SN Commercial Drive | SpaceX's sky-high valuation • Astra just misses orbit • Capella unveils SAR Spotlight
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A commercial space newsletter from SpaceNews. Delivered Wednesdays.
 December 16, 2020

While revamping operations to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, space companies and NASA have established policies they plan to maintain when business as usual resumes. Some remote work, extra facility cleaning and reduced travel will make their organizations more productive and efficient, according to Kathy Lueders, NASA human spaceflight leader, Blake Larson, Northrop Grumman Space Systems president, Chuck Beames, York Space Systems executive chairman, and United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno.  "We already know we're not going back," Lueders said during the webinar announcing SpaceNews Awards for Excellence and Innovation.

P.S. If you've been forwarded this newsletter, you can get a free subscription here. Also, there's still time to obtain a $49 subscription to SpaceNews magazine, a monthly deep dive into commercial, military and civil space. You usually need a subscription, but you can download the December 14 issue free here. 


  • SpaceX's sky-high valuation
  • Astra just misses orbit
  • Hawkeye 360 reveals pilot
  • Capella unveils SAR Spotlight

Small launch vehicle company Astra Space just missed reaching orbit on its second launch Tuesday. The vehicle's first stage worked as planned, but the upper stage ran out of fuel about 12-15 seconds early, falling about half a kilometer per second short of the velocity needed to reach orbit. Astra, though, declared the launch a success, saying a change to the fuel mixing ratio on the upper stage should allow it to reach orbit on its next launch. [SpaceNews]

Astra was one of three launch vehicle developers that won a combined $16.7 million in NASA funding. Astra, Firefly Aerospace and Relativity Space won contracts through NASA's Venture Class Launch Services 2 program to launch cubesats for NASA by the end of June 2022. Astra received a $3.9 million contract. Firefly received a $9.8 million contract. Relativity received a $3.0 million contract. None of the companies have yet placed a payload in orbit. [SpaceNews]

Chinese remote sensing company Changguang Satellite has secured $375 million for its constellation of optical Earth-observation satellites. Changguang Satellite Co. Ltd., a commercial offshoot of the state-owned Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, announced the 2.46 billion yuan funding round Nov. 28. The amount of money raised exceeds that of other Chinese commercial space companies including launch service providers Expace, Landspace, and iSpace, as well as precision-positioning services company Qianxun Spatial Intelligence Inc. [SpaceNews]

Hawkeye 360 is delivering radio frequency data and analytics to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as part of a pilot program to evaluate the value of the information for intelligence activities. Hawkeye 360 announced Dec. 16 that it has been supplying data to NGA and the U.S. military combatant commands since September from its constellation of three satellites flying in formation in low Earth orbit to geolocate RF sources. The company is preparing to launch its second three-satellite cluster in January. [SpaceNews]


Capella Space released radar satellite images with a resolution of 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters, which the San Francisco startup says is the highest resolution available from a commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite operator. The images released Dec. 16 showcase the Spotlight mode of Sequoia, a 100-kilogram radar satellite designed to dwell over a location for 20 to 60 seconds. Capella is preparing to launch additional satellites and to upgrade its technology to offer 25-centimeter resolution. [SpaceNews] 

Rocket Lab has launched the first satellite for Japanese radar imaging startup Synspective on the Electron rocket. The launch used a customized payload fairing to accommodate what Rocket Lab called the "extra-wide body" of the StriX-a satellite. StriX-α is the first in a constellation planned by Tokyo-based Synspective, which raised $100 million as of mid-2019. Synspective plans to launch a second demonstration satellite in 2021 as the company prepares to establish an Earth-observation constellation of about 30 satellites. [SpaceNews]

Now that it's no longer a business unit of Analytical Graphics Inc., Comspoc is operating like a space situational awareness startup. "We have the ability to move at a startup pace, to be more nimble and to partner with companies and organizations that have this focus and mission in mind," said Travis Langster, Comspoc vice president and general manager. AGI spun off Comspoc prior to its acquisition by Ansys. [SpaceNews]

Satellite data could play a role in monitoring, reporting and verifying compliance with emissions trading systems also known as cap and trade. So far, satellite data has not been widely applied to cap-and-trade systems, but some system planners and operators are interested in learning whether satellites could provide useful data particularly in the area of offsets related to forestry. Satellites could also play a role in helping to pinpoint combustion and methane sources. [SpaceNews]

Blue Canyon Technologies has passed a critical design review for the Blackjack satellites it is developing for DARPA. Blue Canyon won a $14.1 million contract in July to manufacture four satellites, with options worth $99 million for up to 20 additional satellites. The company is customizing its commercial X-STAR bus for the Blackjack program and is using Orbion Space Technology's electric propulsion. With the review completed, Blue Canyon can start producing the first two flight buses to be delivered to DARPA for payload integration in August 2021. [SpaceNews]

The Space and Missile Systems Center has selected a new manager for the Space Enterprise Consortium. NSTXL, or National Security Technology Accelerator, won the contract to manage the consortium for the next 10 years. The Space Enterprise Consortium has awarded 80 prototype projects valued at $856 million since it was established in 2017 to invite startups and other nontraditional government contractors to bid on military projects. Under the new contract the consortium will award up to $12 billion in projects over the next decade. [SpaceNews]

