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Seattle’s satellite industry plays leading role in BlackSky’s Earth-observing network

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BlackSky satellites
The two BlackSky satellites that were launched, and lost, during a Rocket Lab mission are seen here at LeoStella’s satellite factory being prepared for shipment to New Zealand in March. (LeoStella Photo)

Update for 6:30 a.m. PT May 15: Two BlackSky satellites were lost when the second stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket suffered an anomaly, minutes after liftoff from New Zealand. “We are deeply sorry to our customers Spaceflight Inc. and BlackSky for the loss of their payloads,” Rocket Lab said in a statement. The cause of the anomaly is under investigation. Check out this story for updates.

Previously: 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.

“A Seattle space trifecta!” Jodi Sorensen, vice president of marketing for Spaceflight Inc., said in tweet.

The May 15 liftoff occurred at Rocket Lab’s launch complex on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Rocket Lab nicknamed the mission “Running Out of Toes,” in recognition of its status as the startup’s 20th launch. But BlackSky and LeoStella are nowhere near close to running out of satellites: Seven are in low Earth orbit already.

“We’re going to expand the number of satellites to 30,” BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said Thursday during an online dialogue presented by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center. “That will be in the 2024-2025 time frame.”

LeoStella, which is a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space, is working with BlackSky to develop third-generation satellites capable of providing images with 50-centimeter (20-inch) pixel resolution and short-wave infrared capabilities. But O’Toole emphasized that the satellites themselves are just one component of BlackSky’s business.

“I don’t see us as a satellite company,” he said. “I talk about BlackSky as being a software and data analytics company that happens to have some satellites.”

Readings from BlackSky’s satellites — and from other Earth observation systems — feed into the company’s AI-enhanced geospatial intelligence platform, known as Spectra, The software platform tracks changes in the imagery over time, and correlates those changes with other data ranging from financial statistics to social media postings.

The results can provide insights into such phenomena as the effects of this year’s Suez Canal blockage on global shipping, or the aftermath of the past week’s Colonial Pipeline shutdown. For the Seattle audience, O’Toole noted that BlackSky has contributed to philanthropic causes at the late billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We did a lot of work helping Vulcan’s philanthropic group understand how space-based technology could be applied to the problem of illegal fishing,” he said. “We’ve had discussions — again, Seattle-based discussions — with the Gates Foundation on using geospatial technologies for understanding where you need to deploy resources for vaccinations.”

When BlackSky was created, back in 2013, the idea was that anyone would be able to order up near-real-time imagery from the venture’s satellites and download a picture in 90 minutes. But for now, the company is focusing on government customers and business-to-business applications rather than the consumer market.

“We’ll remain that way for a while,” O’Toole said.

Big changes are ahead for BlackSky: The company is due to go public within a couple of months, under the terms of a nearly $1.5 billion blank-check merger with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp.

Rocket Lab is in the midst of big changes as well, and not just because the company is getting ready its own $4.1 billion SPAC merger with Vector Acquisition Corp.

“Running Out of Toes” was meant to mark the second at-sea recovery of the Electron rocket’s first-stage booster — following up on last November’s first try. This time around, the booster was equipped with an upgraded heat shield. Rocket Lab also developed a hydraulic cradle for pulling the ship out of the Pacific Ocean and lifting it onto a recovery ship.

“It’ll be wet, but it’ll be in great condition versus some of the damage that the previous vehicle suffered as we brought it onto the boat in 5-meter swells,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told reporters during a pre-launch briefing.

Rocket Lab is planning at least one more splashdown experiment after “Running Out of Toes,” but eventually the company intends to send out a helicopter after each launch to snatch the booster out of the sky as it floats down on the end of a parachute. Now that would be something for BlackSky’s satellites to watch for.

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