The February attack rattled Pentagon officials and private industry because it revealed new vulnerabilities in global communications systems.
A time-lapse image of smoke from wildfires in New Mexico and dust from a storm in Colorado illustrates the scope of Western catastrophe.
The U.S. Space Command seemed to confirm a claim that a meteor from outside the solar system had entered Earth’s atmosphere, but other scientists and NASA are still not convinced.
Hundreds of satellites and spacecraft are keeping an eye on Russia’s nuclear forces from above. So far, they haven’t seen much to worry about.
OneWeb, a British satellite internet company, turned to SpaceX’s rockets after canceling launches with Russia’s Soyuz vehicle over the invasion of Ukraine.
The expanded commitment to space defense reflects the reality of a new, extraterrestrial landscape for war.
For more than 20 years, the Landsat 7 satellite circled Earth every 99 minutes or so, capturing images of almost all the planet’s surface each 16 days. One of many craft that observed the changing globe, it revealed melting glaciers in Greenland, the growth of shrimp farms in Mexico, and the extent of deforestation in Papua New Guinea. But after Landsat 7 ran short on fuel, its useful life effectively ended. In space, regular servicing has not been an option.
Now, though, NASA has a potential fix for such enfeebled satellites. In a few years, the agency plans to launch a robot into orbit and maneuver it to within grabbing distance of Landsat 7. The robot will use a mechanical arm to catch hold of it and refuel it, mid-air.
If successful, the mission would mark a milestone—the first time a satellite would be refueled in space. And this mission is just one of a number of planned public and private ventures intended to use robots to repair and improve the billions of dollars’ worth of satellites in orbit.
OneWeb, a British satellite maker, canceled launches reliant on Russia, which also announced it would cease selling rocket engines to American companies.
The Russian buildup includes more forces in Crimea, western Russia and Belarus, adding to fears that Russia could invade Ukraine.
The mission’s failure to reach orbit highlighted the challenges of breaking into the space business, especially for companies that are publicly traded on the stock market.
SpaceX had to ditch most of its latest batch of Starlink satellites because they were disrupted by a geomagnetic storm after being launched from the Falcon 9 rocket. Up to 40 of the 49 satellites will re-enter the atmosphere or have already done so because they were unable to reach their intended orbits.
In an update posted yesterday, SpaceX said that on February 3, the Falcon 9’s second stage deployed 49 “satellites into their intended orbit, with a perigee of approximately 210 kilometers above Earth, and each satellite achieved controlled flight.” SpaceX initially deploys satellites into lower altitudes than they ultimately orbit in “so that in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts, it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag,” the company said. SpaceX has licenses for altitudes of 540 km to 570 km and 335 km to 346 km.
Last week’s geomagnetic storm hit a day after launch, SpaceX explained:
A company led by satellite-industry veteran Greg Wyler says it plans to launch about 100,000 small communication satellites into low Earth orbit. The company, E-Space, yesterday announced that it received a $50 million investment and that it will launch its first test satellites next month, with “mass production… slated for 2023.”
E-Space said it has “filings in hand for potentially over 100,000 secure communication satellites,” but there are suggestions that the company wants to launch over 300,000 satellites. Prime Movers Lab, which led the $50 million investment round, said that E-Space’s network will have “up to hundreds of thousands of secure communication satellites” and described the devices as “micro-satellites.”
E-Space said its platform will “help governments and large companies build space-based applications in a capital-light manner” for uses “ranging from secure communications to managing remote infrastructure.” E-Space says its satellites will use a peer-to-peer communication model, and the company’s website describes the plan as a “multi-application cloud server in space… powered by E-Space’s rapidly scalable optical 5G mesh network.”
SpaceX’s Starlink Internet service will require a dense constellation of satellites to provide consistent, low-latency connectivity. The system already has over 1,500 satellites in orbit and has received approval to operate 12,000 of them. And that has astronomers worried. Although SpaceX has taken steps to reduce the impact of its hardware, there’s no way to completely eliminate the tracks the satellites leave across ground-based observations.
How bad is the problem? A team of astronomers has used archival images from a survey telescope to look for Starlink tracks over the past two years. Over that time, the number of images affected rose by a factor of 35, and the researchers estimate that by the time the planned Starlink constellation is complete, pretty much every image from their hardware will have at least one track in it.
The hardware used for the analysis is called the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory. The ZTF is designed to pick up rare events, such as supernovae. It does so by scanning the entire sky repeatedly, with software monitoring the resulting images to look for objects that were absent in early images but which appeared in later ones. The ZTF’s high sensitivity makes it good for picking out dim objects, like asteroids, in our own Solar System.
Elon Musk has hit back at criticism that his company’s Starlink satellites are hogging too much room in space, and has instead argued there could be room for “tens of billions” of spacecraft in orbits close to Earth.
“Space is just extremely enormous, and satellites are very tiny,” Musk said. “This is not some situation where we’re effectively blocking others in any way. We’ve not blocked anyone from doing anything, nor do we expect to.”
