NorthStar raises $35 million for debris-tracking satellites

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TAMPA, Fla. — Canada’s NorthStar Earth and Space said Jan. 5 it has raised $35 million ahead of plans to deploy its first three satellites this year for tracking objects in orbit.

U.S.-based private equity firm Cartesian Capital led the Series C funding round, which NorthStar CEO Stewart Bain said brings the total amount the company has raised to nearly $100 million.

NorthStar aims to use proceeds to accelerate plans for a constellation of 24 Space Situational Awareness (SSA) satellites, which would scan out from low Earth orbit (LEO) to track other satellites and debris. 

The company hopes to track objects as small as one centimeter in LEO, about seven centimeters in medium Earth orbit (MEO) and “somewhere between 50 and 40” centimeters even farther out in geostationary orbit (GEO), Bain said in an interview.

Spire Global is building the first three satellites for NorthStar, each the size of 16 cubesats, for a launch around the middle of 2023 with Virgin Orbit.

Bain said it had not been decided whether these satellites would be deployed from Virgin Orbit’s base in California, or be part of the air-launch company’s first batch of missions from England.

NorthStar’s contract with Spire includes options for up to 30 satellites, and Bain said the company is now looking at “when to pull the trigger” on the next set of spacecraft.

“It’ll probably be another set of three,” he said, “and then after that we’ll probably do them in blocks of six.”

There “is an argument to be made of letting the first few get up, see how they operate, and then pushing the button on the next set,” he added, “or leading that by a certain amount of time” to help ensure the timely delivery of parts amid the industry’s supply chain issues.

The first three satellites have already secured commitments from a mix of commercial and government customers, according to Bain, although he declined to disclose them.

He said a U.S. government pilot project that picked NorthStar and five other commercial firms in December to prototype space traffic data platforms helped highlight commercial SSA opportunities and attract business.

“It’s not like we weren’t already contacting both government and private sector operators,” he said, “but that really got people to wake up and say, wow, here we go.”

Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES last year announced plans to use NorthStar’s data to help manage its fleet of satellites in GEO and MEO.

Bain said a space development fund supported by SES and Luxembourg’s government participated in NorthStar’s Series C funding round.

Other investors included the government of Quebec and a family-owned Canadian technology fund called Telesystem Space.