Pacific Northwest’s satellite hotspot celebrates its status

REDMOND, Wash. — This Seattle-area suburb has played a role in the space industry for more than a half-century, but the city of Redmond is shining brighter than ever on the final frontier — and now it has the brand name to prove it.

Welcome to the Redmond Space District.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney showcased the newly established district in a proclamation issued today during her annual State of the City Summit at City Hall, with representatives of the area’s leading space companies in attendance.

The district designation applies to the entire city rather than to a specific neighborhood. Birney told me she hopes the campaign will draw even more space ventures to Redmond.

“It creates that ecosystem of innovation, technology, knowledge, people — all of that to create that really central place so they can come in and know that they’re going to get different resources for the space industry,” she said.


NRO partners with hyperspectral imaging companies

The National Reconnaissance Office awarded study contracts to six companies offering — or planning to offer — satellite images of Earth in multiple wavelengths, including Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore.

Other companies receiving contracts under NRO’s multi-stage Strategic Commercial Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement Framework include BlackSky Technology, which is based in Virginia but traces its corporate roots to Seattle, plus HyperSat, Orbital Sidekick, Pixxel and Planet.

“We are operating the largest, most diverse, most capable overhead constellation in NRO’s history as we face increasingly complex threats in space and on the ground,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said today in a news release. “Through these newest contracts, we are very excited to explore the potential of commercial hyperspectral imagery and what it may be able to contribute to our world-class intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


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.