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Old satellites could get a new lease on life via the cloud

What do you do with an aging weather satellite? If you’re the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you turn to Microsoft Azure and a Seattle-area startup called Xplore to find out if there’s a cheaper way to keep it going.

After a yearlong demonstration project, the three partners determined that there is a way, thanks to cloud computing and cloud-based mission control software.

“Our work with NOAA and Xplore is driving innovation to virtualize satellite ground station operations in the cloud,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me. “And this is empowering agencies to tap into the newest commercial technologies and unlock new levels of resiliency and global capacity for critical mission operations.”

The demonstration — conducted under the terms of a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA for short — showed that cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, NOAA-18, in a way that met NOAA’s specifications.

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Xplore acquires mission control software company

Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore says it’s acquired the assets of Kubos Corp., the creator of cloud-based mission and flight control software for satellites.

Xplore’s co-founder and CEO, Jeff Rich, said in a news release that Kubos’ Major Tom software platform would be used for Xplore’s first space mission, due for launch as early as this fall, “and for all future missions.”

Financial terms of the acquisition were not released — but Xplore is taking on key Kubos employees, including co-founder and ex-CEO Tyler Browder, as part of the deal. “I’m delighted to join the Xplore team as business development director for mission operations,” Browder said. “In my new role I will continue to build and grow the Major Tom platform into an expanded service offering.”

Founded in 2017, Xplore aims to provide “space as a service” — a business model that offers data products, sensor tasking, mission operations software and payload hosting to customers. The company is developing the hardware for its missions, including Xcube nanosatellites and Xcraft satellite platforms, at its 22,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Redmond.

Its first planned mission is designed to put hyperspectral and high-resolution video imagers into low Earth orbit. Xplore has said future missions could go to farther-out destinations, including the moon, Mars, Venus and asteroids.

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Xplore brings in $16.2 million for ‘Space as a Service’

In a recap of its first five years of existence, Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore reports that it’s received $16.2 million in venture funding and contracts to support its satellite-based drive to offer “Space as a Service.”

“Xplore employs around 20 people and is actively growing,” Lisa Rich, Xplore’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said in emailed comments to GeekWire. “This funding will help us grow as our programs grow.”

Today’s status report doesn’t provide a breakdown of the funding rounds, but it does note that in addition to venture capital, the startup has brought in roughly $4 million in “non-dilutive funding” over the past couple of years.

That category of funding includes contracts from the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The biggest contract, announced last September, is providing $2 million from National Security Innovation Capital to speed up work on Xplore’s Xcraft satellite platform. NSIC is a hardware development accelerator within the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

Xplore also provided a fresh list of its investors, including Alumni Ventures, Brightstone Venture Capital, Gaingels, Helios Capital, Kingfisher Capital, KittyHawk Ventures, Lombard Street, Private Shares Fund, Starbridge Venture Capital and Tremendous View — plus Dylan Taylor, CEO of Voyager Space, who took a suborbital space ride on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship in December.

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Xplore makes a deal to use OrbAstro’s satellite platforms

Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore has signed a contract with Orbital Astronautics Ltd. to use its standardized satellite platform for a variety of missions, starting with a space imaging mission that’s due for launch as early as this year.

The debut mission will fly hyperspectral and high-resolution video payloads built by Xplore. “This mission will provide two of our services: data as a service, and sensors as a service,” Lisa Rich, Xplore’s founder and chief operating officer, told me in an email.

Rich said the onboard imagers will make Earth observations as well as astronomical observations from low Earth orbit. She said Xplore has procured a launch reservation but isn’t yet ready to identify the launch provider.

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Pentagon gives a $2M boost to Xplore spacecraft

Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore says it has received a $2 million contract from National Security Innovation Capital, a hardware development accelerator within the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, to speed up work on Xplore’s Xcraft platform.

The payload-hosting spacecraft is due for its first launch to low Earth orbit in 2023.

“The significant funding NSIC has provided ensures U.S. government and commercial customers will have speedy access to our affordable Xcraft platform,” Lisa Rich, Xplore’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said today in a news release. “The $2 million award will expedite component acquisitions and accelerate our flight program.”

Xcraft is designed to provide hosting and other services for a variety of customers and payloads, with the capability to reach destinations ranging from low Earth orbit to the moon, Mars, Venus and asteroids. Xplore says it already has a memorandum of understanding with Accion Systems to host Accion’s next-generation ion thruster, known as TILE, for a mission to low Earth orbit.

The funding should also accelerate the timeline for development of an Xplore Space Telescope in collaboration with the W.M. Keck Observatory. Xplore says those operations are scheduled to begin soon after the first Xcraft LEO mission in 2023.

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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.

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Xplore wins award for solar observatory concept

Xcraft observing sun
Artwork shows Xplore’s Xcraft probe observing the sun in different spectral bands. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore has won a $670,111 award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look into the feasibility of sending a solar observatory to a gravitational balance point that’s a million miles from Earth.

From that spot, known as the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange Point, Xplore’s multi-mission Xcraft probe would monitor the sun and provide early detection of solar storms that could disrupt power grids and telecommunications on Earth.

Based on the outcome of Xplore’s study, which is due for completion in December, NOAA would decide whether or not to provide further support for the concept that the company comes up with.

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Space investor reserves spot on Xplore probe

Xplore probe
An artist’s conception shows Xplore’s Xcraft probe near the moon. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore says space investor and philanthropist Dylan Taylor plans to reserve payload space on its first mission beyond Earth orbit, on behalf of a nonprofit group he founded.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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Xplore works with gravity-lens telescope team

Solar sail
An artist’s conception shows Xplore’s advanced solar sail for NASA’s Solar Gravity Lens Focus mission. (Visualization by Bryan Versteeg, SpaceHabs.com / via Xplore)

NASA has awarded a $2 million grant to the Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe Aerospace Corp. — and Xplore, a Seattle-based space venture — to develop the design architecture for a far-out telescope array that would use the sun’s gravitational field as a lens to focus on alien planets.

The Phase III award from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, would cover two years of development work and could lead to the launch of a technology demonstration mission in the 2023-2024 time frame.

Xplore’s team will play a key role in designing the demonstration mission’s spacecraft, which would be launched as a rideshare payload and propelled by a deployable solar sail.

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Xplore to study navigation for cislunar missions

Xplore moon mission
An artisti’s conception shows Xplore’s Xcraft with the moon in the background. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore has won a $50,000 award from the Air Force to develop an architecture for keeping track of missions between Earth and the moon.

The three-month study is being funded through the Air Force’s AFWERX technology innovation program, a partnership involving the Air Force Research Laboratory and the National Security Innovation Network. The Air Force wants to develop systems for position, navigation and timing, or PNT, that would extend a GPS-like tracking system to cislunar space — that is, the domain of space extending to the moon.

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