TUKWILA, Washington — Will LeoStella Go Beyond LEO?
It’s been four years since LeoStella, a joint venture founded by BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space, opened the doors of its Tukwila factory and began building Earth observation satellites that could launch BlackSky into low Earth orbit, also known as LEO.
Since then, the company has taken on other clients, 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 his 20th satellite – which happens to be the third satellite he has built for Loft Orbital.
Meanwhile, Tim Kienberger begins to settle in as LeoStella’s new CEO. He took over the company’s senior position in January, having gained decades of experience at other aerospace and defense companies such as Boeing and L3Harris.
“They hired me to grow the business,” Kienberger told GeekWire.
The sky may be literally the limit when it comes to LeoStella’s future growth. During last week’s interview at LeoStella’s Tukwila headquarters, Kienberger said the company could eventually focus on missions beyond Earth’s orbit, for example, supporting missions to the moon or helping humanity 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 kind of unique to create a facility like that in Seattle. There used to be one space operation in Seattle and it was called Boeing. It is exciting to see the explosion of the space industry here.”
The Seattle area is arguably on its way to becoming the world champion of satellite construction, at least on a sheer number basis. SpaceX’s Starlink development and manufacturing facility in Redmond, Washington, has built about half of the satellites currently in orbit, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper is gearing up to build thousands more in the suburb of Kirkland. of Seattle next to Redmond.
Kienberger does not view SpaceX or Amazon as competitors. He said he prefers to focus on a “sweet spot” in the satellite market: Instead of releasing expensive, custom satellites one at a time or building thousands of satellites for a mega constellation, LeoStella focuses on helping its customers build medium-sized constellations consisting of 10 to 50 satellites.
“We really want to focus on helping customers deliver capacity, and that’s what that constellation size does,” Kienberger said. “BlackSky is a good example.”
BlackSky already has 16 Earth-watching Global satellites in orbit, broadcasting near real-time images for its geospatial data platform. Most of those satellites were built by LeoStella, and now the company is shifting to build an improved 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 per year, but the manufacturing facility can be expanded to increase annual production to 60 satellites. LeoStella’s workforce is also poised for expansion: The company currently employs 77 full-time employees and contractors, but aims to increase the workforce to 95 by the end of the year.
What will the new employees do? And to which markets will LeoStella expand? Kienberger dropped 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 keep looking at for further opportunities?
Kienberger: “No, we are not going to limit ourselves to Earth observation images. We have a customer looking for an alternative method to GPS. We have a client asking if we can support a LEO based communications mission. We’re talking to another client who wants to do a secret mission. They don’t want to tell us what it is, so okay, that’s fine. We’ll sell them the bus [that is, the structural chassis of a satellite]. They like the bus, and then they finish the product somewhere else. That’s similar to what we did for Loft. We actually sold them the bus.”
Q: What is your opinion on the satellite market? Is it a good thing to sit in?
A: “It was and still is a very exciting time, especially being on the smaller side of the space industry. I’ve worked in the space industry for a long time and I see how small satellites have become more reliable. We’re very efficiently producing satellites here with a high success record, which is great. Launch costs are falling, which means there are many more opportunities to launch vehicles.”
Q: Are there any technologies at LeoStella that have the potential to revolutionize the field? Or is it more that there is no panacea, that it’s a matter of cutting corners here and there and somehow finding ways to cut costs?
A: “There is a magic bullet, but it is not satellite technology. The way we have reduced costs is the automated production system. We’ve been thinking about how to set up the workflow, how to get the speed through this. How do I manage inventory, from entry to finished product, and can I do it in a more automated way?
“And then we take a slightly different approach in qualifying. You can take a very conservative approach, always qualifying everything. We’re taking what I’d traditionally call more of a qualified similarity approach, which means we don’t have to do a full qualification on everything. We certainly do a qualification level for everything that goes out the door, but not the full set of thermal vacuum cycles for everything. There is a risk, but so far it has paid off.”
Q: Do you ever have a picture of what this industry will look like in 10 years? A lot of people have said that if you lower the launch cost, if you lower the production cost of a satellite to a certain point, you unlock capabilities that we couldn’t dream of. Do you ever dream about what that world could look 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 right now. There are some data service companies that are startups, that want to build a capacity, but they certainly don’t want to spend $100 million to put 10 satellites in orbit. If they could spend $20 million or $30 million, they could find an investor who says, “Yeah, that’s worth the investment.” Let’s try that business model and see if it works.”
“I think the biggest swinger there will be primarily on the launch services side. To further reduce the cost of spacecraft, technology is coming that will help. Printed technology will certainly reduce costs in the long run. Electric propulsion was once quite expensive. Now we integrate electric drive into our new vehicles, not with 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 remain cost-effective, although you don’t want to be on the cusp of new technology driving your product costs back up. Like the arrival of flat screens, the first flat screen on the market cost $10,000 Now you can go to any store and buy one much bigger than the first one for a few hundred dollars, with much higher quality.
“Technology must continue to innovate. This will ultimately further reduce costs in a number of areas. If we can think of more effective power methods and more efficient propulsion methods, those are probably the two biggest swingers.
Q: Some people are talking about the next generation of radioisotope batteries. Is that the kind of thing you look forward to?
A: “Yes, but there is also nuclear propulsion. When you talk about nuclear power and how you might apply it, it’s not an infinite resource, it’s a semi-infinite resource. At the moment, all propulsion systems basically run on fuel. Even electric propulsion works on a fuel that is forced through the system. Nuclear propulsion would run on a fuel, based on the radiation coming up, but it will run for quite a long time.
“That’s part of how you take your mission space further out. And I think that’s where we’re going going forward. We see an explosion in low Earth orbit for many small satellites. There’s a lot of pressure on the cislunar orbit, and that’s largely driven by both private industry and government pushing to go to Mars.
“So you need gateways. You need infrastructure. You need traffic management to make sure satellites don’t collide. There’s going to be an explosion of this class of satellites as they sit 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 go farther into space. And that will increase even more demand for the market at that time.”
Q: So LeoStella looks beyond LEO?
A: “At some point, yes. Not tomorrow, but it is on our vision list for the future.”