SSO-A deployment
Spaceflight's SSO-A mission will deploy 64 satellites, raising concerns from some experts about the ability to accurately track and identify them after deployment. Credit: Spaceflight

WASHINGTON — Spaceflight Industries announced Feb. 11 it will sell its smallsat rideshare launch business to a pair of Japanese companies, allowing it to focus on its BlackSky geospatial business.

Spaceflight Industries said that Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Yamasa Co., Ltd. will acquire its rideshare business, known as Spaceflight, Inc., for an undisclosed sum. Mitsui & Co. and Yamasa will own Spaceflight as a 50/50 joint venture. The companies said that they expect the deal to close in the second quarter of this year, after a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to examine any national security implications of the sale.

Spaceflight Industries said it will use the proceeds from the deal to accelerate the growth of BlackSky, its geospatial intelligence business that is developing a constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites. BlackSky has four satellites in orbit currently with another eight scheduled for launch this year.

“This is an exciting and monumental development for Spaceflight Industries, especially for our launch business,” Curt Blake, president and chief executive of Spaceflight, said in a statement announcing the deal. “The acquisition provides an opportunity to be a part of a high-growth international portfolio, which offers deep expertise and investment opportunities.”

Blake will remain president and chief executive of Spaceflight, which will operate as an independent U.S.-based company with its headquarters remaining in Seattle. The company will establish a new board of directors, the majority of whom will be U.S. persons.

Spaceflight is known for being a leading broker for smallsat launch services, primarily as secondary payloads on a range of launch vehicles. It has arranged the launch of 271 satellites on 29 missions. That includes SSO-A, a dedicated smallsat rideshare mission organized by Spaceflight that flew 64 smallsats on a single Falcon 9 in December 2018.

The company has touted its ability to move customers from one launch vehicle to another depending on their schedules or other needs. “We’re continuing to sort of be the grease between the different launch vehicles across the whole range of the market,” Blake said during a Feb. 5 panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California.

He noted in that discussion that those customers have changed over time. “Five years ago, our client base was a lot more cubesats. It’s now very much microsat-driven,” he said. The overall secondary payload market, he said, has also evolved. “For a long time, being a secondary passenger meant just living with whatever you got. That’s moved on to a much more customer-driven mentality.”

For Mitsui & Co., the acquisition is a way for the conglomerate, which is involved in fields from iron and steel to healthcare and information technology, to enter the space market. It had previously participated in Spaceflight Industries’ $150 million Series C round in March 2018.

“The acquisition of an industry leader is an optimal way for Mitsui & Co. to enter the space industry and expand its business by offering greater access for customers considering utilizing services related to space,” said Tomohiro Musha, general manager of aerospace systems and rail leasing division in Mitsui & Co., in the statement.

In its own statement, Mitsui & Co. said that after the acquisition Spaceflight will “utilize Mitsui’s network to develop and expand new services to better meet customer needs, while further collaborating with Japanese satellite development companies, launch operators and other stakeholders in the space industry.”

Brian O’Toole, president of Spaceflight Industries and chief executive of BlackSky, said the sale will help both BlackSky and Spaceflight. “Both companies are poised for a new phase of rapid growth. This acquisition is a significant step in driving our strategy forward,” he said in his company’s statement.

O’Toole added that BlackSky would continue to work with Spaceflight for the launch of its satellites. That includes the launch of four BlackSky satellites on India’s forthcoming Small Satellite Launch Vehicle later this year, a launch arranged by Spaceflight.

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...