His comments, made in an interview with the Financial Times, came in response to a claim from Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency, that Musk was “making the rules” for the new commercial space economy. Speaking to the FT earlier this month, Aschbacher warned that Musk’s rush to launch thousands of communications satellites would leave fewer radio frequencies and orbital slots available for everyone else.
The relationship between the nations’ space agencies is facing a series of difficult tests, including an antisatellite weapon and friction over Ukraine.
The head of the European Space Agency has urged the continent’s leaders to stop facilitating Elon Musk’s ambition to dominate the new space economy, warning that the lack of co-ordinated action meant the US billionaire was “making the rules” himself.
Josef Aschbacher, the new director-general of ESA, said that Europe’s readiness to help the rapid expansion of Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service risked hindering the region’s own companies from realising the potential of commercial space.
“Space will be much more restrictive [in terms of] frequencies and orbital slots,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “The governments of Europe collectively should have an interest to… give European providers equal opportunities to play on a fair market.”
The test forced astronauts on the International Space Station to briefly take shelter in re-entry capsules.
An Indigenous clan fears it will lose its place in the world as the government pursues a quest to open a spaceport and lure the billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
The State Department said the cloud of debris from the missile strike added more than 1,500 pieces of sizable space junk to Earth’s orbit.
Scientists used satellite measurements of carbon dioxide to detect small atmospheric reductions over areas under coronavirus lockdowns. The approach could help track emissions more quickly in the future.
Competing with SpaceX, OneWeb and others, the e-commerce titan will rely on small rockets to get prototypes of its satellite constellation into space.
The fiery trail astonished viewers in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, but a Russian military spacecraft was the probable source.
The country aspires to be a leader in space technology, with plans to land an uncrewed craft on the moon by 2030. President Moon Jae-in said the initial launch was excellent “for a first try.”
Meteorologists said that a bolide, a type of large meteor explosion in the atmosphere, might have been the source of a disturbance that was widely reported on Sunday.
Congress wants the government to turn to the private sector to augment the capabilities of highly classified spy satellites.
The military’s satellites excel at spotting new blazes, but for decades they have been mostly off limits to civilian firefighters.
It was a busy first half of the year for U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab, which posted earnings for the first six months of 2021 on Wednesday – the first such reporting since the company went public last month.
Rocket Lab reported revenues for the six-month period of $29.5 million. Its order backlog also grew to $141.4 million as of June 30, up 136% from $59.9 million compared to the same period last year.
While the general trend seems to be positive, executives emphasized the continued impact of COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, the site of one of the company’s key launch facilities. CFO Adam Spice said the third quarter has already been impacted by the pandemic, after New Zealand introduced strict lockdown restrictions in response to an 855-person outbreak of the Delta variant. Those restrictions resulted in “no further launch activity planned” for the quarter, Spice said, and will likely result in a $10-15 million impact on revenues for the year.
Despite these setbacks, executives said they anticipated a yearly revenue of $50-54 million. GAAP operating expenses, meanwhile, hit $29.3 million for the six-month period, up from $11.9 million for the first half of last year. The majority of that increase was from R&D spending, including the development of an automated flight termination system and the Neutron launch vehicle, Spice added.
Rocket Lab, which started as a launch company, has significantly branched out since its founding in 2006. The company now fashions itself as an end-to-end space company, providing launch services, as well as the design, manufacturing and operation of spacecraft.
It is this latter business area that Rocket Lab has aggressively grown over the past eighteen months; some recent milestones include an agreement to develop three of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft for space manufacturing company Varda Space Industries and plans to send two Photons to Mars on an upcoming space mission. The growth of its space systems division reflects these developments; for the six-month period, space systems made up a $5.4 million share of revenue, up from just $300,000 in the same quarter last year.
Rocket Lab also said it would start manufacturing satellite components at scale by the end of this year, starting with reaction wheels, a critical attitude and stability control system. Rocket Lab will be opening a new facility that will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually, a massive increase in volumes compared to what’s ever been available to the space industry before.
“Satellite components typically have been produced in small numbers which has really limited the speed and scale of constellation development,” CEO Peter Beck said during an investor call Wednesday. “The [reaction wheel production] line has been built to solve that, enabling production at scale to meet the growing needs of customers in the industry at large.”
Rocket Lab’s space systems division was given a huge boost by the acquisition of major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary last year, and it likely won’t be the company’s last purchase. Rocket Lab has around a half dozen deals it’s actively investigating, Spice told investors Wednesday. “The Sinclair acquisition has really emboldened us to lean forward and look at opportunities.”
“What’s interesting about this market right now is it does really feel like it’s ripe for consolidation,” he said. “Not consolidation in the sense of large companies necessarily getting together but the fact [that] the invest-ability of space is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said.
Company executives stayed largely mum on the Neutron rocket, with Beck simply noting that it “continues to develop really well” and that the company will provide a more detailed development in the coming months.
