TUKWILA, Wash. — Will LeoStella go beyond LEO?
It’s been four years since LeoStella, a joint venture created by BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space, opened the doors of its Tukwila factory and began building Earth observation satellites that BlackSky could launch into low Earth orbit, otherwise known as LEO.
Since then, the company has taken on other customers as well — including Loft Orbital Solutions, which offers a turnkey solution for flying and operating satellite payloads; and NorthStar Earth and Space, which is building a satellite constellation to monitor space traffic.
This week, LeoStella announced the completion and delivery of its 20th satellite — which happens to be the third satellite it’s built for Loft Orbital.
Meanwhile, Tim Kienberger is getting settled in as LeoStella’s new CEO. He took over the company’s top post in January, after building up decades of experience at other aerospace and defense companies such as Boeing and L3Harris.
“What they hired me to do was to grow the business,” Kienberger told GeekWire.
The sky just might literally be the limit when it comes to LeoStella’s future growth. During last week’s interview at LeoStella’s Tukwila HQ, Kienberger said the company could eventually take aim at missions beyond Earth orbit — to support missions to the moon, for example, or to help humanity get to Mars.
“I’m pretty excited to be in this job,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of growth potential here, and it’s rather unique to create a facility like this in Seattle. There used to be one space operation in Seattle, and it was called Boeing. It’s exciting to see the explosion of the space industry here.”
The Seattle area is arguably on track to become the world champion of satellite building, at least on the basis of sheer numbers. SpaceX’s Starlink development and manufacturing facility in Redmond, Wash., has built roughly half of the satellites currently operating in orbit, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper is gearing up to build thousands more in Kirkland, the Seattle suburb that’s next door to Redmond.
Kienberger doesn’t consider SpaceX or Amazon to be competitors. He said he prefers to focus on a “sweet spot” in the satellite market: Instead of turning out expensive, custom-designed satellites one at a time, or building thousands of satellites for a mega-constellation, LeoStella is focusing on helping its customers build out midsize constellations consisting of 10 to 50 satellites.
“We really want to focus on helping customers deliver a capability, and that’s what that constellation size does,” Kienberger said. “BlackSky is a great example.”
BlackSky already has 16 Earth-watching Global satellites in orbit, sending down imagery on a near-real-time basis for its geospatial data platform. Most of those satellites were built by LeoStella, and now the company is shifting to build an upgraded version of the satellite, known as Gen-3.
LeoStella’s 22,000-square-foot headquarters in Tukwila is configured to produce up to 40 satellites annually, but the manufacturing facility can be expanded to increase yearly production to 60 satellites. LeoStella’s workforce is also primed for expansion: The company currently employs 77 full-time employees and contractors, but it’s aiming to boost its workforce to 95 by the end of the year.
What will those new hires be doing? And what markets will LeoStella expand into? Kienberger provided some hints during last week’s Q&A. Here are some of the highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:
GeekWire: BlackSky is pretty much focused on imaging. Is that what you’re continuing to look at for further opportunities?
Kienberger: “No, we’re not going to limit ourselves just to Earth observation imaging. We have a customer looking at an alternate method for GPS. We have a customer asking if we could support a LEO-based communications mission. We’re talking to another customer who wants to do a classified mission. They won’t tell us what it is, so, OK, that’s fine. We’ll sell them the bus [that is, the structural chassis of a satellite]. They like the bus, and then they’ll finish the product somewhere else. That’s not unlike what we did for Loft. We basically sold them the bus.”
Q: What’s your view of the satellite market? Is it a good business to be in?
A: “It has been and still is a very exciting time, especially to be in the small-sat side of the space industry. Having worked in the space industry for a long time, I’m seeing how small satellites have gotten more reliable. We produce satellites very efficiently with a high success record here, which is great. Launch costs are coming down, which means that there are a lot more opportunities to launch vehicles.”
Q: Are there some technologies at LeoStella that have the potential to revolutionize the field? Or is it more the case that there’s no magic bullet, that it’s a question of economizing here and there, and somehow finding ways to get the costs down?
A: “There is a magic bullet, but it’s not a satellite technology. The way that we’ve driven the cost down is the automated manufacturing system. We’ve thought through how the workflow needs to be set up, how to get the rate flow through here. How do I manage inventory from bringing it in the door all the way through the finished product, and can I do that in a more automated fashion?
“And then we’re taking a slightly different approach in qualification. You can take a very conservative approach, where you qualify everything all the time. We’re taking what I would traditionally call more of a qualified similarity approach, which means we don’t need to do full qualification on everything. We certainly do a level of qualification on everything that goes out the door, but not the full set of thermal vacuum cycling on everything. There’s some risk there, but so far it’s paid off.”
Q: Do you ever have a vision of what this industry is going to be like, maybe 10 years from now? A lot of people have said that if you get launch costs down, if you get the cost of manufacturing a satellite down to a certain point, you unlock capabilities we couldn’t dream of. Do you ever dream about what that world might be like?
A: “Well, I tend to dream all the time, but I try to temper my dreams and be realistic. I think launch cost is probably the big driver at the moment. There are a number of data services companies who are startups, who want to build a capability, but they certainly don’t want to spend $100 million to deploy 10 satellites on orbit. If they could spend $20 million or $30 million, they might find an investor who says, ‘Yeah, that’s worth making the investment. Let’s go try that business model and see if it pans out.’
“I think the biggest swinger there, first and foremost, is going to be on the launch services side. To cut down spacecraft costs further, there’s technology coming along that will help. Printed technology is certainly going to drive down costs in the long run. Electric propulsion, once upon a time, was pretty expensive. Now we’re integrating electric propulsion into our new vehicles, not at a premium plus. So that’s great.”
Q: Is that for the BlackSky Gen-3 satellites?
A: “It is. … So, there are certainly new technologies that we want to leverage to stay cost-effective, though you don’t want to be on the cusp of new technology that drives your product cost back up. Just like the advent of flat screens: The first flat screen on the market was $10,000. Now you can go to any store and buy one much larger than the first one for a few hundred dollars, with much higher quality.
“Technology needs to continue to innovate. That will eventually drive costs further down across a number of areas. If we can come up with more effective power methods and more efficient propulsion methods, those are probably the two biggest swingers.”
Q: Some people talk about next-generation radioisotope batteries. Is that the sort of thing you’re looking forward to?
A: “Yeah, but there’s also nuclear propulsion. When you talk about nuclear energy and how you could apply that, it’s not an infinite source, but it’s a semi-infinite source. Right now, all propulsion systems basically run on a fuel. Even electric propulsion runs on a fuel that gets pushed through the system. Nuclear propulsion would run on a fuel, based on the radiation that comes up, but it will run for quite a long time.
“That’s part of how you advance your mission space farther out. And I think that’s where we’re going in the future. We’re seeing an explosion in low Earth orbit for lots of small satellites. There’s a large push to cislunar orbit, and that’s largely driven by both private industry and the government pushing to go to Mars.
“So you need gateways. You need infrastructure. You need traffic management to make sure satellites are not running into each other. There’s going to be an explosion of this class of satellite, like the ones sitting over there [gesturing to the factory floor]. If I build a constellation of 30 of those, they can do ‘spacewatch’ out there and help guide satellites going to the moon, from the moon, or to and from Mars through the Gateway. So, coming up with fuel sources that last longer will unlock our ability to operate further out into space. And that’s going to expand even more demand into the market at that point.”
Q: So LeoStella is looking beyond LEO?
A: “At some point, yes. Not tomorrow, but it’s on our future vision list.”