Categories
GeekWire

Spaceflight ships out its Sherpas for orbital deliveries

AUBURN, Wash. — A pair of space tugs are beginning their journey from Spaceflight Inc.’s clean room, south of Seattle, to low Earth orbit.

Along the way, the Sherpa orbital transportation vehicles and their 36 ride-along spacecraft will be loaded up on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and fired off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida as early as this month.

Spaceflight’s Sherpa vehicles are pioneering a relatively recent innovation in the satellite launch industry. Such space tugs can go up on a single launch and send a variety of rideshare satellites to a variety of orbits. The first Sherpa-FX model successfully deployed 13 satellites and carried two additional piggyback payloads during SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission in January.

This time around, there are a couple of added twists: Two Sherpas — FX2 and LTE1 — will ride on the upcoming mission, which is called Transporter-2. And LTE1 is the first Sherpa to be equipped with an electric propulsion system that’s being provided by California-based Apollo Fusion. Electric propulsion is the real-life parallel to the ion drives that are standard fare in science-fiction sagas like Star Wars and Star Trek.

Apollo’s electric propulsion system, and a chemical propulsion system that’s due to make its debut later this year, will give the Sherpas more options for satellite deployments. That’s the bottom line for Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc., which focuses on managing launch logistics for small-satellite customers.

Categories
GeekWire

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.”

Categories
GeekWire

Space startups should be wary of foreign entanglements

Warnings about the potential perils of foreign alliances go back to George Washington’s Farewell Address — but in the Space Age, the issues surrounding international relations are much more nuanced.

At least that’s the view from Christopher Richins, the founder and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based RBC Signals.

RBC Signals acts as a broker for global satellite connectivity services, and counts the U.S. government among its customers. But because RBC’s business model relies on partnerships with satellite ground stations around the world, RBC has to work with countries that the U.S. government views as rivals on the space frontier — specifically, Russia and China.

“You don’t have to have the U.S. government as a customer,” Richins told GeekWire. “But if you do intend to at some point, being mindful of things like cybersecurity and management structure, knowing your customers and knowing your investors — all of those things will serve you well in removing some of the potential barriers to entry for getting those opportunities.”

The troubles encountered by Momentus Space, one of RBC Signals’ customers, serve as a cautionary tale. The space-tug startup’s planned merger with a blank-check company, Stable Road Acquisition Corp., has been held up because of U.S. government concerns about Momentus’ Russian co-founders. Moreover, Momentus’ plans for its first launch have been stymied by the Federal Aviation Administration for similar reasons.

Categories
GeekWire

Cloud computing speeds up Pentagon’s satellite data flow

How will Pentagon planners cope with the torrents of data that are expected to rain down from a constellation of satellites monitoring hotspots from low Earth orbit?

Microsoft and Ball Aerospace say they’ve demonstrated that the cloud can handle it — and not just handle it, but process multiple streams of satellite data five times faster than the Pentagon’s target speed.

The demonstration of a prototype system was conducted this year for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in support of the Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations Program Office, or CASINO, which is under the aegis of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

For the purposes of the test, Telesat provided access to its satellite network in low Earth orbit. Ball Aerospace provided the event-driven architecture for dealing with the data beamed down from space. And Microsoft Azure provided the cloud-computing firepower for processing the data and pulling out insights.

Telesat’s satellite sent down as many as 20 separate streams of simulated Overhead Persistent Infrared sensor readings, also known as OPIR. Such data streams could be crucial for detecting and countering missile threats — but processing the flood of data is no easy task.

“What this prototype did was prove out that low Earth orbit is a viable capability for the Space Force, working with the cloud. Against the program goals that the DIU set, the ground processing with space data is about five times faster with the Azure cloud,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Azure Global, told GeekWire.

“We think it’s a pretty big deal,” Keane said.

Categories
GeekWire

Two BlackSky satellites lost due to launch failure

Two satellites for BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation were lost today when the second stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle suffered an anomaly, just minutes after liftoff from New Zealand.

Rocket Lab said the mission failure was under investigation. “The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition,” the company said in a tweet.

The live stream for launch showed what appeared to be a successful launch at 11:11 p.m. New Zealand time (4:11 a.m. PT), followed by a stage separation that went according to plan. However, it looked as if the second stage’s rocket engine shut down and failed to push the satellites to orbit.

The satellites were built by Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella for BlackSky, which splits its staff between offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va. Pre-launch logistics for the mission were handled by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.

“We are deeply sorry to our customers Spaceflight Inc. and BlackSky for the loss of their payloads,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “We understand the monumental effort that goes into every spacecraft and we feel their loss and disappointment.”

Categories
GeekWire

How BlackSky builds its intelligence network

Satellites for BlackSky’s constellation of Earth-watching spacecraft may be launched from as far away as New Zealand, but their path to orbit features prominent stops in the Seattle area.

