BlackSky looks to expand its military business amid growing interest in commercial satellite imagery

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CEO Brian O'Toole: 'ISR is clearly becoming a priority and commercial capabilities have a role to play'

COLORADO SPRINGS – Amid a surge in demand for satellite imagery, BlackSky is looking to expand its national security and defense business, CEO Brian O’Toole told SpaceNews.

“The Defense Department is interested in tactical ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] from space,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of opportunity there. ISR is clearly becoming a priority and commercial capabilities have a role to play.”

BlackSky is one of a handful of Earth observation companies whose business has surged since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the U.S. government turned to commercial providers for imagery to help track Russian forces and support humanitarian relief efforts in war-torn parts of Ukraine. 

O’Toole said the company provides imagery to news media and humanitarian organizations free of charge. 

The U.S. government is seeing the benefits of commercial capabilities for high-resolution and frequent revisit imagery, he said. It also is realizing that “there are only a few of us that can do what we’re doing right now.”

“We’re demonstrating that it’s easy for any one of our partners to log into our platform, they can point and click and task a satellite, and get an image back in 90 minutes with analytics,” said O’Toole.

To help grow its defense and inteligence business, BlackSky on April 4 announced it has formed a strategic advisory group led by former undersecretary of defense for intelligence and retired Navy vice admiral Joseph Kernan, former associate director for military affairs at the CIA and retired Army general John Mulholland, and former Space Force chief architect, retired Air Force colonel Michael Dickey.

BlackSky last October tapped former principal deputy director of national intelligence Sue Gordon to serve on its board of directors.

The company recently added two more satellites to its constellation, for a total of 14. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket on April 2 launched the two satellites from New Zealand. 

O’Toole said he expects BlackSky to be one of the companies selected by the National Reconnaissance Office as primary providers of commercial imagery for the U.S. intelligence community. The NRO this year will select providers for its Electro-Optical Commercial Layer contract. 

“We also have efforts going on with the Army and the Space Force and others,” he said. Some military organizations are interested in services that combine traditional imagery collection with on-demand satellite tasking. 

BlackSky’s constellation will remain at 14 for now, although there are a couple more launches planned for later this year with Rocket Lab. 

Current satellites have less than one-meter resolution. Next year BlackSky plans to start launching a new generation that will bring the imaging resolution down to 35 centimeters at nadir – looking straight down – and 50 centimeters on average, said O’Toole. These satellite also will have infrared sensors, inter-satellite links and on-board data processing enabled by artificial intelligence.

Market challenges

BlackSky in September became a publicly traded company after closing a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. BlackSky and other space companies that went public over the past year through mergers with SPACs have suffered sharp declines in share prices and thus their valuations. 

O’Toole insisted the SPAC deal benefited BlackSky because it provided the capital to fund its next-generation satellites and other projects. “And it’s also given us the growth capital to expand our sales force and our product teams.”

He said the SPAC method for taking a company public is “well suited for companies like ours.” 

Markets have soured on SPACs in general but not all companies are equal, he said. “We happen to be a company that had revenue and customers. There were a lot of SPACs that were very much early stage. We’ve been caught up in that but it’s accomplishing what we wanted.”