BAE Systems is developing miniature spectrometers for satellites that can provide high-resolution weather data. The company completed a $376,000 study for NOAA in October that explored the idea of mounting infrared sensors on microsatellites to gather weather data in the troposphere and stratosphere. The spectrometers are about one-tenth the mass of the previous generation of instruments that provide similar data, and would be hosted on a constellation of smallsats. [SpaceNews]

SpaceX is reportedly seeking to raise yet another round of funding. SpaceX, which raised $1.9 billion at a $46 billion valuation, is seeking to raise an undisclosed amount at up to double that previous valuation. The investment would likely support the company's Starlink satellite constellation and Starship launch vehicle development programs. SpaceX is looking to close the round next month, but sources cautioned that the timing, size and valuation of the round were all subject to change. [Business Insider]

Kleos Space established a U.S. engineering office in Denver. The Luxembourg-based startup launched its first cluster of four radio frequency reconnaissance satellites in November with another cluster of four satellites scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in mid-2021. Kleos is expanding its staff in Colorado with a goal of beginning operations there in the first quarter of 2021. [Kleos Space]

The French Armament General Directorate's Defence Innovation Agency awarded French startup Exotrail a $500,000 contract to develop propulsion technologies for small satellites operating in geostationary orbit. Under the one-year contract announced Dec. 16, Exotrail will develop thrust vector orientation mechanisms and a cold gas propulsion system that is a spinoff of the firm's electric propulsion technology. [Exotrail]


  • Iridium offers maritime distress service
  • SiriusXM-7 flies on Falcon 9
  • What $885.5 million means to SpaceX
  • Skylo establishes key partnership

Iridium Communications Inc. announced Tuesday that its Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) service officially went live on Friday, December 11, ending satellite fleet operator Inmarsat's monopoly on the emergency response service. GMDSS, an internationally regulated service governed by the International Maritime Organization's Safety of Life at Sea convention, provides assistance to seafarers in distress and is required equipment onboard tens of thousands of ships. Iridium's GMDSS sends a signal to a Rescue Coordination Center and prompts a phone call with the vessel that sent the signal to determine the nature of the emergency. [Marinelink.com/Iridium]

SpaceX could receive up $885.5 million out of $9.2 billion in Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase 1 broadband subsidies over a 10-year period, but the impact on its overall Starlink broadband business will be modest. The yearly $89 million payout might cover the cost of three or four Falcon 9 launches but not the 180 to 240 Starlink satellites that three or four rockets can carry. Since SpaceX aims to conduct two dedicated Starlink launches a month in the short term — and eventually more than that to get to 12,000 satellites — the RDOF funding doesn't cover a lot of overhead. [SpaceNews]

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched SXM-7, a new spacecraft for satellite radio company SiriusXM, Dec. 13. SXM-7 is one of two new digital audio radio service satellites SiriusXM ordered from Maxar Technologies in 2016. The satellite, which weighed nearly 7,000 kilograms at launch, will generate more than 20 kilowatts of power and deploy a large antenna to broadcast programming for SiriusXM subscribers in North America and the Caribbean. [SpaceNews]

OneWeb's new chairman is confident the company can raise additional funding needed for its broadband constellation. In a presentation last week, Sunil Bharti Mittal, executive chairman of OneWeb, said he estimated the company needed to raise $2.5 billion to complete its first-generation constellation. Half that amount has already been pledged by its new owners, Bharti Enterprises and the U.K. government, and he said he didn't anticipate any problem raising the rest.  OneWeb is scheduled to resume deployment of its constellation Friday with a Soyuz launch of 36 satellites. [SpaceNews]

The U.S. Defense Department awarded Swedish satellite broadband provider Ovzon a $14.6 million contract through Intelsat General Corp. to continue to provide satellite capacity for one year on a steerable beam. To date, Ovzon has offered global communications coverage by leasing capacity from fleet operators. Ovzon is preparing to launch its first custom-built satellite in 2021 to offer coverage over one-third of the Earth's surface. [Ovzon/SpaceNews]

Skylo, a startup preparing to connect trucks, boats and other vehicles with geostationary satellites established an exclusive partnership with BSNL, India's government-owned telecommunications provider, to provide coverage across India including the water surrounding the subcontinent. "With Skylo and BSNL, fishermen, farmers and truck drivers can access the benefits of an affordable, reliable satellite network and connected sensors, giving them up to the minute information," according to Parth Trivedi, Skylo CEO and co-founder. Skylo exited stealth mode early this year when it completed a $103 million Series B investment round. [BSNL/SpaceNews]


Dec. 16-17
TC Sessions: Space 2020 with Rocket Lab's Peter Beck, ULA's Tory Bruno, NASA's Kathy Lueders and Gen. John Raymond from the U.S. Space Force
Dec. 18
Russian Soyuz to launch 36 OneWeb satellites 
Jan. 12-13
Newspace Industrialization with Rob Hoyt of Tethers Unlimited, Jim Cantrell of Phantom Space and Ray Johnson of Bessemer Venture Partners
Jan. 18-19
AIxSpace conference with CNES President Jean-Yves LeGall, MDA CEO and President Mike Greenley, and  Leap Biosystems CEO and President Dave Williams, a retired Canadian Space Agency astronaut
Thank you for reading this week's issue of SN Commercial Drive. For the latest commercial space news, visit SpaceNews.com and follow Debra Werner (@SpaceReportr) on Twitter.

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