by Eric Peterson with Company Week on February 2, 2020, 10:57 am MST
Blue Canyon makes satellites the size of a breadbox that orbit 250 miles above the planet’s surface. The company is built for the new paradigm in the space industry: satellite constellations comprised of numerous small spacecraft.
As a startup, Blue Canyon initially manufactured attitude control systems, Star Trackers, and reaction wheels for satellites. “We started with small components,” says Beckner, who founded Blue Canyon with CEO George Stafford, his colleague at Ball Aerospace & Technologies, and CTO Stephen Steg. “Star Trackers are used to measure the satellites orientation very precisely. Reaction wheels are designed to control the attitude of the spacecraft.”
Blue Canyon’s innovative technology led the company to manufacture complete satellite systems, which in turn led to entire spacecraft. The first small satellite built by Blue Canyon, NASA’s RAVAN CubeSat, launched into orbit in November 2016.
It’s all about smaller, cheaper, faster. Blue Canyon’s satellites are five pounds to 500 pounds, as opposed to legacy satellites weighing 200 pounds to 20,000 pounds. Instead of budgets in the “hundreds of millions of dollars per satellite,” he adds, prices are in the “single-digit millions.” And time to delivery is less than two years, versus the traditional norm of five years. “We cut the schedule in half, it’s a smaller package that is easier to launch, and the cost is orders of magnitude lower than legacy systems,” says Beckner.
“We come at it from a different direction,” he continues. “When we founded the company, we wanted it to be more responsive to the needs of constellations and proliferated LEO [low Earth orbiting] satellites. So we from the very early days of the company looked for ways to make the products easy to manufacture, easy to assemble, and buildable in batches of 10 or 20.”
After manufacturing in Boulder to date, the company is moving production to a new facility in Lafayette in April 2020. Instead of “one or two at a time,” with a “very high-dollar and long schedule,” Blue Canyon is taking a mass-production approach at the new plant with production work cells and numerous satellites in progress at any given time.
“It’s an 80,000-square-foot facility that’s dedicated to batch production of all of the components that go into the satellite, and a factory production line where multiple satellites will be in production simultaneously,” says Beckner. “It looks very much like a production line that you might have seen during World War II for B-17 bombers or something like that.”
In 2019, the company delivered 20 spacecraft. In the new facility, annual capacity will be ten times that. Blue Canyon will scale production from one satellite a week in late 2020 to as many as four a week in response to demand.
Beckner says Blue Canyon will leverage automation to scale production. “We’re starting to leverage robots for material handling,” he explains. “That’s a pretty exciting thing for us as well. We’re able to automate the mundane tasks and let the human operators focus on the critical operations that are important for satellite performance.”
Blue Canyon utilizes “almost an entirely domestic supply chain,” says Beckner. “We buy from American sources as much as possible, and we are vertically integrated, so we are buying a lot of raw materials or basic piece parts and doing all of the component assembly and manufacturing and test in-house. We aren’t relying on other companies to manufacture our critical components, like many of the big prime contractors, who are just integrators. We actually manufacture the components that go into our spacecraft as well.”
After two launches in early 2020, the company has 15 satellites in orbit, along with 300 reaction wheels and 80 Star Trackers. Blue Canyon has more than 60 spacecraft in the pipeline as of early 2020.
The market for small satellites is “booming,” says Beckner, with upcoming surge of launches from SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon. “We see the future as very bright for us as well because we provide a very flexible solution for our government and commercial customers that’s still reliable and affordable.”
The customers are largely prime aerospace contractors primes and government and military agencies, including DARPA and NASA. “DARPA is a great customer for us,” says Beckner, noting that the agency’s Blackjack program involves hundreds of satellites that will begin launching in 2021. “They each need to be very reliable, affordable, and high-performance. They provide the mission utility that the military needs. That’s something we can provide in production quantities at an affordable price.”
He adds, “I don’t want to overemphasize the defense work. We had two systems go to Mars last year.”
Another high-profile project: MethaneSat, “an environmental monitoring spacecraft system that we just started with the Environmental Defense Fund and Ball Aerospace as partners,” says Beckner. “We can help learn more about methane emissions and help improve climate. Performing the measurements from space gives you a much more robust and reliable data set.”
Blue Canyon’s growth has been dynamic in recent years. “Our revenue has doubled every year, our workforce has doubled every year, and the demand for our satellites has continued to go up,” says Beckner. “The market demand that pulled us [to manufacturing satellites] is shrinking budgets, and the need by government and commercial agencies to launch more systems on smaller budgets.”
Beckner forecasts revenue will continue doubling on an annual basis in the near term. “It’s an exciting time,” he says. “We’ve got great customers who are counting on us and have confidence in us to succeed.”
Challenges: “It’s always people,” says Beckner, projecting a head count of about 250 by the end of 2020. “Recruiting and training a great workforce. . . . We value our team very highly.”
He adds, “It’s pretty much everything. It’s production people, engineers, finance and accounting, HR people, security people.”
Blue Canyon is looking for production workers who have “attention to detail, pride in their work, like to work with a team,” he adds, but aerospace experience is not a prerequisite. “Sometimes, it’s people who have been building satellites for years, and then other times, it’s people who come from bicycle manufacturing or another precision assembly background.”
Adds Beckner: “Being located in Colorado is a huge enabler. People like to live in Colorado, they like to move here from other states. A lof of the workforce we’re trying to attract might be located in California or Florida, and they view Colorado is an upgrade.”
Opportunities: Small satellite launches are forecast to increase substantially. SpaceWorks forecasts launches to increase from about 300 in 2019 to as many as 745 in 2023. “The curve just goes up quite dramatically,” says Beckner.
Sales of components remain “very strong,” he adds, noting that Star Trackers, reaction wheels, and other systems account for about a third of revenue.
Needs: Talent and “continued support from our government leadership,” says Beckner. “Making space a priority so we can learn more about the universe and protect our country.”