“Neutron is a vehicle that is not an increment on Electron,” he said. “It is something that really sets a new standard within the space industry.”
Rocket Lab also announced today that it has inked a multi-launch contract with Kinéis, a French connectivity provider for Internet of Things devices, to deploy its satellite constellation across five Electron missions. Kinéis’ investors include the French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales and French space company Collecte Localisation Satellites.
The constellation will consist of 25 satellites in total, adding to the over 100 satellites Rocket Lab has launched on its Electron rocket to date. The launches are scheduled for the second quarter 2023.
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) September 8, 2021
This is just the latest multi-launch deal Rocket Lab has inked in recent months, including a contract with satellite analytics company BlackSky for five launches.
Rocket Lab has continued to rise, closing Wednesday at $15.09. That represents a nearly 50% increase since the company’s public debut at the end of August.
Peter Beck hasn’t been shy about his intention to grow Rocket Lab into more than just a launch provider, but a fully vertically integrated space company that makes spacecraft in addition to sending them to orbit. The company, which he founded in 2006, has taken yet another major stride toward that goal with the news Wednesday that it will open a new production facility to manufacture satellite components at a larger scale than ever before.
The facility will manufacture reaction wheels, critical attitude and stability control systems on satellites. Rocket Lab says the facility, which will be operational in the fourth quarter of this year, will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually. Given that spacecraft generally have between 3 and 4 reaction wheels, it’s safe to assume that Rocket Lab customers likely have around 500 individual satellites ready in the pipeline to accept these components. “These are these are large volumes of supply across multiple constellations,” Rocket Lab CEO Beck said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.
The news is a marked expansion for Rocket Lab’s space systems business, which is already kept busy by the in-house Photon spacecraft and was boosted last year when the company acquired major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary. Rocket Lab also offers bespoke Photons for individual use cases – it will be designing the vehicles for forthcoming launches with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries and two Photons that will be sent to Mars on an upcoming science mission.
Historically, spacecraft components have generally been produced on the scale of tens or hundreds, because the barriers to get to orbit were so high. But as the cost of launch has declined (thanks in part to innovations from companies like Rocket Lab) more and more entities are able to send projects to space. That means more satellites, and more reaction wheels. Even today, there are around 200 Rocket Lab-made reaction wheels in orbit, so 2,000 in a single year is a huge jump in scale.
It’s all part of Rocket Lab’s goal of being a fully-integrated space services company. A major benefit from the vertical integration for customers, Rocket Lab says, is slashed manufacturing lead times. Beck said that when the company first started producing Photons, they quickly encountered months-long delivery times for reaction wheels, which effectively pushed back their timeline for launching one to orbit.
“If the space economy is to grow in the way that it’s predicted, then this has to be solved,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem that has to be solved. The whole space supply chain is characterized by small scale operations that really lack the ability to produce volume in any scale.”
Rocket Lab will be hiring more than 16 roles to support the space systems division and the new production facility, which will otherwise be highly automated; the company said in a statement that the production tools and environmental testing workstations will all be automated, and the metal machining is optimized to operate unattended. Beck said these techniques are very much in line with Rocket Lab’s other manufacturing processes – he pointed to Rosie the Robot as a cornerstone of the company’s capacity to use automation to rapidly scale its products.
Beck stayed mum about whether the company is planning on scaling the production of other spacecraft components, like the star trackers navigation tool, which Rocket Lab also manufacturers. However, he did say that the company plans on introducing new products – what those will be will, he declined to specify. But Beck’s stated aim when he started the space systems division is that “everything that goes to space should have a Rocket Lab logo on it.”
That aim goes to Rocket Lab’s larger vision, which is becoming an end-to-end space company: combining launch services with spacecraft manufacturing to be able to build in-orbit infrastructure.
“When you combine those things together, you have an immensely powerful platform that you can use to develop infrastructure in orbit and ultimately provide services,” he said.
But when asked what kinds of services he was thinking of, Beck played it close to the chest, instead choosing to give a well-known example from a competitor: SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite project, which it builds and launches itself. He stayed mum on what kinds of ventures Rocket Lab might pursue, just saying that the vertical integration gives the company the ability to try new business models.
“The marginal cost for us to experiment is very, very low.”
Satellite connectivity company Swarm has come out with a new product that will give anyone the ability to create a messaging or Internet of Things (IoT) device, whether that be a hiker looking to stay connected off-the-grid or a hobbyist wanting to track the weather.
The Swarm Evaluation Kit is an all-in-one product that includes a Swarm Tile, the company’s flagship modem device, a VHF antenna, a small solar panel, a tripod, a Feather S2 development board and an OLED from Adafruit. The entire kit comes in at less than six pounds and costs $499. The package may sound intimidatingly technical, but Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo explained to TechCrunch that it was designed to be user-friendly, from the most novice consumer all the way through to more advanced users.
