COLORADO SPRINGS — Amid a rising demand for satellite imagery, BlackSky is looking to expand its national security and defense business, CEO Brian O’Toole said SpaceNews.
“The Department of Defense is interested in tactical ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] from space,” he said. “There are quite a few possibilities. ISR is clearly becoming a priority and commercial capabilities matter.”
BlackSky is one of a few earth observation companies whose business has skyrocketed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the US government turned to commercial providers for footage to track Russian forces and support humanitarian relief efforts in war-torn parts of Ukraine.
O’Toole said the company provides images to news media and humanitarian organizations free of charge.
The US government sees the benefits of commercial opportunities for high-resolution images and frequent replays, he said. It is also the realization that “few of us can do what we are doing right now”.
“We’re demonstrating that it’s easy for any of our partners to log into our platform, they can point and click on a satellite and place an order and get an image back with analytics within 90 minutes,” said O’Toole.
To support the growth of its defense and intelligence businesses, BlackSky announced on April 4 that it has formed a strategic advisory group led by former Undersecretary for Intelligence and retired Vice Admiral of the Navy Joseph Kernan Deputy Director of Military Affairs at the CIA and retired Army General John Mulholland and former Chief Architect of the Space Force, retired Air Force Colonel Michael Dickey.
BlackSky recruited former Deputy Chief Executive of National Intelligence Sue Gordon to the board last October.
The company recently added two more satellites to its constellation, for a total of 14. Rocket Lab’s electron rocket On April 2, the two satellites were launched from New Zealand.
O’Toole said he expects BlackSky to be one of the companies selected by the National Reconnaissance Office as the primary provider of commercial imagery to the US intelligence community. The NGO will select suppliers for its electro-optic commercial coatings contract this year.
“We also have efforts underway with the Army and the Space Force and others,” he said. Some military organizations are interested in services that combine traditional imaging with on-demand satellite tasks.
BlackSky’s constellation remains at 14 for now, although a few more launches with Rocket Lab are planned for later this year.
Current satellites have a resolution of less than one meter. Next year, BlackSky plans to launch a new generation that will drop image resolution to 35 centimeters at nadir — when viewed straight down — and 50 centimeters on average, O’Toole said. These satellites will also have infrared sensors, inter-satellite links and onboard data processing enabled by artificial intelligence.
BlackSky in September became a listed company after completion of a merger with a dedicated acquisition company, or SPAC. BlackSky and others Space companies that went public through mergers with SPACs over the past year have suffered sharp falls in share prices, and therefore valuations.
O’Toole insisted the SPAC deal benefited BlackSky because it provided the capital to fund its next-generation satellites and other projects. “And it’s also given us the growth capital to expand our sales force and our product teams.”
He said the SPAC method of taking a company public is “well suited for companies like ours.”
The markets have turned sour on SPACs in general, but not all companies are created equal, he said. “We happen to be a company that had revenue and customers. There were many SPACs that were in a very early stage. We were involved in it, but it achieves what we wanted.”