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Spaceflight raises $150 million for BlackSky constellation

Spaceflight Industries announced March 13 that it has raised $150 million to fund development of the next phase of its BlackSky Earth imaging constellation, with Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio taking minority stakes.

BlackSky ultimately plans a constellation of 60 satellites providing high-resolution imagery with rapid revisit times. Credit: BlackSky

At a press conference during Satellite 2018 here, Seattle-based Spaceflight said the Series C round, which includes investment from Mitsui and Co. Ltd. and existing investors, will fund development of the next set of 20 BlackSky satellites, part of an ultimate constellation of 60 satellites intended to provide high-resolution images with rapid revisit times.

The announcement finalizes a partnership announced in September that, besides the investment into Spaceflight, includes a joint venture between Thales Alenia and Spaceflight to build the BlackSky satellites as well as a marketing agreement between Spaceflight and Telespazio regarding sales and marketing for BlackSky products and services. The companies did not disclose the size of the stake in Spaceflight taken by Thales Alenia and Telespazio.

“Today represents a major milestone in that what we’re doing with this partnership with this investment, which allows us to put the next 20 satellites on orbit,” said Jason Andrews, chairman and chief executive of Spaceflight, at the press conference.

Spaceflight is building the first four operational BlackSky satellites, known as Global-1 through 4, based on a demonstration Pathfinder satellite launched in September 2016. Those satellites will be launched in the next 12 months. The joint venture, known as LeoStella LLC, will handle construction of future satellites at a facility it will operate in the Seattle area. “It will be a new facility optimized for satellite production, 30 per year,” Andrews said.

Jean Loïc Galle, president and chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said the new facility will take advantage of advanced technology to allow for efficient production of the satellites at reduced costs. The same facility will be used for building the next 40 BlackSky satellites, to be funded based on revenues from the initial BlackSky constellation. Galle said the goal was to start work on that next tranche of satellites as soon as the first set of 20 were complete, which will likely be in 2020.

Galle said the LeoStella will seek to build satellites weighing up to 300 kilograms for other customers. “We will also use, additionally, this joint venture to produce satellites for different applications,” he said, other than those that would compete with BlackSky.

He described the joint venture as one step of Thales Alenia’s efforts to keep up with the growing interest in small satellites. “This partnership reflects the NewSpace transformation strategy being implemented by Thales Alenia Space, with the aim of becoming a major manufacturer of small satellites for constellations featuring short revisit times, both in Europe and the United States,” he said.

The foreign investment in Spaceflight shouldn’t pose export control or other regulatory issues, Andrews said, noting that the deal had been reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. In addition, the class of satellite that will be produced by the joint venture is not included on the U.S. Munitions List and thus isn’t subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

With the full BlackSky constellation in place some time in the early 2020s, Andrews said the system can provide dozens of revisits a day while producing imagery at a resolution of one meter. Those images, he said, can be combined on BlackSky’s data platform with other imagery, including those from much higher resolution optical satellites and synthetic aperture radar satellites.

“The high revisit is essential to constantly monitor phenomena,” said Luigi Pasquali, chief executive of Telespazio. “It can be complementary with the deeper analysis coming form the very-high-end satellites.”

“This is about looking at the world in real time, fusing multiple sensors together,” Andrews said. “We see this capability as complementary to all the sensors that are out there. We don’t see them as competitors. We see them as partners as we create this real-time picture of the planet.”