By Greg Avery – Denver Business Journal
June 24, 2019
Blue Canyon Technologies’ success in building small satellite technologies has attracted so much interest, the company doubled its staff last year and is hiring dozens again in 2019.
The Boulder-based company has been winning work from a growing collection of U.S. military and commercial space clients drawn to the small-scale satellites it builds and the technologies for small satellites it has pioneered.
“We’re going to need to be building more,” said George Stafford, CEO and co-founder of the company.
Blue Canyon Technologies has grown so fast it’s had to move or lease new space every couple years. Today its 170 employees are spread between a cluster of three buildings in an east Boulder office park. It has leased an additional 80,000 square feet of manufacturing space nearby to increase its production.
Many of Colorado’s aerospace companies are adding staff, buoyed by industrywide growth and changes in technology. Few are growing as fast Blue Canyon.
It has hired 30 people so far this year and has another 25 jobs it’s hiring to fill now.
“We’re one of the few small satellite companies in Colorado, and that helps us attract people,” Stafford said. “There’s a little more excitement about the technology we’re working on.”
Stafford and two co-founders started Blue Canyon in 2008. Stafford had previously worked at Ball Aerospace, the division of Ball Corp. (NYSE: BLL), that builds satellites and space systems nearby in Boulder, and saw an opportunity to work on miniaturizing the same kind sophisticated hardware those larger satellites used.
Blue Canyon Technologies makes satellites about the size of a shoe box and some larger. They’re all capable of three-point orientation in orbit using the company’s reaction wheels, which help stabilize the satellite, and a star-tracking instrument that orient them.
That means the satellite can point an instrument it’s carrying with precision that’s typical of large satellites — able to target an instrument finely enough that a camera on it could take an image within the width of the Empire State Building, even though the satellites is as far away as Los Angeles, Stafford said.
Today, 12 of Blue Canyon’s satellites orbit earth. As a supplier, 70 of the company’s reaction wheels and more than 50 star-trackers are in orbit on other companies’ satellites.
The U.S. Air Force has been interested in testing small satellites as a way of getting more flexible, inexpensive war fighting and intelligence gathering capabilities into orbit.
Military and commercial space companies’ interest in small satellite development has made it the most hotly competitive part of aerospace.
Last fall, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, contracted Blue Canyon to make the small-satellite bodies as part of a $117.5 million project, known as Blackjack, that it split among three companies to create an experimental fleet of about 20 orbiters providing communications capability for the military.
If the technology is successful, the fleet could grow to be more than 100 satellites, Stafford said.
It’s work like that driving the company to add manufacturing space and increase Blue Canyon’s production from making a couple satellites a month to being able to build a pair each week, Stafford said.
The hardware that makes such precision and reliability possible, Blue Canyon had to build from scratch. When the company got started in 2008, no one made them, Stafford said. Developing those components first allowed Blue Canyon to supply other companies and build up to designing, building and flying whole satellite system, which it does now.
The do-it-yourself ethic matched Stafford’s experience as a student at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, where students design, build and run satellite projects. Stafford worked on a project at LASP that required he do thousands of welds on a solar array for a satellite he helped design.
“The idea that we could build all these things ourselves to put in space was sort of the gestation for all this,” Stafford said, walking through Blue Canyon’s offices where engineers collaborated on designs and then heading to the next-door building where satellites are assembled and tested.