Spaceflight Industries firms up European satellite alliance and $150M funding round

BlackSky Global-1 satellite
Workers assemble BlackSky’s Global-1 Earth observation satellite. (BlackSky via YouTube)

It’s official: After receiving all government approvals, a French-Italian joint venture has taken a minority stake in Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries as part of a $150 million funding round.

The French and Italian partners in The Space Alliance, Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio, have also joined in two cooperative arrangements with Spaceflight Industries.

One of the arrangements is a new Seattle-based joint venture called LeoStella LLC. Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries each own 50 percent of the venture. LeoStella will manufacture low-cost, high-performance satellites for Spaceflight Industries’ geospatial intelligence business unit, BlackSky.

Just last week, BlackSky announced that its first Earth observation satellite, Global-1, has been cleared for launch. Four Global-class satellites are slated to be put in low Earth orbit in the next 12 months. LeoStella will be tasked with building 20 more of the spacecraft between now and 2020.

The other arrangement is a cooperation and marketing agreement under which BlackSky and Telespazio will distribute each other’s products and services, and potentially create new applications and services jointly. The pact provides for Telespazio to sell BlackSky products and services within Europe to key government customers.

The complicated roadmap for the international partnerships and the $150 million investment round was laid out months ago, but the governmental go-aheads were given only recently.

Spaceflight Industries, Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio announced the finalization of the arrangements today during the Satellite 2018 conference in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the two European space companies, participants in the $150 million Series C funding round include Mitsui & Co. Ltd., one of Japan’s largest trading companies, and existing investors.

The latest round sends the total amount of capital raised by Spaceflight Industries past the $200 million mark.  Previous investors include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management, RRE Venture Capital and Razor’s Edge Ventures.

Spaceflight Industries has two main business units: Spaceflight, which focuses on launch logistics; and BlackSky, which focuses on Earth observation and geospatial intelligence. BlackSky’s first prototype satellite, Pathfinder-1, was launched in 2016.

Jason Andrews, chairman and CEO of Spaceflight Industries, said in a news release that the European partnership will reduce “capital and execution risk for our high-revisit-rate Earth observation constellation.”

BlackSky aims to offer the ability to capture on-demand satellite images and deliver them within 90 minutes of an order, at a cost in the neighborhood of $90 per picture. The first 24 Global satellites are expected to be in orbit by 2020, and generate enough revenue to fund the full 60-satellite constellation.

Jean Loic Galle, president and CEO of Thales Alenia Space, said he expected LeoStella “to offer a production capacity exceeding BlackSky’s requirements.” Andrews said LeoStella “represents a game changer for small and microsatellite production in the United States.”

“Further, the partnership with Telespazio, and significant involvement of Mitsui & Co. Ltd. accelerates our go-to-market strategy and creates win-win synergies for all parties,” Andrews said.

The small-satellite market takes in applications including mapping, crop monitoring, resource prospecting, maritime tracking, customized weather forecasting, environmental monitoring and emergency response.

BlackSky already offers geospatial intelligence services via its Spectra cloud-based platform, and has a $16.4 million Air Force contract to create a platform for government agencies.

A host of other ventures, including California-based Planet and Spire, are vying for slices of market share as well. Planet already has more than 190 Earth observation satellites in orbit — some of which Spaceflight helped get launched.