BlackSky Global Aims to Blanket the Globe with Small Imaging Satellites
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factors like what’s being photographed, the resolution, and how fast you need it. Many customers buy lots of images and get volume discounts. “But if you were to go order a single picture today, just on the general international marketplace [it] would probably cost you somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500 range,” Wegner says.
BlackSky believes it can significantly undercut current prices by taking advantage of the expertise of its sister companies, Spaceflight Systems, which is building a fleet of smaller satellites, and Spaceflight Services, which will launch them into orbit. A third unit of Spaceflight Industries will provide communications.
Spaceflight Industries has raised $27.5 million, including a $20 million Series B round in March from RRE Venture Capital, Vulcan Capital, and Razor’s Edge Ventures. Wegner says a portion of that funding is dedicated to BlackSky. Each unit of Spaceflight Industries has its own management and keeps its own books, he says.
BlackSky has about 12 employees, while the broader Spaceflight Industries has around 70, Wegner says.
The cost of building satellites is coming down thanks to improvements in other fields.
“There’s really a dramatic change happening in the satellite business today, and much of it is being driven by the rapid improvement in consumer electronics,” Wegner says. “So we’re able to put a flight computer in space today that has a tremendous amount of onboard storage, and it’s very inexpensive to do that. When I was working on satellite programs 20 years ago, we had a fraction, a hundredth of the data storage we can put on these satellites [now] and it cost us about 1,000 times more than these flight computers cost today.”
He says other aspects of the satellite design will reduce costs, providing few specific details. “Those are our competitive edges,” he says.
But one example is in the propellant used to adjust the satellite’s position in orbit, maintaining a height of about 450 kilometers above the surface. Instead of highly volatile and poisonous hydrazine, which brings added costs for materials handling and facilities, BlackSky is using a butane propulsion system.
That’s one part of the satellites that Spaceflight Systems (known until recently as Andrews Space) is building in Tukwilla, just south of Seattle, for BlackSky. Each one weighs about 50 kilograms and is roughly the size of a dorm room refrigerator. The main components include a camera with a telescopic lens; a set of reaction wheels that control where the satellite is pointed; the flight computer; radios to receive commands and transmit images back to earth; a solar array and battery for power; and the butane propulsion system.
“They’re very simple systems that only know a couple commands,” Wegner says. “Take a picture of this spot and download it at this spot.”
The company plans a cloud-based platform for ordering and delivering satellite images, giving rise to its “satellite imaging as a service” business model.
“Innovation’s in one sector can have a really disruptive effect on an entirely different sector that you would never imagine would be related,” Wegner says. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing in the space sector today.”