TUKWILA, Wash. — Today it’s an empty office building in a business park south of Seattle, not far from a Mexican restaurant and an organic nursery. But within just a few months, the place will be turning out two to three satellites per month for a U.S.-European joint venture called LeoStella.
“We’ll have a nice cafeteria, too,” LeoStella CEO Chris Chautard joked.
LeoStella is a 50-50 joint venture owned by Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian heavyweight of the aerospace industries. The hookup is part of a $150 million deal announced in March.
To make the arrangements even more tangled, LeoStella’s first customer is BlackSky, a Spaceflight Industries subsidiary that’s planning to put a constellation of 60 Earth-observing satellites into orbit.
BlackSky already built the Global constellation’s first four satellites in-house, for launch on rockets such as India’s PSLV, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Rocket Lab’s Electron. LeoStella is tasked with building 20 more of the 120-pound (55-kilogram) satellites over the next year or two.
In addition to the cafeteria, LeoStella’s new 20,000-square-foot facility in Tukwila will have everything you’d expect at a satellite factory, including test labs, a clean room and offices for the engineers and executives. Chautard told GeekWire that production is due to begin in October or November, which means the building’s empty space will have to be filled up quickly.
By the end of this year, LeoStella’s headquarters should house about 40 employees, including some who have come over from BlackSky and Spaceflight, said Nicholas Merski, vice president of space operations at Spaceflight Industries.
BlackSky’s first 24 satellites are designed to provide visual and multispectral Earth imagery at resolutions as fine as 1 meter per pixel, at a rapid orbital revisit rate. The goal is to make on-demand pictures available within 90 minutes of an overflight, at a cost of $90 per image.
Such images could be used to track what’s happening during a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, monitor shipping in near-real time, or provide detailed data for crop forecasts or urban planning. The imagery also will be fed into BlackSky’s Spectra geospatial data platform, along with views from other satellites and on-the-ground data sources.
By the time LeoStella finishes work on its first 20 satellites, its engineers are due to draw up the design for BlackSky’s next-generation Block 3 satellites — which will have improved spatial resolution, additional frequency bands for remote sensing and other upgrades.
And that’s just the start. “We have designed our production line to be able to produce more satellites than just for the BlackSky constellation,” Chautard said. “That is, long-term, our ambition. Now we are sizing the team just for the BlackSky constellation, but we have a production tool that is able to do much, much more. So we are actively looking for customers, new contracts.”
LeoStella’s head count will grow in parallel with the business, Chautard said.
BlackSky and LeoStella aren’t the first ventures to get into the satellite data race: Other companies, such as DigitalGlobe, Planet and Spire, are offering their own combinations of imagery and geospatial data. But Merski said BlackSky is aiming to carve out a profitable niche for itself.
“The satellite capability that we’ve built in Global has a really nice marriage of capability and price point that really fills a unique spot in the market,” he said. “We are not trying to be everything to everyone.”
“We combine the best of two worlds,” he said. “We are light, agile, low-cost, very reactive — that’s all the good qualities of a small company starting up in this nice space environment in Seattle — but at the same time, we’re very strong, because we’re backed by Thales Alenia Space. Whenever we need some engineering force, we can tap into this formidable engineering clout we have in Thales Alenia Space.”
LeoStella’s ramp-up comes three years after SpaceX put its satellite research and development center in nearby Redmond, Wash., and further validates the Seattle area’s status as a significant player in the satellite game.
“Seattle is going to continue to be a center of gravity for satellite development and expertise, and there’s really a lot of synergy with other technological areas like cloud computing at scale,” Merski said. “As you look at these space architectures, it’s going to continue to be a really attractive place for people to incubate ideas about satellite hardware and the broader architectures.”
Chautard, who recently moved to Seattle from France, agreed. “I’ve been working in France all the time, more or less, but yeah, Seattle is really the city of space,” he said. “It made total sense to be located here.”
But in light of LeoStella’s focus on low-cost satellite production, it didn’t make sense to be in the heart of Seattle, even though Spaceflight Industries’ headquarters are centrally located on Westlake Avenue. Chautard said property prices were about half as much in Tukwila, a half-hour’s drive south of Seattle. Moreover, getting the building permits took about half as long, he said.
Merski added yet another reason for going to Tukwila.
“There’s room to grow,” he said. “We see an extension of our facilities being in the potential medium-term business plan. So that was a big consideration. … We could have selected some facilities that were directly in Seattle and a little bit closer to Spaceflight. But we thought that going a little bit farther out, closer to the airport and with a little bit more room for growth, was certainly the right move.”
“Yeah, that ties directly to our ambitions,” Chautard said. “We have big ambitions, and so we wanted to be in an area where we can grow.”
More about BlackSky’s satellites: