WASHINGTON — Capella Space, an American company that builds and operates synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites to image the Earth, is setting its sights on international markets. While the U.S. government remains a key customer, Capella Space CEO Frank Backes said foreign governments are emerging as a significant driver of future growth.

While the U.S. government has been Capella Space’s biggest customer for its satellite imagery generated by SAR satellites, the government of Japan is now the company’s second-largest customer for SAR data, Backes told SpaceNews

The company is also pursuing opportunities to build SAR satellites for the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. Both nations are looking to purchase satellites that they can operate independently and integrate into their national space architectures.  

“Many governments around the world are looking to build and own their sovereign space capabilities,” Backes said. They see the advantage of being able to task and point commercial radar satellites themselves, he added.

Headquartered in San Francisco, California with additional locations in Louisville, Colorado and Washington, D.C., Capella specializes in small satellites equipped with SAR sensors that can penetrate cloud cover and darkness. Backes, a former Kratos Defense executive, became chief executive of Capella in October

U.S. government supporting industry

Notably, Backes says the federal government has backed the company’s efforts to snag foreign contracts, as part of a broader push to aid U.S. firms competing globally.

“The U.S. government has been very supportive of our international commercial sales initiatives,” he said. “They’ve been working to streamline processes like remote sensing licensing and export control reviews to help level the playing field for American companies in foreign procurements.”

A number of foreign governments are turning to commercial providers to quickly field capable Earth observation constellations, said Backes, instead of spending hundreds of millions and waiting decades to develop indigenous satellite systems.

Just last month, the government of Indonesia awarded contracts to Thales Alenia Space and BlackSky to produce a dedicated Earth observation constellation for the Indonesian Ministry of Defense, combining both radar and optical sensors on commercial spacecraft.

For cost-conscious governments, said Backes, it’s an appealing way to field modern space-based reconnaissance without the hefty price tag of traditional acquisition programs.

Ramping up production

In addition to its data services, Capella is looking to capitalize on its satellite manufacturing capabilities to capture new customers in the international market. The company currently operates a constellation of three to four synthetic aperture radar satellites at any given time, regularly refreshing the orbiting fleet.

“We have the capacity for building essentially a satellite every other month,” Backes said. “We plan to launch four to five more satellites this year alone.”

However, that’s just a fraction of what Capella’s factory in Louisville, Colorado can accommodate. The facility has the capacity to double or even triple its current production rate.

“That’s absolutely our intent — to be able to put out more Capella satellites for different missions and different customers,” Backes said.  

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...