It “was super intentional to call it an Evaluation kit because it’s not a finished product,” Spangelo explained. “It serves two different kinds of groups. The first group is people that want to be able to do messaging anywhere that they are on the planet for a really low cost […] The second group of people will be the tinkerers and the hobbyists and educational folks.”
This is the second consumer product that Swarm has on offer, after it went commercially live with its flagship Swarm Tile earlier this year. The Swarm Tile is a key component of the company’s ecosystem, which is comprised of a few different components: the Tile, a kind of modem that can be embedded in different things and what the customer interfaces with; the satellite network; and a ground station network, which is how the company downlinks data. The Tile is designed for maximum compatibility, so Swarm serves customers across sectors including shipping, logistics, and agriculture.
“One of the cool things about Swarm is that we’re infrastructure,” she said. “We’re like cellphone towers, so anyone can use us across any vertical.” Some of the use cases she highlighted included customers using Tile in soil moisture sensors, or in asset tracking in the trucking industry.
A major part of Swarm’s business model is its low cost, with a Swarm Tile costing $119 and the connectivity service available for only $5 per month per connected device. Spangelo credits not only the engineering innovations in the tiny devices and satellites, but the gains in launch economics, especially for small satellite developers like Swarm. The company also sells direct, which further reduces overhead.
Swarm was founded by Spangelo, a pilot and aerospace engineering PhD who spent time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and at Google on its drone delivery project, Wing. She told TechCrunch that Swarm started as a hobby project between her and co-founder Ben Longmier, who had previously founded a company called Aether Industries that made high-altitude balloon platforms.
“Then [we] realized that we could do communications at speeds that were similar to what the legacy players are doing today,” Sara Spangelo said. “There was a lot of buzz around connectivity,” she added, noting that initiatives like Project Loon were garnering a lot of funding. But instead of trying to match the size and scale of some of these multi-year projects, they decided to go small.
In the four and a half years since the company’s founding, Swarm has put up a network of 120 sandwich-sized satellites into low Earth orbit and grown its workforce to 32 people. They’ve also been busy onboarding customers that use the Tile. One hope is that the Kit will be an additional way to draw customers to Swarm’s service.
Spangelo said the kit is for “everybody in between, that likes to just play with things. And it’s not just playing – the playing leads to innovations and ideas, and then it gets deployed out into the world.”
Advancements in space technology and new means of financing are driving a flurry of investor interest.
Electric propulsion developer Orbion Space Technology has raised $20 million in a Series B funding round, which it says it will use to scale production capacity of its Aurora propulsion system.
The Michigan-based startup manufactures Hall effect plasma thrusters for use in small and cube satellites. Thrusters are used throughout the lifespan of a satellite (or any object in space that needs to maintain its orbit, like the space station) to adjust orbital altitude, avoid collisions, and de-orbit the craft once it has reached the end of its useful life. Hall thrusters use a magnetic field to ionize a propellant and produce plasma.
While they have long been used in space, this type of thruster has mostly been too expensive for small satellite operators. Orbion says it has created a cost-effective production capacity to meet the growing demand of startups and developers launching to low Earth orbit. Orbion CEO Brad King said in a statement that the company considered contract manufacturers but ultimately chose a vertically integrated manufacturing model. Now, the company says it has outgrown its existing manufacturing space.
The company is facing “unprecedented market demand” for its Aurora system, King said. With the boom of the so-called new space economy, driven in part by the decreased costs of processors, components and even launch, it’s no surprise that there’s been a concurrent uptick in demand for efficient in-space propulsion systems.
The company had previously raised a $9.2 million Series A in August 2019. Since that time, the company secured a research partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense that’s testing the resiliency of American space systems. Orbion also landed a contract with satellite manufacturer Blue Canyon Technologies last September.
This most recent funding round was led by the US-India VC firm Inventus Capital Partners, with additional participation from Material Impact, Beringea and Wakestream Ventures.
“The space game is changing,” Inventus Capital Partners investor Kanwal Rekhi said in a statement. “Large satellites are being replaced by a multitude of nano-satellites; just like the PCs replaced mainframes. Orbion is providing these nano-satellites maneuverability to get into more precise orbits and stay there longer.”
It’s hard to understand just how steeply the cost of launching and operating satellites has dropped, particularly since the introduction of lower cost launch services from a number of commercial players, and the maturation of the smartphone supply chain. Swarm co-founder and CEO realized just how much the cost curve had changed when she and her co-founder Ben Longmeir realized that they could outfit tiny satellites Longmeir had created as a kind of space lover’s hobby with the equipment needed to provide low-bandwidth connectivity to low-powered devices around the world.
In this week’s episode of Found, Sara walks us through how she went from an engineering career that included stints at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google, to building Swarm as a first-time founder and CEO. We covered a range of topics including how Sara and Ben decided who would be CEO, what it’s like leading a small but growing team, and how to evaluate your decisions as a founder, and commit to a course of action to move forward.
