Two BlackSky satellites hitched a ride to orbit Aug. 7 on a Falcon 9 rocket deploying SpaceX’s latest batch of Starlink satellites. Within 58 hours of the launch, the commercial geospatial company’s two newest satellites — BlackSky Global-7 and BlackSky Global-8 — were already delivering imagery.
“This certainly has had our phone ringing,” BlackSky Chief Technology Officer Scott Herman told SpaceNews.
BlackSky booked its satellites on a SpaceX rideshare launch because it was convenient and affordable, said Herman. But the mission unwittingly became a demonstration of the type of nimble space services that the U.S. government is looking for.
“The idea that you can on-board or on-ramp new satellites and integrate them into your ground systems quickly is pretty important for national security,” Herman said.
As more countries develop and deploy missiles and cyber weapons that can take U.S. satellites out of service, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are looking for space capabilities that can quickly recover in the event of an attack.
“There is a lot of discussion around this idea of resiliency,” said Herman.
One way to make space systems more resilient is to put up lots of small satellites in orbit to make it more difficult for an enemy to take them all down. Another approach is to keep spare satellites on the ground “and if you take hits to your operational satellites, you can quickly pop new satellites up and get them operational again and be back in business,” Herman said.
“What we showed by putting up satellites and turning them live within just a few hours is an example of resiliency,” he said.
COMPETITIVE GEOSPATIAL MARKET
With offices in Herndon, Virginia and Seattle, BlackSky is a five-year-old geospatial data provider that calls itself a “global monitoring” company.
“What we mean by that is that we’re monitoring activities, sites or facilities around the world and looking for changes or anomalies that matter to our customers,” Herman said.
Imaging satellites are just one source of data. The company uses machine learning algorithms that analyze optical or radar images from satellites, pictures collected by aircraft and drones, data from ground sensors, internet-of-things networks and social media. “We fuse all of that data together to get a better picture than you might be able to get from a single source,” Herman explained.
BlackSky now has six satellites flying in inclined orbits to concentrate coverage over global hot spots. Six more satellites are slated to launch by the end of March, keeping the company on pace to grow its constellation to 24 satellites over the next two years. BlackSky markets its services to corporations and governments around the world but it’s especially keen on the U.S. military and intelligence markets.
The National Reconnaissance Office is a key target customer for BlackSky. The company is one of several vendors that received NRO study contracts in 2019. The U.S. intelligence agency is conducting market research in preparation for a satellite imagery procurement award expected later this year.
The NRO acquires imagery that is used by National Geospatial Intelligence Agency analysts. The NGA supports both the intelligence community and the Defense Department.
A recent market study by Quilty Analytics said the NRO will continue to buy most of its commercially acquired satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies, the industry’s dominant player. But emerging contenders like Planet and BlackSky, the study said, are likely to get some portion of the NRO’s procurement dollars.
“We’re all waiting to see what happens,” Herman said.
One issue that is still unclear is how the NRO and the NGA will coordinate the procurement of imagery and data analytics, which are managed separately. The NRO has the responsibility to acquire data whereas NGA buys analytics services to exploit the data.
“The split that’s happened between NRO and NGA — and how they’re divvying this up — is actually kind of counter to what’s actually happening in industry where the ability to source observations and the ability to analyze them are actually getting more tightly integrated,” Herman said.
As part of its services, BlackSky re-tasks satellites based on the data analytics of a particular event or site being monitored. “We do that in a very tight feedback loop,” Herman said. “And yet in the government you’ve got NRO buying pixels and NGA doing analytics, and how those two play together will be interesting to see.”
BlackSky looks at both NGA and NRO as “core customers that have different flavors,” said Herman. “I think the real question is whether there will be new requirements, new models that will better play to the constellations that we’re building.”
DEMAND FROM U.S. MILITARY
BlackSky in July won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on military bases overseas and on the supply chains that support those bases.
Herman said COVID-monitoring services are in high demand from both commercial and government customers.
The combination of data and machine learning analytics provides powerful tools to track how societies are reacting to the pandemic across the world, said Herman. “One of the ways you can look at that is through social movements. And you can do that from satellites, you can do that from tracking cellphones, to figure out what people are actually doing.”
Herman said the U.S. military uses this information to protect its forces overseas. “The Air Force was trying to answer the question of how much risk is the U.S. military population in ‘country x’ based on the activities that are going on around them.”
Hypothetically, if military personnel are deployed in a country that does not take the coronavirus seriously and does not implement measures like social distancing, those service members might be told to not leave the base.
China’s military buildup is another major concern for the United States and has driven demand for geospatial data and analytics, said Herman.
“Remote sensing has a huge role in being able to observe what’s going on in China,” he said. “That’s a big focus for us.”
China is very savvy when it comes to remote sensing, he said. “Sometimes you can tell what’s going on. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you have to wonder if we are only seeing something because they want us to see it,” Herman added. “There’s a whole cat-and-mouse game going on around both economic and military monitoring. We’ve seen the Chinese and others doing things to foil overhead collection.”
PLANS FOR HIGHER RESOLUTION IMAGERY
BlackSky’s six current satellites provide images with roughly one-meter resolution. By comparison, Planet’s SkySats offer resolution of 50 centimeters and Maxar provides even sharper 30-centimeter or better imaging resolution.
Herman said higher resolution pictures are important to government customers and BlackSky plans to introduce half-meter-capable satellites in the future.
Over the next two years, BlackSky will launch 18 satellites to complete its 24-satellite constellation but has not decided how many will be 50-centimeter capable, said Herman.
Getting to 24 is important because that’s the “critical mass of satellites required to get consistent reading over any part of the world that we’re interested in,” he said.
For now, BlackSky has no plans to go beyond 24 satellites unless demand from customers grows.
“In the government, they do care a lot about resolution,” Herman said. “Whether it’s the number one thing or not depends on the mission.” If the goal is to monitor a facility, the resolution is less important than the revisit rate, for example.
“I do think the sweet spot for a lot of the monitoring missions is between 50 centimeters and one meter. It’s part of the reason why in our next generation of satellites we’re going to 50 centimeters ourselves, too,” said Herman.
BlackSky satellites are manufactured by its sister company LeoStella near Seattle. Herman said a new 50-centimeter optical sensor is going to require some modifications to the satellites. The assembly line at LeoStella is set up for the one-meter satellites and the company will continue to launch those for now.
Modifying BlackSky’s satellite design is a major business decision because there is a risk that it could slow down production. “Remember that a lot of our value proposition is around agile aerospace,” said Herman.
A 50-centimeter-capable satellite likely will be 25 to 50 percent larger than the current 50-kilogram spacecraft. “I wouldn’t say it’s a whole new bus design that imposes a bunch of risk,” he said. “It’s all incremental based on what we’ve built and learned so far.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.