The next two satellites in BlackSkys constellation of Earth-watching spacecraft are due to be launched by Rocket Lab from New Zealand as early as this weekend, but their path to orbit featured prominent stops half a world away in the Seattle area.
BlackSkys Gen-2 Global satellites were designed and built at LeoStellas factory in Tukwila, Wash., not far from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. has been handling the logistics in preparation for liftoff atop a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle. And BlackSky itself splits its staff between Herndon, Va., and the companys original home base in Seattle.
A Seattle space trifecta! Jodi Sorensen, vice president of marketing for Spaceflight Inc., said in tweet.
The upcoming launch from Rocket Labs launch complex on New Zealands Mahia Peninsula is set for no earlier than 3 a.m. PT Saturday.
Rocket Lab has nicknamed the mission Running Out of Toes, in recognition of its status as the startups 20th launch. But BlackSky and LeoStella are nowhere near close to running out of satellites: Seven are in orbit already, and the new spacecraft will bring BlackSkys low-Earth-orbit constellation closer to its full complement.
Tune in super early tomorrow morning to watch @RocketLab live stream the Running Out of Toes dedicated launch of BlackSky 8 and 9! (image credit: Rocket Lab) https://t.co/xjSFzieijU
#runningoutoftoes #firsttoknow #livestream pic.twitter.com/gVJysoSLD6
BlackSky (@BlackSky_Inc) May 14, 2021
Were going to expand the number of satellites to 30, BlackSky CEO Brian OToole said Thursday during an online dialogue presented by the University of Washingtons Space Policy and Research Center. That will be in the 2024-2025 time frame.
LeoStella, which is a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space, is already working with BlackSky to develop third-generation satellites capable of providing images with 50-centimeter (20-inch) pixel resolution and short-wave infrared capabilities. But OToole emphasized that the satellites themselves are just one component of BlackSkys business.
I dont see us as a satellite company, he said. I talk about BlackSky as being a software and data analytics company that happens to have some satellites.
Readings from BlackSkys satellites and from other Earth observation systems feed into the companys AI-enhanced geospatial intelligence platform, known as Spectra, The software platform tracks changes in the imagery over time, and correlates those changes with other data ranging from financial statistics to social media postings.
The results can provide insights into such phenomena as the effects of this years Suez Canal blockage on global shipping, or the aftermath of the past weeks Colonial Pipeline shutdown. For the Seattle audience, OToole noted that BlackSky has contributed to philanthropic causes at the late billionaire Paul Allens Vulcan Inc. and at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
We did a lot of work helping Vulcans philanthropic group understand how space-based technology could be applied to the problem of illegal fishing, he said. Weve had discussions again, Seattle-based discussions with the Gates Foundation on using geospatial technologies for understanding where you need to deploy resources for vaccinations.
When BlackSky was created, back in 2013, the idea was that anyone would be able to order up near-real-time imagery from the ventures satellites and download a picture in 90 minutes. But for now, the company is focusing on government customers and business-to-business applications rather than the consumer market.
Well remain that way for a while, OToole said.
Big changes are ahead for BlackSky: The company is due to go public within a couple of months, under the terms of a nearly $1.5 billion blank-check merger with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp.
Rocket Lab is in the midst of big changes as well, and not just because the company is getting ready its own $4.1 billion SPAC merger with Vector Acquisition Corp.
If all proceeds according to plan, Running Out of Toes will mark the second at-sea recovery of the Electron rockets first-stage booster following up on last Novembers first try. This time around, the booster will be equipped with an upgraded heat shield. Rocket Lab has also developed a hydraulic cradle for pulling the ship out of the Pacific Ocean and lifting it onto a recovery ship.
Itll be wet, but itll be in great condition versus some of the damage that the previous vehicle suffered as we brought it onto the boat in 5-meter swells, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told reporters during a pre-launch briefing.
Rocket Lab is planning at least one more splashdown experiment after Running Out of Toes, but eventually the company intends to send out a helicopter after each launch to snatch the booster out of the sky as it floats down on the end of a parachute. Now that would be something for BlackSkys satellites to watch for.