Risky business (9/22/22)
Bonjour. The Payload team is over the Atlantic right now, headed back to the USA after 10 days and back-to-back conferences in Paris. It was wonderful meeting many of you and eating roughly 88 pounds (40 kg) of pain au chocolat.
In today's newsletter:⌛ LeoLabs gets into the space insurance biz💰 Starburst reveals early-stage fund📝 Presenting: the largest contract report ever
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*slaps roof of space radar*…this thing can track so many space debris
This week, LeoLabs launched a space insurance tool in beta. The tool is geared toward underwriters, who can use the service to assess the orbital debris collision hazards in LEO. Specifically, the space insurance tool will let companies and space agencies rapidly determine collision risk; calculate risk probabilities; visualize LEO; predict future collision risk evolution over a satellite’s lifespan; account for all space objects currently tracked; and run forensic analyses.
The tool is powered by Tableau.
Users can create tailored dashboards and tap into LeoLabs’ historical database of 10B+ “orbital data products.”
Also helpful: the tool leverages the 1M+ conjunction events (ie, close flybys) that LeoLabs has monitored since 2018.
“This tool replaces the hours-long, manual efforts required to integrate conclusions from various sources to assess collision risk,” LeoLabs wrote in a blog post.
The Menlo Park startup set out to map space, one ground radar at a time. It now maintains a high-fidelity, near-real-time catalog of active (and non-active) objects in space. It’s built its own cloud tools to support its compute/storage needs and sells four data services to end users:
tracking & monitoring
launch & early orbit
space domain awareness (SDA)
LeoLabs also offers TaaS—tracking-as-a-service, duh—to satellite operators, constellation developers, and future fleet owners.
Enough about the software, let’s talk hardware
LeoLabs currently operates a network of eight ground radars. “We’re adding some new capabilities in Costa Rica,” LeoLabs Senior Technical Fellow Dr. Darren McKnight told Payload, and the startup is working on two more radars down under (in Australia). Finally, LeoLabs is also building three new sites in undisclosed locations. Payload presumes South America and Africa are on the list.
LeoLab’s “life cycle” strategy
Returning to LeoLabs’ latest announcement, we’d call it moving upstream, or maybe up the stack (canonical source of LEO data → sophisticated risk prediction algorithms → space insurance tool).
But McKnight had another term in mind. The space insurance tool is the latest example of building for “a life cycle of space safety.” Moreover, LeoLabs is becoming a “specialty realtor” in space, McKnight said. It can inform future constellation operators where the risky orbits are and help them decide where to place their satellites. “I can tell you where the bad neighborhoods are, and where the bad neighbors are,” McKnight said.
Keep an eye out for a Q+A with McKnight, which we’ll publish in the coming days. Fun fact: He’s the first person ever to receive a PhD in orbital debris. For the time being, share this story with another space realtor:
Starburst Launches Early Stage Fund
Starburst Aerospace is launching a new early-stage fund, the company announced yesterday. The company’s new venture arm is focusing its first investments in pre-seed and seed stage startups in aerospace, defense, and aviation.
Starburst 101: Starburst began its accelerator program in 2015. The face of the aerospace industry has changed a lot since then, and the program has changed with it.
“In those years, we had the burning desire to invest in some of the best founders we were working with,” Benjamin Zeitoun, an investor at Starburst, told Payload. Zeitoun is leading the new fund alongside François Chopard, Starburst founder.
Starburst now has accelerators across the globe for startups in stages up to their Series B. More than 120 startups have gone through these accelerators to date, and the top 10 fundraisers of that group have raised a combined $600M, Zeitoun said.
Seeding new talent: The timing, Zeitoun said, couldn’t be better to start an early-stage fund in the aerospace and defense sector. The aerospace industry is at the “beginning of the growth curve” commercially. And the founder pool is brimming with talent as alums from the first generation of “new space” companies branch out to start their own companies, taking with them all the lessons learned from the major players in commercial space.
