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Venture Money Flows to Space Startups

A record $1.17 billion goes to support startups doing launches, creating satellite networks, and cleaning up space trash

3 min read
Venture Money Flows to Space Startups
Illustration: iStockphoto

Where’s the hottest technology for startups mining for investment gold this year? In consumer hardware? Maybe. Health and wellness? Perhaps.

Or maybe it’s space.

Space investment, according to a report released this month by research firm CB Insights, has been steadily increasing for the past few years, with investment to date in 2015 hitting a four-year high, at US $1.17 billion raised by 21 companies. (For most of these companies, the 2015 infusions added to money already raised.

imgGraph: CB Insights

The bulk of the money (almost $1.12 billion) went to California companies, with SpaceX leading the pack at $1 billion. But ventures around the U.S., and, indeed, the world, drew funds. Even without the SpaceX investment, investment in space ventures for the first half of 2015 tops investment throughout all of 2014.

Here are the top 10, according to CB Insights. And if you’re interested in joining the space race, many are hiring.

  • SpaceX: $1 billion. SpaceX, based in Pasadena, Calif., is Elon Musk’s launch company. They probably don’t need more introduction than that.
  • Planet Labs: $93 million. San Francisco-based Planet Labs has launched a network of 28 CubeSats designed to capture images of the earth below. The company is aiming to get 150 to 200 of these satellites into orbit, enabling it to take a daily snapshot of the entire planet.
  • Spaceflight Industries: $20.25 million. This Seattle company aims to help other entrepreneurs get into space by manufacturing components of satellite and launch systems, organizing launches on commercial launch vehicles, and provides communications with satellites.
  • Windward: $10.8 million. From Tel Aviv, Windward is using satellite and other data to track every ship at sea; the company says it can spot illegal fishing, smuggling, and other illicit activity, and help in search and rescue operations.
  • Moon Express: $10 million. Mountain View, Calif.-based Moon Express plans to send robots to the moon, to explore, and eventually, start tapping the moon’s resources.
  • Orbital Insight: $8.7 million. Also based in Mountain View, Orbital Insight is figuring out how to use deep learning algorithms to analyze the reams of data coming from satellites to, in particular, spot socioeconomic trends. Founder James Crawford was recently engineering director of Google Books.
  • Astroscale: $7.7 million. With all these new satellites going up, it’s getting crowded in earth orbits. Singapore-based Astroscale thinks it’s time that space got its own trash collector, and intends to develop technologies to remove space debris.
  • OmniEarth: $5 million. OmniEarth is planning a network of 18 satellites for Earth imaging, with extra room on board to rent to companies that want hardware on satellites but don’t want to get into the satellite business themselves. The company is based in Arlington, Va., but recently opened a Berkeley, Calif., office to focus on projects related to water use and the California drought.
  • GeoOptics: $4.5 million. GeoOptics, out of Pasadena, Calif, is also looking to provide environmental data, but not just image data. The company plans a network of 24 satellites to do atmospheric sensing for weather forecasting and climate modeling.

Now that these new space ventures picked up new investment, they are looking for additional staff members, mostly engineers of varying kinds. SpaceFlight Industries founder Jason Andrews says that he plans to double the size of the staff to more than 100. The challenges are huge. Orbital Insight states in one job listing for an engineer with expertise in image processing: “Here are 300,000 images. Tell us what’s in them.”

These startups are also looking for all kinds of interns. And one—Planet Labs—is even hiring an artist. The company says on its web site, “We are looking for creative minds that will jive with our exciting culture and openly share their unique artistic workflow.”

The Conversation (0)

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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