Sara was extremely candid with us about her experience as a founder and CEO, and this is definitely one of our most open and honest conversations to date.
We loved our time chatting with Sara, and we hope you love yours listening to the episode. And of course, we’d love if you can subscribe to Found in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Google Podcasts or in your podcast app of choice. Please leave us a review and let us know what you think, or send us direct feedback either on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please join us again next week for our next featured founder.
A lot of information can be gleaned about a surface area just by taking the ground temperature data. If a crop field is under stress, for example, the ground temperature will be elevated long before there’s any actual indication of the stress on the plant itself, Hydrosat CEO and co-founder Pieter Fossel explained to TechCrunch. Now, with a new $5 million injection in seed funding, he hopes to launch Hydrosat’s first surface temperature analytics product for customers.
The seed round was led by Cultivation Capital’s newly launched Geospatial Technologies Fund with participation by Freeflow Ventures, the Yield Lab, Expon Capital, Techstars, Industrious Ventures, Synovia Capital, and the University of Michigan.
The geospatial data analytics startup, which started at the end of 2017, plans to gather surface temperature data using satellites equipped with thermal infrared sensors. Beyond agricultural data, surface temperature can also provide information about wildfire risk, water stress and drought – all important variables if you believe, as Fossel does, that climate change is already starting to exert forces on the planet.
While ground temperature data is collected by legacy institutions like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), it’s not gathered at a very high frequency – sometimes a specific location’s ground temperature is only read every 16 days or so – or at a high resolution. Hydrosat hopes to fill in those existing data gaps. The company also collects data on other bands, using a multispectral infrared camera, but its primary value proposition is in its thermal data.
The first satellite will head to low-Earth orbit with Loft Orbital on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2022. That mission is named after Hydrosat’s former CEO, Jakob van Zyl, who passed away from heart attack about a year ago. Although the launches add a certain flair, Fossel stressed that the company is “a content company and a data company first.”
“We’re also developing some applications that sit on top of that [surface temperature] product that are geared towards crop yield forecasting, drought detection, and irrigation management,” he said. “Because these are all fundamentally driven by water stress and all of those applications are fundamentally enabled by our core product, which is land surface temperature data.”
Hydrosat’s first customers have been governments, in the form of a contract with the ESA and three SBIR contracts with the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense. But through the raise, the company can start to deliver its product to commercial customers, who may include agribusinesses, insurance companies, and even other companies that want to do analytics on top of its collection of ground surface data.
“[Hydrosat] will probably start in agriculture, which is our core focus, but it could branch out across industries, because temperature is a signal of a whole host of activities beyond our focus, which is environment, water, stress, food,” he explained. “Temperature is also a signal of economic activity. There’s a lot of cool use cases for temperature, from kind of a defense and security standpoint, as well.”
Looking to the future, Hydrosat has plans to launch a 16-satellite constellation to enable global monitoring. But that’s only the medium-term focus, Fossel said. The company’s long-term plans could include launching additional satellites, adding additional bands to deepen its data offerings, or building out its analytics layer. “Beyond that, it’s really about providing the underlying data that enables some of these applications in drought, food security, water stress, wildfire, and defense and security,” he added.
There has been a wave of businesses over the past several years hoping to offer broadband internet delivered from thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO), providing coverage of most of the earth’s surface.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen excitement in the category. Companies and people that you have heard of — Bill Gates and Motorola, to name a few — invested billions of dollars into this business model two decades ago in an adventure that ended in many bankruptcies and very few people connected to the internet from low-earth orbit. Yet, here we are 20 years later, witnessing billionaires from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos and entities from SoftBank to the United Kingdom investing billions into broadband from space in a gold rush that began around 2015, and has only accelerated since the beginning of 2020.
During that same period, we have seen a parallel ascendance of China’s space capabilities. In tandem with the accelerated deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation in 2020, China has rapidly responded in terms of policy, financing, and technology, including most notably the creation of a “Chinese answer to Starlink”, namely constellation operating company China SatNet, and the associated GuoWang (国网, or National Net(work)) constellation.
While still in early development, SatNet and GuoWang are likely to compete in certain markets with Starlink and others, while also fulfilling what may be a similar strategic purpose from a government perspective. With considerable backing from very high-level actors, we are likely to see the rollout of a Red Star(link) over China (and the rest of the world) over the coming several years.
The rapid rise of Starlink
China’s LEO constellation plans cannot be understood in a vacuum. Like many other areas of high-tech investment, China’s actions here are partially reactive to developments in the West. The acceleration and expansion of Western LEO constellations in recent years — most notably Starlink — has been an accelerant to China’s own plans.
With wildfires becoming an ever more devastating annual phenomenon, it is in the whole planet’s interest to spot them and respond as early as possible — and the best vantage point for that is space. OroraTech is a German startup building a constellation of small satellites to power a global wildfire warning system, and will be using a freshly raised €5.8M (~$7M) A round to kick things off.
