WASHINGTON — LeoStella, a manufacturer of small satellites, is pursuing U.S. defense sales amid a production slowdown at its factory in Washington state near Seattle.

A large military constellation in low Earth orbit now being built by the Space Development Agency is a main target of opportunity, LeoStella’s chief executive Tim Kienberger told SpaceNews

SDA, an organization under the U.S. Space Force, is building a mesh network of military satellites in low Earth orbit. The network includes a Transport Layer of communications satellites and a Tracking Layer of missile-detection satellites that SDA also is deploying as part of the military’s planned LEO architecture.

LeoStella is in discussions with multiple defense contractors about using the company’s new satellite bus in future bids for SDA contracts, he said. 

Kienberger, a veteran aerospace executive, was named CEO of LeoStella in January. He previously worked on classified space programs at Boeing and L3Harris. 

“I’m trying to help this team achieve new things,” he said. 

LeoStella, formed in 2018, is co-owned by Thales Alenia Space and the geospatial intelligence company BlackSky. 

The company’s 22,000 square-foot factory can produce up to 40 satellites a year — and can be expanded to make as many as 60 — but is projecting to only deliver seven satellites this year, said Kienberger.

“We’re currently under capacity,” he said. 

The company is now transitioning from BlackSky’s second-generation to third-generation imaging satellites, and is gearing up to start producing a new 300-kilogram satellite bus, named LS300, for an undisclosed commercial customer. The bus would also fit the SDA requirements, he said. 

BlackSky used the smaller 100-kilogram LS100 bus for its first-generation satellites and the larger LS200 for its second and third generation satellites. 

A major hurdle that LeoStella is trying to overcome, Kienberger said, is its relative lack of visibility within the industry. He noted that 19 satellite buses built by LeoStella have been launched to orbit, including 16 for BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation and three for satellites made by Loft Orbital.  

“We are continuing to spread the word of our offerings,” said Kienberger. To fill current excess capability, he added, LeoStella has reached out to competitors that have production backlogs and offered “bus manufacture for hire,” but nobody has agreed to any deals yet. 

Discussions with defense contractors

Kienberger said he expects to sign agreements with prime contractors in the near future to supply buses for SDA satellites. 

There is now an open solicitation for  the first 72 communications satellites of SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 2

“We are talking to a number of companies, both traditional defense firms and new space,” he said. “They all want to pursue SDA Tranche 2. We definitely have our targets set on that.”

Kienberger said LeoStella today is in a better position to compete for SDA deals than a couple of years ago when it was ramping up production of BlackSky’s second-generation satellites.

Tim Kienberger, CEO of LeoStella

Commercial suppliers are being encouraged by SDA to team up with defense contractors, said Kienberger. “SDA’s priorities are schedule and price points,” which suits commercial models. “A benefit for SDA is that we’re under capacity so we can meet the schedule.”

He said LeoStella buses have 80% common components, which allows 20% for customization. SDA has been able to buy at much lower prices than traditional military spacecraft — about $15 million each for the Transport Layer satellites — by relying on commercial products. 

“If you price yourself appropriately, SDA is a great opportunity,” Kienberger said.

SDA has already acquired 20 satellites for Tranche 0 of the Transport Layer and eight for Tranche 0 of the Tracking Layer. It has ordered 126 satellites for Transport Tranche 1, and 35 satellites for Tracking Layer Tranche 1.  

In advance of the procurement of Tracking Layer Tranche 2, expected in 2024,, the agency is currently soliciting industry comments. 

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...