BlackSky will add sharper focus and night vision to future Earth-watching satellites

Satellite factory
One of BlackSky’s Global satellites sits on a stand that’s visible at the center of this view of the LeoStella satellite factory floor in Tukwila, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BlackSky’s satellites are already producing frequently updated, high-resolution views of planet Earth — but now the company says its next-generation spacecraft will kick things up a notch.

There’ll even be night vision.

BlackSky, which has offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va., announced today that its Gen-3 Global satellites will provide pictures with 50-centimeter spatial resolution, as well as short-wave infrared sensor readings.

That level of resolution for visual imagery will be twice as sharp as the current Gen-2 satellites’ 1-meter resolution. And the short-wave infrared imaging system should be able to deliver night-vision views as well as images of the ground that cut through obscuring smoke and haze.

BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole told GeekWire that the upgrades will continue as his company builds out its constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit.

“This isn’t like the old days, when you have to have some big announcement every five years,” he said. “This is just going to be expected. Customers will expect that behind Gen-3 is going to be Gen-4.”

Brian O'Toole
Brian O’Toole is the CEO of BlackSky, which has offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va. (BlackSky Photo)

As of today, BlackSky has six of the Gen-2 Global spacecraft in operation — including two that were launched last month and are “performing exceptionally,” according to O’Toole. The company plans to have 16 Gen-2 satellites on the job by the end of next year, plus four spare satellites. (There’s also a first-generation Pathfinder satellite that was launched into orbit in 2016.)

Views from the Global constellation are fed into BlackSky’s Spectra geospatial data platform, which uses artificial intelligence to correlate space imagery with data from a host of other sources. Thanks to its analytical capabilities, Spectra can track trends ranging from cargo transport patterns to the status of the COVID-19 pandemic.

BlackSky’s next-generation satellite is expected to play a key role in the U.S. Army’s Tactical Geospatial Intelligence prototype program, known as TACGEO.

The company won a multi-year contract in January to demonstrate the tactical utility of a single satellite with Gen-3’s capabilities while leveraging the wider constellation’s capabilities to support concurrent military exercises and combat training.

“The customer would use that satellite for its own purposes, but it’ll still work as an integrated satellite in our overall Global constellation, so they get the benefit of both,” O’Toole explained.

GovTribe, an online service that monitors federal contracts and grants, set the potential value of the award at nearly $13 million.

Today BlackSky announced that it has completed a preliminary design review of its Gen-3 design for the TACGEO program. The project is now well into its design and development phase.

“TACGEO is the first phase, it’s part of a prototype,” O’Toole said. “There will be subsequent phases, which could include more satellites.”

Like the Gen-2 satellites, the Gen-3 version will be built by LeoStella, a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space that has its headquarters and satellite factory in Tukwila, Wash., south of Seattle.

O’Toole said LeoStella is currently turning out about two Gen-2 satellites per month. Gen-3 production is due to begin by mid-2022.

“We’re at a landmark point in time,” O’Toole said. “If you think about it, in 12 months, we got these satellites up, we got them in production, we’ve got them operational — and in parallel, we’re developing and innovating on the next generation.”

The Army contract isn’t BlackSky’s only source of government support: BlackSky is one of three remote-sensing ventures that received study contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office to assess the use of commercial imaging for national security purposes. (The other two companies are Planet and Maxar Technologies.)

“We’re still executing against that contract, and everything’s going really well,” O’Toole said. “We’re actually delivering imagery to them through the contract [from] the new satellites. … We’re assuming that they’ll continue with their process into the fall and will be in a position to award contracts early next year.”

It’s all been quite a whirl for BlackSky, which completed a reorganization in June.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we put in place a complete end-to-end capability that’s now working,” O’Toole said. “Between the space side, the manufacturing side, the Global operating performance, and obviously our advancements in the AI and machine-learning side of this … I feel like we’ve reached a point in time where that’s now all coming together for the first time.”

Update for 8:30 a.m. PT Sept. 24: We’ve clarified the description of the relationship between BlackSky and the LeoStella joint venture.

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