Wildfires destroy tens of millions of acres of forest every year, causing immense harm to people and the planet in countless ways. Once they’ve grown to a certain size, they’re near impossible to stop, so the earlier they can be located and worked against, the better.
But these fires can start just about anywhere in a dried out forest hundreds of miles wide, and literally every minute and hour counts — watch towers, helicopter flights, and other frequently used methods may not be fast or exact enough to effectively counteract this increasingly serious threat. Not to mention they’re expensive and often dangerous jobs for those who perform them.
OroraTech’s plan is to use a constellation of about 100 satellites equipped with custom infrared cameras to watch the entire globe (or at least the parts most likely to burst into flame) at once, reporting any fire bigger than ten meters across within half an hour.
To start out with, the Bavarian company has used data from over a dozen satellites already in space, in order to prove out the service on the ground. But with this funding round they are set to put their own bird in the air, a shoebox-sized satellite with a custom infrared sensor that will be launched by Spire later this year. Onboard machine learning processing of this imagery simplifies the downstream process.
14 more satellites are planned for launch by 2023, presumably once they’ve kicked the proverbial tires on the first one and come up with the inevitable improvements.
“In order to cover even more regions in the future and to be able to give warning earlier, we aim to launch our own specialized satellite constellation into orbit,” said CEO and co-founder Thomas Grübler in a press release. “We are therefore delighted to have renowned investors on board to support us with capital and technological know-how in implementing our plans.”
Those renowned investors consist of Findus Venture and Ananda Impact Ventures, which led the round, followed by APEX Ventures, BayernKapital, Clemens Kaiser, SpaceTec Capital and Ingo Baumann. The company was spun out of research done by the founders at TUM, which maintains an interest.
“It is absolutely remarkable what they have built up and achieved so far despite limited financial resources and we feel very proud that we are allowed to be part of this inspiring and ambitious NewSpace project,” APEX’s Wolfgang Neubert said, and indeed it’s impressive to have a leading space-based data service with little cash (it raised an undisclosed seed about a year ago) and no satellites.
It’s not the only company doing infrared imagery of the Earth’s surface; SatelliteVu recently raised money to launch its own, much smaller constellation, though it’s focused on monitoring cities and other high-interest areas, not the vast expanse of forests. And ConstellR is aimed (literally) at the farming world, monitoring fields for precision crop management.
With money in its pocket Orora can expand and start providing its improved detection services, though sadly, it likely won’t be upgrading before wildfire season hits the northern hemisphere this year.
The government is turning an old research base above the Arctic Circle into a state-of-the-art satellite launching center. The reindeer will not be happy.
Changes to the atmosphere caused by carbon dioxide emissions could increase the amount of debris that stays in orbit.
Earth imaging is an increasingly crowded space, but Satellite Vu is taking a different approach by focusing on infrared and heat emissions, which are crucial for industry and climate change monitoring. Fresh from TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, the company has raised a £3.6M ($5M) seed round and is on its way to launching its first satellite in 2022.
The nuts and bolts of Satellite Vu’s tech and master plan are described in our original profile of the company, but the gist is this: while companies like Planet have made near-real-time views of the Earth’s surface into a thriving business, other niches are relatively unexplored — like thermal imaging.
The heat coming off a building, geological feature, or even a crowd of people is an enormously interesting data point. It can tell you whether an office building or warehouse is in use or empty, and whether it’s heated or cooled, and how efficient that process is. It can find warmer or cooler areas that suggest underground water, power lines, or other heat-affecting objects. It could even make a fair guess at how many people attended a concert, or perhaps an inauguration. And of course it works at night.
Pollution and other emissions are also easily spotted and tracked, making infrared observation of the planet an important part of any plan to monitor industry in the context of climate change. That’s what attracted Satellite Vu’s first big piece of cash, a grant from the U.K. government for £1.4M, part of a £500M infrastructure fund.
CEO and founder Anthony Baker said that they began construction of their first satellite with that money, “so we knew we got our sums right,” he said, then began the process of closing additional capital.
Seraphim Capital, a space-focused VC firm whose most relevant venture is probably synthetic aperture satellite startup Iceye, matched the grant funds, and with subsequent grant the total money raised is in excess of the $5M target (the extra is set aside in a convertible note).
“What attracted us to Satellite Vu is several things. We published some research about this last year: there are more than 180 companies with plans to launch smallsat constellations,” said Seraphim managing partner James Bruegger. But very few, they noted, were looking at the infrared or thermal space. “That intrigued us, because we always thought infrared had a lot of potential. And we already knew Anthony and Satellite Vu from having put them through our space accelerator in 2019.”
They’re going to need every penny. Though the satellites themselves are looking to be remarkably cheap, as satellites go — $14-15M all told — and only seven will be needed to provide global coverage, that still adds up to over $100M over the next couple years.
