication satellites and commercial telecom constellations. He told me his team is talking with ventures including SpaceX, which already has launched hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit for its Starlink broadband network. (Other parts of the U.S. military are testing Starlink’s capabilities for military applications.)

The Space Development Agency says the satellites will be sent into orbits ranging from 600 to 1,200 kilometers (370 to 740 miles) in altitude. That’s higher than the altitude that was recommended last week for minimizing negative effects on astronomical observations. But Tournear noted that the Tranch 0 satellites will be smaller and less numerous than, say, Starlink satellites.

The first batches of satellites won’t make use of the brightness-reducing measures that SpaceX has been implementing, he said. But there’ll be many more satellites to come.

“We’re going to be building out roughly one satellite a week for each of the [orbital] layers … and then launching them out on a cadence that allows us to replenish and add new capabilities that we’re going to be soliciting,” Tournear said.

In its contract announcement, the Department of Defense said the work of building the Tranche 0 satellites would be done in seven U.S. states plus Germany, Canada and Spain.

About 3.3% of York’s work is to be performed in Bothell, Wash., the Pentagon said. Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited has partnered with York previously, and Tethers CEO Bob Hoyt told me that his company has been in on some of York’s proposals for the National Defense Space Architecture. But he said he hasn’t yet heard whether Tethers Unlimited will play a role in the contract awarded today.

Categories
GeekWire

Kymeta buys a company to boost satellite services

Kymeta Corp. — the satellite antenna venture that’s based in Redmond, Wash., and backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — has extended its reach into the service side of the satellite industry by acquiring Lepton Global Solutions.

Executives for the two companies said the move should strengthen their hand as they pursue contracts for government and military communications systems.

“Having a turnkey satellite service provider like Lepton accelerates Kymeta’s ability to successfully penetrate U.S. military and government customers in partnership with a well-established brand, deep channel experience and network support for those verticals,” Walter Berger, Kymeta’s president and chief operating officer, said today in a news release.

Rob Weitendorf, managing partner at Lepton, said he was excited to become part of Kymeta’s corporate family.

“We think the Kymeta antenna has changed the satellite marketplace, especially in the mobility world inside the government, whether it be for the U.S. Army or Coast Guard, or the Border Patrol or the U.S. Forest Service,” he told GeekWire. “The need for connectivity in the government marketplace has never been stronger.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

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).

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
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.

Categories
GeekWire

Amazon commits $10B to satellites after FCC’s OK

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Amazon’s plans for a Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across a wide swath of the globe — but on the condition that it doesn’t unduly interfere with previously authorized satellite ventures.

In response, Amazon said it would invest more than $10 billion in the project. “We’re off to the races,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said in a statement.

The FCC’s non-interference requirements and other conditions are laid out in a 24-page order that was adopted on July 29 and released today. The ruling addresses objections registered by Amazon’s rivals — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat.

Project Kuiper’s satellites are to be launched in five phases, and service would begin once Amazon launched the first 578 satellites. Under the terms of the FCC’s order, Amazon will have to launch half of its satellites by mid-2026, and the rest of them by mid-2029.

Amazon had sought to vie on an equal footing with constellation operators whose plans had been previously authorized by the FCC, but the commission said that in fairness, Project Kuiper would have to give deference to those plans. The FCC said that it expected Amazon’s mega-constellation rivals to act in good faith to resolve radio interference concerns.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Spaceflight and Tethers team up on deorbiting system

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

FCC chief tweets support for Amazon satellite plan

The Federal Communications Commission’s chairman, Ajit Pai, says he’s proposing approval of Amazon’s plan to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit for a broadband internet constellation known as Project Kuiper … with conditions.

In a tweet, Pai said he shared his proposal today with colleagues on the commission.

Get the full story on GeekWire.