London’s space startup is turning astronomy into a profitable business

Who would have ever thought that Blue Skies Space Ltd. (BSSL) — a space startup billed as the “world’s first company to provide commercial scientific satellite data” — would find its first home on an inconspicuous side street on the edge of London’s financial center?

But BSSL, funded by a unique mix of private and public resources, is gearing up for the final design and construction phase of the first low-Earth orbit satellite. And unlike missions funded directly by NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA), BSSL’s motivation is not just astronomy for science’s sake, but astronomy for profit.

Fifteen institutions from around the world have already signed up to participate in BSSL’s second largest satellite project — Twinkle, a low-Earth orbit satellite that will take spectra of extraplanetary atmospheres and objects within our own solar system. Ohio University, Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and the University of Liège in Belgium are among the fifteen institutions that have already provided early funding to participate in the Twinkle mission.

“What’s amazing is that we’ve been able to get these universities to buy-in to the project and become part of the science team shaping the program,” Marcell Tessenyi, BSSL’s astrophysical managing director, told me in a conference room at IDEALondon. , a self-proclaimed innovation hub not far from the City of London.

Tessenyi describes the startup itself, which launched in 2014, as a small to medium-sized company. Even so, it only has an internal team of 12 people who share a co-working section of IDEALondon.

But the company has already gained credibility with the astronomical community, perhaps in part because the three co-founders were already respected academics at University College London.

We have funding from the European Commission with funding from the European Space Agency (ESA), the UK Space Agency and Innovate UK, says Tessenyi. And we have angel investors, and friends and family invested in it, he says.

And if BSSL is successful, it should usher in a new era of astronomical observations, using satellites made profitable by selling subscriptions to the data they produce. This will even include the sale of observation time to universities and institutions, both public and private worldwide.

We’re talking about $75,000 for access to the data sets annually, or $5,000 per hour to observe time at the space observatory once it’s up and running, Tessenyi says.

Specifically, BSSL aims to fill a niche between the national space agencies’ multibillion-dollar marquee missions and the tiny CubeSat missions currently undertaken by many universities.

It is possible that BSSL and future such for-profit space science ventures could reduce the cost of astronomy from space. And perhaps in the process double or even triple the number of astronomy missions launched today.

BSSL’s first venture into space will be with a €1.5 million, 15cm miniature telescope called Mauve, which will monitor the exploding activity of nearby solar-type stars using ultraviolet and visible spectroscopy. The goal is to determine which of these stars would be good hosts for habitable planets. It will be released in 2024.

But the company’s biggest planned mission is Twinkle, a much more expensive satellite, estimated at $50 million to $60 million, that will observe the atmospheres of planets around bright stars within our own galaxy. Although Twinkle will only use a telescope less than half a meter in diameter, from its thermally stable, low polar orbit around Earth, it should study thousands of objects. This would include everything from exoplanet atmospheres and stellar disks to the surfaces of asteroids and comets within our own solar system.

And the best-case scenario for Twinkle’s release, Tessenyi told me, is late 2024.

As for what has been the hardest thing about this whole startup venture?

“The number of complicated things we’ve had to go through to get to where we are, whether it’s early-stage funding or partnerships with major manufacturers, or credibility with the user community,” Tessenyi says. All these different aspects require a lot of work, he says.

But the hope is that when these spacecraft are in orbit and receiving data, then the cost will be recouped and generate surpluses from the initial customer base of subscribers that can be used to invest in future missions.

As for why Blue Skies Space chose to be a for-profit company instead of a non-profit?

The speculative route has completely changed the landscape and opened many more doors in terms of funding opportunities, says Tessenyi. We think commercially to be as flexible and cost-effective as possible, he says.

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