Seraphim isn’t daunted, however: “As a specialist space investor, we understand the value of patience,” said Bruegger. Satellite Vu, he added, is a “poster child” for their approach, which is to shuttle early stage companies through their accelerator and then support them to an exit.
It helps that Baker has lined up about as much potential income from interested customers as they’ll need to finance the whole thing, soup to nuts. “Commercial traction has improved since we last spoke,” said Baker, which was just before he presented at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 Startup Battlefield:
The company now has 26 letters of intent and other leads that amount to, in his estimation, about a hundred million dollars worth of business — if he can provide the services they’re asking for, of course. To that end the company has been flying its future orbital cameras on ordinary planes and modifying the output to resemble what they expect from the satellite network.
Companies interested in the latter can buy into the former for now, and the transition to the “real” product should be relatively painless. It also helps create a pipeline on Satellite Vu’s side, so there’s no need for a test satellite and service.
“We call it pseudo-satellite data — it’s almost a minimum viable product.We work with the companies about the formats and stuff they need,” Baker said. “The next stage is, we’re planning on taking a whole city, like Glasgow, and mapping the whole city in thermal. We think there will be many parties interested in that.”
With investment, tentative income, and potential customers lining up, Satellite Vu seems poised to make a splash, though its operations and launches are small compared with those of Planet, Starlink, and very soon Amazon’s Kuiper. After the first launch, tentatively scheduled for 2022, Baker said the company would only need two more to put the remaining six satellites in orbit, three at a time on a rideshare launch vehicle.
Before that, though, we can expect further fundraising, perhaps as soon as a few months from now — after all, however thrifty the company is, tens of millions in cash will still be needed to get off the ground.
Northrop Grumman hit a new milestone in extending the life of active spacecraft as a purpose-built spacecraft, MEV-2, docking with Intelsat’s IS-10-02 satellite to give it another 5 years of life. It’s a strong demonstration of the possibilities in a growing field of orbital servicing operations.
MEV-2 launched in August and matched the orbit of Intelsat’s 18-year-old satellite, which would have soon be due for decommissioning, having exceeded its original mission by some 5 years. But it’s precisely this type of situation that the new “on-orbit service, assembly and manufacturing,” or OSAM, industry intends to target, allowing such satellites to live longer — likely saving their operators millions.
In today’s operation, the MEV-2 spacecraft slowly approached IS-10-02 and docked with it, essentially adding itself as a spare engine with a full tank. It will stay attached this way for five years, after which it will move on to its next mission — another end-of-life satellite, probably. “You can think of MEV-2 as a jetpack for the 10-02 satellite,” said a Northrop Grumman representative.
The docking process is really more of a clamping-on than a docking, since while there’s a mechanical fit between the MEV-2’s probe and the IS-10-02’s engine cone, it’s not like they’re making a seal and exchanging fluids or power. The representative explained:
The MEV-2 docking system consists of a probe that we insert into the liquid apogee engine on the aft end of a satellite. Nearly 80% of satellites in orbit have this featuring, allowing the MEV service a variety of customers. The liquid apogee engine acts as a “cone to capture” to help guide the probe which once it passes through the throat of the engine, expands to capture the client satellite. The probe is then retracted pulling three stanchions, or feet, up against the launch adaptor ring, securely clamping the two vehicles together.
Last year the MEV-1 mission performed a similar operation, docking with Intelsat’s IS-901 and changing its orbit.
But in that case, the satellite was inactive and not in the correct orbit to return to service. MEV-1 therefore had a bit more latitude in how it approached the first part of the mission.
In the case of MEV-2, the IS-10-02 satellite was in active use in its accustomed orbit, meaning the servicing spacecraft had to coordinate an approach that ran no risk of disrupting the target craft’s operations. Being able to service working satellites, of course, is a major step up from only working with dead ones.
And naturally the goal is to have spacecraft that could dock and refuel another satellite without hanging onto it for a few years, or service a malfunctioning part so that a craft that’s 99% functional can stay in orbit rather than be allowed to burn up. Startups like Orbit Fab aim to build and standardize the parts and ports needed to make this a reality, and Northrop Grumman is planning a robotic servicing mission for its next trick, expected to launch in 2024.
New satellite images obtained by The New York Times show that China has allowed tankers to use its infrastructure and territorial waters to deliver oil to North Korea.
The weather data and forecasting startup ClimaCell today announced that it plans to launch its own constellation of small weather satellites. These radar-equipped satellites will allow ClimaCell to improve its ability to get a better picture of global weather and improve its forecasting abilities. The company expects the first of these to launch in the second half of 2022.
As ClimaCell CEO Shimon Elkabetz points out in today’s announcement, ground-based radar coverage, which allows you to get information about precipitation and cloud structure, remains spotty, even in the U.S., which in turn often makes even basic forecasting more difficult. And while there are (expensive) space-based radar satellites available, those often only revisit the same area every three days, limiting their usefulness. ClimaCell hopes that its constellation of small, specialized satellites will offer hourly revisit times.