BlackSky’s Global satellites are designed and built at LeoStella’s factory in Tukwila, Wash., not far from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. handled the pre-launch logistics for May 15’s liftoff of two satellites atop a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle. And BlackSky itself splits its staff between Herndon, Va., and the company’s original home base in Seattle.

Categories
GeekWire

Xplore will build satellites in Seattle area

Xplore, a Seattle-area startup that aims to build satellites for interplanetary missions, has a new address in Redmond, Wash. — in the same office complex that once housed the Planetary Resources asteroid-mining venture.

“Xplore’s 22,000-square-foot facility is tailor-made for satellite manufacturing,” Lisa Rich, the company’s founder and chief operating officer, said in a news release. “It is large, expandable and can currently accommodate the research, development, production and operation of 20 spacecraft per year.”

And when Rich says the location is tailor-made for satellites, she’s not just speaking figuratively: Several years ago, Planetary Resources built a pair of pathfinder Earth-observation satellites on the premises, representing a significant step toward creating a fleet of asteroid-scouting spacecraft.

One of the Arkyd-6 satellites was launched on an orbital demonstration mission in 2018. Unfortunately, Planetary Resources ran out of money later that year, and its assets were purchased by ConsenSys, a blockchain venture.

Xplore is due to move into the facility in June to start building ESPA-class XCraft satellites suitable for rideshare missions, as well as LightCraft spacecraft for deep-space missions.

Categories
GeekWire

FCC clears SpaceX to shift Starlink satellite orbits

The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for SpaceX to modify the planned orbits for future satellites in its Starlink broadband internet constellation — a move that SpaceX says will result in improved, safer operations but has faced resistance from Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other rivals.

After the FCC issued its 57-page order, Amazon said its concerns were adequately addressed by the conditions that the commission placed on its approval.

The FCC authorized SpaceX to lower the primary operational altitude for 2,814 of its satellites from an originally specified range of between 1,100 to 1,200 kilometers (684 to 746 miles) to a range between 540 and 570 kilometers (336 to 354 miles). That’s in addition to 1,584 satellites previously cleared for the lower set of orbits.

SpaceX already has more than 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit, and it’s in the process of expanding its beta testing program for Starlink’s satellite internet service. Sixty more satellites are due to be launched as early as Wednesday.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to offer global broadband access through a network that makes use of thousands more satellites. Those satellites are built at SpaceX’s growing facility in Redmond, Wash.

SpaceX says that the revised orbits should improve response times for the network — and that the lower orbits should make it easier to dispose of satellites once they’ve outlived their usefulness, by commanding them to take a fiery plunge through the atmosphere.

However, the newly authorized orbits come close to the 590- to 630-kilometer (367- to 391-mile) orbits that have been targeted for future satellites in Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, which also aims to provide global broadband internet access.

Categories
GeekWire

RBC Signals gets set for satellite data boom

Redmond, Wash.-based RBC Signals says it’s closed on a $1.2 million funding round that’s meant to put the venture in position to meet the growing demand for satellite ground station services.

“One of the primary things we’re doing is positioning ourselves for the future,” RBC Signals’ founder and CEO, Christopher Richins, told GeekWire today. “We already see an uptick in demand.”

Richins said the newly reported equity round, which he characterized as a “late seed round,” brings the six-year-old startup’s total investment to $3.2 million. A filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission says 15 investors took part in the round.

Richins declined to identify individual investors, but he said the round included new capital as well as debt conversions that are primarily aimed at structuring foreign investment to satisfy anticipated U.S. government requirements.

RBC Signals has agreements to use more than 80 antennas at more than 50 locations in more than 20 countries to communicate with orbiting satellites. Most of those agreements take advantage of spare bandwidth for data delivery.

Categories
GeekWire

Amazon makes its first satellite launch deal

United Launch Alliance says it’s struck a deal for a series of nine launches of its Atlas V rocket to send satellites into low Earth orbit for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.

Amazon emphasized that this is just the first wave for a 3,236-satellite network that’s designed to offer broadband access to billions of people.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said today in a news release. “ULA is a fantastic partner that’s successfully launched dozens of missions for commercial and government customers, and we’re grateful for their support of Kuiper.”

Neither ULA nor Amazon announced a schedule for the launches, but under the terms of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission, half of the satellites have to be deployed by mid-2026.

Bezos is also the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, which is working on an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn. That rocket isn’t expected to go into service until late 2022.

In contrast, the Atlas V has successfully executed more than 80 launches since 2002. Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, touted the Atlas V’s reputation as a “capable, reliable rocket.”

Badyal didn’t rule out selecting Blue Origin for a later round of launches. “We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” he said.

Because Bezos is the sole owner of privately held Blue Origin, publicly held Amazon has to navigate a careful path as it selects launch providers for Project Kuiper. Decisions that appear to favor Blue Origin could spark questions about self-dealing.