“We’ve built our expertise. We've seen what a company looks like from seed to IPO. And that [makes now] a fabulous time to launch a fund,” Zeitoun said.
Starburst is not revealing the total size of the fund. Zeitoun said that the company aims to make 7-10 investments per year, and that the check size could fall anywhere between zero and $1M depending on the maturity and experience of the startup.
So far, Starburst Ventures has invested in five early-stage startups, and Zeitoun said it is closing on its sixth deal. Three of the companies are still in stealth. The two that aren’t:
Outpost, a sustainable satellite company that Zeitoun called “the SpaceX of satellites”
Strong Compute, which is helping machine learning developers to speed up their training processes
Share this story with a founder in stealth:
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In Other News
Signatories of the Artemis Accords convened in person for the first time at IAC this week.
Rocket Lab has shipped an Electron rocket to its Launch Complex 2 in Virginia to prepare for its first US launch in December.
Roscosmos launched a crew capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, ferrying two cosmonauts, Dmitri Petelin and Sergey Prokopyev, and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio to the ISS. There are now ten crew members aboard the orbiting outpost.
Amazon and Telesat have come to an agreement to keep their planned LEO constellations from interfering with one another.
SLS was still leaking hydrogen at the beginning of yesterday’s fueling test, but the engineers were able to overcome the problem to fuel the rocket.
AstroAccess, an organization dedicated to expanding accessibility in spaceflight, revealed the group that will participate in its second zero-gravity flight.
The Contract Report
Once again, the aerospace industry has teamed up to make all of its contract announcements all at once. Happy conference season.
USG deals: Raytheon ($RTX) Intelligence & Space won a 10-year, $375M contract to update the FAA’s satellite-based air navigation system. ThinkOrbital partnered with Redwire ($RDW) and ASU’s Thunderbird for its second STTR contract under the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime Program. BlackSky has received a total of $13.8M in orders over the past year of its five year National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency contract monitoring economic activities. NOAA awarded Spire Global ($SPIR) a $9.9M contract to provide satellite weather data.
Launch: RFA partnered with Spaceflight to launch Sherpa space tugs from Europe and signed a launch services deal with Indian SSA constellation developer Digantara (via Payload). Down under, Virgin Orbit ($VORB) teamed up with Wagner Corp. to assess a potential LauncherOne demo mission from the Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport. China will help the UAE to land a rover on the lunar surface. Precious Payload partnered with Exos Aerospace Systems & Technologies to facilitate the launch booking process for payload developers.
Space stations: Axiom signed an MoU with Turkey to fly the first Turkish astronauts to space (and the ISS). The Houston startup also procured 62 payload interface pairs (derived from the robotic Canadarm) from MDA for the Axiom Space Station. Axiom will also fly Saudi astronauts to the space station, Reuters reported. Voyager, meanwhile, unveiled Hilton as the official hotel partner for Starlab and announced that Ohio State University will host the terrestrial component of its science lab.
Tracking and awareness: Redwire ($RDW) signed MoUs with Bradford Space and Swedish Space Corporation to jointly develop debris removal services. NorthStar and Astroscale partnered to further develop space sustainability technologies, and NorthStar and Telespazio entered into a distribution and partnership agreement for SDA services. Vestigo Aerospace won a NASA SBIR Phase II-E for $375,000 to manufacture dragsails for launch in 2023. Unseenlabs tapped GomSpace for six additional satellites for its LEO dark vessel monitoring constellation, with delivery in Q3/Q4 2023.
The View from Space
SATELLITE SPOTLIGHT: #NOAA20🛰️ took this image of the nighttime lights around Puerto Rico overnight (light blue shading represents cloud cover). Compared to an earlier image from the @NOAA/NASA #SuomiNPP🛰️ , you can see much of the island is still without power after #Fiona. https://t.co/uKcQpqB2HW
— NOAA Satellites - Public Affairs (@NOAASatellitePA)
Sep 22, 2022