We started with proprietary sensing and modeling to predict the weather more accurately at every point in the world, and built on top of it one software platform that can be configured to every job and vertical,” Elkabetz writes. “[…] Now, we are evolving into a SaaS company powered by Space: We’re launching a constellation of satellites to improve weather forecasting for the entire world. For the first time, a constellation of active radar will surround Earth and provide real-time observations to feed weather forecasting at every point on the globe.
That’s indeed a big step for the company, but we may just see more of this in the near future. While even 10 years ago it would have been hard for even a well-funded company to launch its own satellites, that’s quite different now. A number of factors contributed to this, ranging from easier access to launch services, breakthroughs in building these proprietary radar satellites and the availability of auxiliary services like ground stations as a service, which now even AWS and Microsoft offer, and a whole ecosystem of vendors that specialize in building these satellites. The ClimaCell team tells me that it is talking to a lot of vendors right now and will choose which one to go to later on.
NASA’s sole means of sending commands to the distant space probe, launched 44 years ago, is being restored on Friday.
UK-based Isotropic Systems has raised a $40 million funding in an “oversubscribed” round that the startup says will help it get its next-generation broadband terminal to the production phase by its 2022 target. The funding, a Series B that brings the company’s total raised to $60 million, was led by SES and included participation form Boeing HorizonX, Space Angels, Orbital Ventures on the venture side, and that includes UK government grant support as well.
Isotropic’s business is centred around a new type of broadband terminal it’s developing that can communicate across multiple frequencies, making it possible for it to connect to more than one satellite network at the same time without any loss in signal quality or network speed for any individual connection. The final product would then offer ground connectivity to customers that could potentially maintain connections with more than one of the emerging satellite broadband networks in development, including those being set up by OneWeb, SpaceX, Intelsat, SES, Amazon and more.
The startup will be stand-in cup a 20,000 square-foot testing and prediction facility near Reading in the UK, and expects to have the first operational version of its ground terminal in production by 2022. If its final product works as advertised, it could be a major boon both for satellite network connectivity providers and for clients, since it would mean that customers who can afford the service don’t have to either select from among the available options, and can instead use one hardware solution to connect to multiple in order to take advantage of potential speed benefits, as well as network redundancy.
The benefits are obvious, provided the financials make sense. Imagine, for instance, using onboard wifi on an international flight. Typically, these networks have been unreliable to say the least. Coverage and quality drop-outs are common, and speeds tend to be weak in even the best of cases. Networks like Starlink aim to correct a lot of these legacy problems, but even better would be a solution that offers connection to multiple satellite networks simultaneously, switching between each connection as necessary to maintain the best possible network quality – and potentially combining available bandwidth when possible to boost speeds.
Isotropic’s potential customer list for such an offering spans military, government, and civilian markets, across both broadband and low-data IoT networks. This latest funding should help it prove its groundbreaking technology can attain the production scale and efficacy required to live up to its promise.
The Biden administration is inheriting the menace of Chinese antisatellite arms as well as an innovative way of trying to defuse the escalating threat.
The Biden administration faces not only waves of Chinese antisatellite weapons but a history of jumbled responses to the intensifying threat.
Imagery from the Cold War’s Corona satellites is helping scientists fill in how we have changed our planet in the past half century.
Linda Zall is disclosing how she toiled anonymously within the intelligence agency to help scientists intensify their studies of a changing planet.
Amid growing alarm about methane’s role in driving global warming, a Canadian firm has begun selling a service to detect even relatively small leaks. At least two rivals are on the way.
New Zealand launch provider Rocket Lab has put its 15th commercial payload into space, delivering 10 Earth observation satellites each to their own orbit. The company is getting back into its stride after an upset in July dampened plans to set a record for launch turnaround time.
Aboard the latest Electron launch vehicle to leave the Earth were nine of Planet’s “SuperDove” satellites, the newer generation of observation craft that allow that company to provide frequently updated imagery of an increasingly large proportion of the surface.
Canon’s CE-SAT-IIB is a demonstration craft, showing off “a middle-size telescope equipped with an ultra-high sensitivity camera to take night images of the Earth,” along with some smaller ones for more ordinary observation. The rideshare with Planet was organized by launch rideshare specialists Spaceflight.
The launch was originally scheduled for last week but stood down at the time because “some sensors are returning data that we want to look into further.” Fortunately there was no shortage of backup launch dates, and today was set for the new attempt.
Everything proceeded nominally and the satellites were on their way and able to be reached about an hour after takeoff.
This is the second launch since Rocket Lab was briefly grounded following the loss of a payload in July — not to any flashy explosion but to a rather graceful shutdown due to an electrical fault before it could reach the desired orbit.
Fortunately the company’s quick investigation meant they were ready to fly less than a month later.
Incidentally, all that and more will be on the table for discussion at TC Sessions: Space 2020 in December, where Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck will be joining us.