When you hear the words “satellite factory,” LeoStella‘s operations in a nondescript office park south of Seattle probably isn’t the image that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what it is.
By the middle of summer, the Tukwila, Wash.-based startup aims to pop out the first of a run of 20 small satellites. That initial production will go to BlackSky Global in Seattle, which operates a constellation of Earth-imaging satellites and sells the insights to business clients.
LeoStella CEO Chris Chautard said the Tukwila location fulfilled three main criteria: it was close to BlackSky, affordable, and easy to get a building permit.
The startup, which launched less than a year ago, will manufacture small, low-cost satellites for Earth observation and telecommunications. Chautard said the satellites were designed to be simple and flexible.
Chautard will step down as CEO next month, when Mike Hettich, a vice president at Kirkland, Wash.-based aerospace firm Astronics, will take over.
LeoStella’s structure is a 50-50 transatlantic joint venture between two entities:
- Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which owns BlackSky.
- Thales Alenia Space, an aerospace venture between France’s Thales and Italy’s Leonardo.
Thales bought a minority stake in Spaceflight last year as part of a $150 million fundraising round. The companies said a “big chunk” went to forming LeoStella.
The basic pitch around small satellites is that they’ll let more companies get to space cheaper. With its purchase of LeoStella’s satellites, BlackSky is betting that what’s most important isn’t the size of your satellites that counts. It’s how you use them.
“The economics of a high performing small satellite constellation are going to unlock a whole world of new data and information services for a much broader global market,” said BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole.
“Satellites are a great enabler. But ultimately, this is about delivering timely information so people can make relevant decisions that are going to impact their business,” he added.
LeoStella is actively looking for customers outside of BlackSky. The company has 34 employees and lots of empty desks, though it did not elaborate on hiring plans. LeoStella is already working on the design of its third-generation satellite.
Once it is at full capacity, the startup will produce 30 small satellites per year and will add telecom satellites to its offerings. LeoStella uses parts from 20 different suppliers, including L3 GCS, Aitech Defense Systems and Seattle’s Jemco.
When it comes to satellites, small is a relative term. LeoStella’s initial satellites will weigh between 50 to 150 kilograms (110 to 330 pounds). Other satellite makers are investigating tough scientific questions with satellites that are just a few inches wide.
LeoStella’s Earth-imaging satellites were created to revisit heavily populated mid-latitude regions frequently, taking in 4×6 kilometer images. They have a 36-month service life.
LeoStella’s first satellite should launch in late 2019. BlackSky said it will have 16 satellites in its constellation by early 2021 and hopes to eventually grow that number to 60.