Orbital Sidekick: Taking hyperspectral imaging from the garage to the Pentagon

Orbital Sidekick

The first space-based hyperspectral imaging sensor built by San Francisco startup Orbital Sidekick, founded in 2016, literally went from the garage of CEO and co-founder Dan Katz to the International Space Station as an experiment for Air Force Research Laboratory.

“That was a kick-ass little sensor we … integrated in my garage in San Francisco, and then handed it off to SpaceX, which launched it. And then NASA, the astronauts, took it from the Dragon capsule and installed it,” Katz told Breaking Defense in an interview.

Hyperspectral cameras break down pixels into hundreds of frequency bands and thus can detect minute differences in colors that cannot be seen by the human eye, or detected by other types of imagery cameras such as infrared. Thus, hyperspectral sensors can “see” what materials a surface is made of and identify individual elements in the surrounding atmosphere. For national security purposes, hyperspectral imagery could, for example, detect evidence of chemical weapon production and/or use.

“Hyperspectral imagery, and the associate analytics that we provide, enable us to chemically fingerprint anything on Earth,” Katz said. “For defense and intelligence, it could be looking at the difference between what is camouflage versus what is real, being able to chemically fingerprint that; looking at hypersonics detection; looking at detection of rocket launchers; looking at chemical weapon detection; and nuclear nonproliferation.”

He explained that Orbital Sidekick’s first sensor, capable of imaging in 150 spectral bands, was developed from one tested aboard an aircraft under a tiny AFRL Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 grant in 2018, which then segued into a Phase 2 SBIR for testing it in space. Data gathered by AFRL was provided to the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), he added.

NASIC, based at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio, characterizes threats from adversary air and space capabilities and seeks to prevent the Defense Department from technological surprises.

Four years later, Orbital Sidekick recently nabbed one of six study contracts to commercial providers of hyperspectral imagery from the National Reconnaissance Office; inked an agreement with the Intelligence Community’s non-profit investment group I-Q-Tel (which also in January contributed to a $10 million investment pot for the firm);  and is working under an ongoing multiyear contract worth $16 million from the Strategic Financing (STRATFI) program run by AF Ventures, the Department of the Air Force’s innovation investment arm.

The STRAFI investment, which also has support from AFRL and the Space Force, has allowed the company to accelerate deployment of its GHOSt satellite constellation, but also is aimed at integrating data from the satellites into the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (AMBS).

ABMS is the service’s contribution to the Pentagon’s high-priority Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept, designed to allow all sensors to rapidly link to all sensors across all domains.

All that said, defense and intelligence aren’t the primary market for Orbital Sidekick, Katz said. The company’s primary focus is instead on the government and commercial energy market — primarily providing pipeline monitoring services. The firm’s hoped-for business balance is about 60 percent commercial and 40 percent national security.

Orbital Sidekick launched its third GHOSt satellite last month on a SpaceX Falcon 9. The GHOSt satellites carry a much more capable hyperspectral sensor than its first generation model — sporting 512 spectral bands across the visible to shortwave infrared region, according to the company. It has three more satellites under assembly, with plans to launch them by the end of this year or early next year, Katz said. Further, the company is making plans for bolstering the constellation up to 14 by about 2025.

The GHOSt birds are small sats, weighing about 100 kilograms, and operate in low Earth orbit at about 535 kilometers above the Earth.

“Hyperspectral is kind of starting to have its moment in the sun, so to speak,” Katz said with a smile.