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Good morning. Holy moly do we have a stacked newsletter today. 

In today’s edition:
⛏️ AstroForge seed
📷 EOCL contracts
🚀 Transporter-5
📝 The contract report

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AstroForge Raises $13M Seed

Image: AstroForge

AstroForge, an asteroid-mining startup and Y Combinator alum, has raised a $13M seed round led by Initialized Capital, with participation from Seven Seven Six, EarthRise, Aera VC, Liquid 2, and Soma.

AstroForge 101: Cofounders Matt Gialich and Jose Acain hail from Virgin Orbit and SpaceX, where they embraced a high-risk, fail-fast Silicon Valley mindset. The company was founded in January this year and is planning its first technology mission for January 2023. “We have already booked that flight,” Gialich told Payload.

AstroForge aims to be the first commercial company operating in deep space by building a low-cost, high-efficiency asteroid mining and refining spacecraft. 

  • The goal will be to mine and refine platinum group metals, which are used in electronics and in medical applications, but are scarce on Earth and are mined in unsustainable, highly polluting ways.
  • “What we really want to do at AstroForge is take that mining from on Earth to offworld, where we’d have plenty of platinum, so that we won’t destroy our ecosystem,” said Gialich.
  • These refined platinum materials can then be brought back down to Earth and sold to customers for what Gialich believes will be competitive prices.

To get to space—and to market—fast, “we trade, essentially, speed for risk,” Gialich said. The team has been heads-down on building the company and designing the spacecraft for the first demo mission next year. 

The first demo, which will extract platinum from a synthesized asteroid, is designed with this high-risk mindset. “We’re not going to have multiple redundancies, we’re not going to think of this in the way of, ‘this mission cannot fail,’” said Gialich. “We have to go into this in the way of, ‘if this is successful, it will be highly profitable.’”

Ripe timing: A few years ago, a few high-profile startups that raised a large chunk of capital for asteroid mining failed to close the business case. It seemed to industry leaders and investors at the time that asteroid mining was too far out on the risk curve and not profitable enough to be viable. 

Now, though, the commercial space landscape has changed, and the time may be ripe for asteroid mining to make its comeback. Gialich said two major changes have set the stage for AstroForge’s future success:

  1. The iron law of launch: As launch costs drop and access to space gets cheaper, it somewhat derisks more ambitious undertakings. “We don’t require a billion dollars of capital to get off the ground,” said Gialich, which may have been the case for some would-be asteroid miners of the past.
  2. Buying off the shelf: Now, instead of building every component from scratch, “we can go leverage that infrastructure and purchase it instead of developing it in-house,” said Gialich.

Spending plans: Now that it’s secured seed funding, AstroForge is putting its resources into hiring. The team currently consists of four full-time employees and three full-time contractors. By the end of summer, they want to bring that number up to 13. The startup is currently looking for physicists and engineers to round out its team.

Babe Wake Up, New Multibillion Dollar Electro-Optical Imagery Contract Just Dropped 

As if Wednesday wasn’t already filled to the brim with space news, the National Reconaissance Office also had to flex on us and announce its “largest-ever commercial imagery contract.” Let’s break it down…

  • The NRO awarded Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contracts to BlackSky ($BSKY), Maxar ($MAXR), and Planet ($PL). 
  • The NRO isn’t messing around, saying that the EOCL contracts “mark a historic expansion of the NRO’s acquisition of commercial imagery to meet increasing customer demands with greater capacity than ever before.” 
  • The awards are valued at billions of dollars and stretch across the next decade. 

How many billions? Yesterday, Maxar said its contract is worth $3.4B across 10 years, with ~$300M in year #1–4 and then $340M through the year ten (H/T Case Martin). BlackSky’s contract is worth up to $1B. We weren’t able to find any details/filings on Planet’s contract, so the company will likely hold out on sharing deets until earnings in mid-June.

The EOCL nitty gritty, via NRO

EOCL includes a substantial increase in requirements for foundation data, intelligence points, and non-taskable data collection; shortwave infrared, nighttime, and non-earth imaging; and direct downlink to theater-based remote ground terminals.” The spy agency said it demonstrated this “vital capability” for the Pentagon in multiple exercises across the past year. 

The market’s reaction: 📈📈📈

$MAXR traded up ~18%, while $PL jumped 14% and $BSKY shares rocketed upwards by *checks notes* 96%. Adding some perspective here:

  • Maxar is valued at $2.13B and down just 2.3% YTD. 
  • Planet’s market cap is $1.54B. The SF company is down 6.8% YTD.
  • Rounding out the pack, BlackSky is valued at ~$281M. $BSKY shares are down 48% YTD.

Based on the numbers alone, it would seem BlackSky is punching above its weight with the EOCL contract. The company would argue, though, that it was built for precisely this. “We started out in government and are a trusted provider to that market,” BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole told Payload earlier this year.

