Ex-Stratolaunch boss joins satellite startup setting up shop on college campus

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WASHINGTON — A startup that aims to build 200 satellites a year is opening an automated manufacturing facility on a college campus and adding a former Paul Allen hire to its board of director.

York Space Systems is expected to announce Monday that Chuck Beames is joining its board as executive chairman and chief strategy officer. Beames stepped down in September as president of Vulcan Aerospace, where he led development of Stratolaunch, a giant twin-fuselage airplane that Allen, a Microsoft co-founder,  is building to launch satellites.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

“We see it as analogous to buying a Honda Civic,” he said. “You can get the navigation option or turbo. We do the engineering ahead of time to ensure that there is compatibility there because there are customers who want that expanded platform capability. But we don’t customize unique to every single mission.”

Iceye, a Finnish startup focused on providing space-based radar-services using small satellites, ordered 10 satellites from York Space Systems. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command also has a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, with York Space Systems to support Harbinger, the company’s first on-orbit demonstration satellite.

The Harbinger mission will carry a an Iceye-provided synthetic aperture radar, or SAR,  payload, a laser communications terminal for optical connectivity startup BridgeSat, and an electric propulsion system from Austrian smallsat company AMR Propulsion Innovations. York intends to launch the satellite during the fourth quarter of this year, but has yet to select a launch provider.

Wallinger said York intends to speed its build-rate by automating most of its production processes. York coordinated with suppliers to convince itself it can meet its ambitious production timelines with relatively little touch labor.

“With a small number of technicians, we built a prototype and proved that we can manufacture and test a complete satellite in a single day with two people,” he said.

That prototype wasn’t launched, but was built and tested to flight tolerance. Wallinger said it was meant to show speed of production and compatibility with launchers. York is designing its satellites for compatibility with a U.S. Air Force-designed secondary payload adapter used by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. York also sees its satellites as a good fit for dedicated smallsat launch vehicles under development at Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and Vector.

York’s prices for S-Class satellites range from $675,000 to just over $1 million.

York Space Systems is setting up shop inside MSU’s new Aerospace and Engineering Sciences building as part of the Advanced Manufacturing Sciences Institute. There the company plans to house its engineering and design team, production facility, and a mission operations center to operate spacecraft on-orbit. Students will also get to collaborate with York on development projects and create new projects as part of the company’s public-private partnership agreement. The factory is scheduled to open in mid-2017, following which, York plans to ramp up quickly.

“Right now our quickest delivery would be the October 2017 time frame,” said Wallinger. “After that we plan to invest in inventory, so they would be available for immediate shipment after that, and we would monitory inventory to make sure we always had immediate shipping capability.”

Wallinger declined to say how much capital York has raised. He said the company has completed two financing rounds that met their goals.

York is unlikely to build satellites any smaller than the S-Class, Wallinger said, but will eventually scale up to larger spacecraft. The company may also explore green propellant, depending on market demand. Electric propulsion is currently the only option for the S-Class.