LeoStella factory
Part of the production floor at LeoStella's new smallsat factory that will be used to build satellites for BlackSky and future customers. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

TUKWILA, Wash. — As LeoStella inaugurated the factory that will be used to produce a series of Earth imaging satellites, the joint venture of Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries continues to look for other customers.

LeoStella formally opened the production facility where it will build small satellites during a Feb. 15 event here. The building, located in an office park in this suburb of Seattle, includes a 10,000-square-foot production floor, clean room and other facilities needed to assemble small satellites.

Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight announced the LeoStella joint venture in March 2018 as part of a $150 million Series C investment round for Spaceflight designed to support development of the BlackSky constellation of Earth imaging satellites. LeoStella will be responsible for building the constellation after the first four satellites, which Spaceflight built.

“Thales and Spaceflight have invested a lot on this site,” said Chris Chautard, chief executive of LeoStella, during a briefing at the facility. “They wanted to provide us with the necessary means to set up and develop the nicest production line to put us in the best place for NewSpace.”

When fully built out — much of the space on the production floor is currently reserved for future use — the factory will be able to build up to 30 small satellites a year, Chautard said. Those satellites will primarily be in the range of 50 to 150 kilograms, but could accommodate those weighing up to 300 kilograms.

LeoStell ribbon cutting
Officials with BlackSky, LeoStella, Thales Alenia Space and the city of Tukwila cut a ribbon to formally open LeoStella’s new smallsat facility in the city Feb. 15. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust
Officials with BlackSky, LeoStella, Thales Alenia Space and the city of Tukwila cut a ribbon to formally open LeoStella’s new smallsat facility in the city Feb. 15. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

LeoStella’s initial work will be to build the rest of the initial constellation of 20 satellites for BlackSky, a wholly owned subsidiary of Spaceflight. The first two satellites that will be assembled in the factory, Global-5 and -6, should be completed in the summer.

BlackSky’s first two satellites, Global-1 and -2, launched in November and December respectively on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and a SpaceX Falcon 9. Global-3 and -4 are scheduled to launch this spring. Brian O’Toole, chief executive of BlackSky, said the LeoStella-built satellites will launch starting later this year at a pace that will allow eight operational satellites by the first quarter of 2020 and 16 a year later.

O’Toole said that the Global satellites launched last year are working well in orbit and should be ready to enter commercial operations by May. The satellites produce imagery at a resolution of one meter, and will be placed in inclined orbits, rather than conventional sun-synchronous ones, to optimize the revisit times at mid-latitudes.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from both the commercial and the government side,” he said of the imagery and data products BlackSky offers. “I feel that we’re in a great spot.”

LeoStella, meanwhile, seeks other customers beyond BlackSky. Officials at the event emphasized the ability of the company to use that satellite bus for other spacecraft for imaging or communications applications. That bus incorporates improvements from the original four Global satellites intended to streamline production, Chautard said.

“We are looking very widely,” he said of the search for additional satellite customers, both government and commercial customers. “Our satellites are very versatile and they can be adapted to telecom missions.”

“They have a standard product, but they can design around bespoke requirements, and that’s key,” said Steve Good, vice president for business development in North America for Thales Alenia Space. “Satellites are not cookie-cutters any more. They need to be tailored towards requirements.”

LeoStella, though, has yet to announce any contracts with customers outside of BlackSky. “I wish we could announce something this year,” Chautard said.

The company may be able to count on future business from BlackSky. O’Toole said that even as it works with LeoStella on its initial constellation, the company is beginning planning of future generations of its satellites, although he didn’t disclose specific improvements the company has planned. BlackSky retains what he called the “aspirational target” of a 60-satellite constellation.

“The evolution of these designs is going to be driven by the customer requirements and market demand and, more importantly, what kind of information we’re going to be able to derive out of the capabilities that we’re putting in space,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...