Gang’s All Here

Image: SpaceX

SpaceX launched Transporter-5 (T5) yesterday with 59 spacecraft. That’s non-news for most of you by now, but it’s still worth running through the numbers and firsts of this mission. 

  • (F)light work: T5’s booster (tail name B1061-8) previously launched Crew-1, Crew-2, SXM-8, CRS-23, IXPE, a Starlink mission, and Transporter-4.
  • Return to Earth: B1061-8 has now launched and landed eight times. 
  • All-time stats: Falcon 9’s 156th flight, SpaceX launch #22 for ‘22, and 99th booster re-flight. Wen 100? 

Three of T5’s five payloads were OTVs/satellite dispensers. 

  1. Momentus ($MNTS) launched Vigoride with a number of customer payloads. The OTV has already deployed its first satellite, with more to follow in the coming days.
  2. Spaceflight’s new Sherpa-AC vehicle is carrying five spacecraft for Xona Space, NearSpace Launch, the US Missile Defense Agency, and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
  3. D-Orbit launched its sixth ION Satellite Carrier, with two deployable cubesats and a pair of hosted payloads. 

Exolaunch, who we recently spoke with, launched 20+ satellites on T5 for Spire ($SPIR), Satellogic ($SATL), NanoAvionics, Omnispace, Thales Alenia Space, and more. 

Payload-curated T5 highlights: IBM launched a cubesat, ICEYE conducted its largest satellite launch to date, HawkEye 360 grew its constellation to 15, and Xona became the first private company to launch a GPS satellite into space. Technically GNSS, but who’s counting? Finally, Nanoracks and Maxar launched the Outpost Mars Demo-1, an experimental vehicle that will demonstrate metal cutting in space.

Coming Soon…

What’s this? Why, it’s the cover art for Pathfinder, of course…

What’s Pathfinder? Payload’s weekly podcast, where host Ryan Duffy interviews top shot-callers in commercial, civil, and military space. Duffy and Pathfinder’s guests will take listeners from LEO to cislunar space, then back to the ranges, factories, boardrooms, & corridors where sci-fi ideas become reality. 

When is it launching? Stay tuned. We won’t reveal the launch date now to keep you on your toes. But we will say Pathfinder is coming to a podcast platform near you very soon.

In Pathfinder #0001, we chat with none other than Michael Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space.  Suffredini tells us about the Ax-1 mission, financing a free-flying space station, 2022 revenue, future business lines, Tom Cruise, and Texas BBQ. Keep an eye out the first Pathfinder, which we’ll distribute in the newsletter before we plug it anywhere else. 

In Other News

  • Varda has ordered another Photon satellite bus from Rocket Lab ($RKLB) for its fourth microgravity factory. Exciting times for in-space manufacturing…
  • The second stage that launched Tianzhou-4 earlier this month reentered over Sudan at 5:28am ET on Wednesday (H/T Jonathan McDowell). 
  • Starlink has 400,000 subscribers, up from 250,000 in March, CNBC reports. 
  • Via Eric Berger: NASA says crewed missions *will* fly on Starliner. Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager, indicated the agency was fired up (in a good way) about Starliner’s end-to-end performance on OFT-2.

The Contract Report

  • Planet ($PL) and Leaf announced a partnership focused on agricultural analytics for the developer community.
  • PredaSAR, a Terran Orbital ($LLAP) subsidiary, was awarded a DARPA contract to develop SAR prototypes.
  • ESA contracted Airbus to further develop the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, which aims to detect gravitational waves in deep space. Airbus also partnered with to create a data-informed AI platform for disaster intelligence.
  • Spire Global will provide weather forecasts for TCOM aerostats under a multi-million dollar five-year subcontract.
  • ICEYE will integrate its imagery with Arturo’s property data to give near real-time insights to insurers about flood damages. It will also share flood insights with the Copernicus Emergency Management Service team through a deal with the ESA.
  • BlueHalo secured a $1.4B contract from the Space Rapid Capabilities Office to upgrade the US military ground satellite network. It will partner with Kratos Defense & Security Solutions ($KTOS) on this effort.
  • NanoAvionics was contracted by French space startup Gama to aid an LEO demonstration of Gama’s solar sails propulsion system.
  • USSF awarded Launcher a $1.7M TACFI contract to further develop the high-performance E-2 liquid rocket engine for its Launcher Light vehicle.
  • Axiom Space and the Italian government signed an MoU to collaborate further, with potential to develop space infrastructure for the Axiom Station.
  • Benchmark inked a deal with the UK’s Space Forge to develop a reusable chemical propulsion system (via Payload).
  • LeoLabs won a multi-million dollar contract from the Japan Air Self Defense Force to provide data and training on tracking LEO satellites and orbital debris.
  • OneWeb and Gogo Business Aviation ($GOGO) signed an in-flight connectivity distribution agreement.

The View from White Sands

Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls. Boeing’s Starliner capsule touched down in White Sands yesterday after its first journey to the ISS.