WASHINGTON — Turion Space’s debut satellite should be ready to start imaging objects in space by May after nearly a year of commissioning in low Earth orbit (LEO), according to CEO and cofounder Ryan Westerdahl.

The three-year-old Californian space situational awareness (SSA) startup first opened the door to the imaging sensor on its 32-kilogram Droid.001 spacecraft a couple of months ago, Westerdahl said, following its SpaceX launch in June.

“We wanted to make sure we had good control of the satellite before doing it because we didn’t want to damage the optical sensor,” he told SpaceNews in an interview, “like for example if all of a sudden the satellite was staring at the sun.”

However, Turion is still working on software updates to control Droid.001 more precisely so it can point the imager at debris and other objects it passes.

The venture is also still calibrating the satellite’s payload and optimizing infrastructure on the ground.

While Westerdahl had hoped to be providing services with the spacecraft before the end of 2023, he said its main mission was to “get something to orbit quickly, do something useful, and figure out what we need to know going forward to build a lot more satellites and operate them successfully.”

“The more issues we run into that do not compromise the mission 100% the better,” he added, “because then we just know more things to address that won’t be issues for all future vehicles.”

Lithuania’s NanoAvionics supplied the bus and subsystems for Droid.001, which Turion integrated in-house. 

Australian space imagery provider HEO (High Earth Orbit) supplied the imager and is also a customer for Droid.001. HEO plans to use its images for an in-orbit inspection business that attracted $8 million from investors in August.

Turion also hopes to sell the imagery to the U.S. Department of Defense and satellite operators seeking to improve their SSA.

Ultimately, the startup aims to develop and operate spacecraft that could carry out in-orbit services, including debris removal, and plans to launch its first “enhanced mobility vehicle” in 2026 for a de-orbiting demo by early 2027.

SSA data is a “prerequisite to doing things like debris removal with uncooperative objects,” Westerdahl said, “and that’s something that is also marketable and sellable right now.”

With debris removal startups Astroscale and Clearspace still years away from any commercial mission, he said there is a lot of uncertainty about what this market could look like.

“But the data is a much faster way to gain market share and get off the ground,” he added.

Before deploying Droid.001, Turion had planned to perform its first de-orbit demo in 2025 and have three to four SSA-focused satellites in LEO by around mid-2024.

Another Droid

Westerdahl said Turion is preparing to launch another demo spacecraft, Droid.002, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission later this year.

Droid.002 would have three times the mass to support a higher resolution electro-optical imager.

Westerdahl declined to detail the LEO tracking capabilities of Droid.001 or any of its planned satellites.

He said Droid.001 could image objects from kilometers away, although the resolution would depend on their size and how far away they are from the satellite’s sensor.

Three-year-old German venture Vyoma ordered pilot satellites last year for a constellation it hopes would one day keep tabs on LEO objects as small as one centimeter — too small to track from ground-based telescopes.

While Turion’s initial constellation is not targeting objects this small, Westerdahl said just adding to the pool of debris observations would enable objects to be tracked with greater precision, improving the operating environment for spacecraft operators.

“Rather than just being completely dependent on one source of data, it allows you to validate that data,” he said, “and if no one believes that data source, or there’s no validation done with other measurements, then it’s really hard to claim that there is complete domain awareness.”

Another business plan

Droid.002 would help qualify larger production satellites Turion is calling Droid Alpha that would have propulsion for performing closer object inspections and other in-orbit services.

Westerdahl said Turion recently moved into a 2,400 square meter facility where it aims to produce seven Droid Alphas by 2026, supported by a fresh round of funding in addition to the $10 million announced publicly to date.

Turion has also received around $7 million in contracts from NASA, Space Force, and the Air Force to help develop data-collecting and satellite-servicing technologies.

Alongside initial plans for a total of 10 SSA-focused satellites, Turion aims to build 10 spacecraft by 2026 that it would sell to other operators at prices starting at $4 million.

According to Westerdahl, these 200-kilogram satellites would have space for about 120 kilograms of payload for SDA and other missions. The spacecraft would conform to a standardized template and not be configurable to save costs.

“Based on conversations we’ve been having we think we’re going to be able to pick and choose who those 10 go to,” he said. 

The goal is to fill the quota by the end of summer.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...