Armed with $19.5M, LiveEO plots a big data course between satellite geospatial information and industry

When it comes to geospatial and mapping data and how they are leveraged by organizations, satellites continue to play a critical role when it comes to sourcing raw information.  Getting that raw data into a state that can be usable by enterprises, however, is a different story. Today, a Berlin-based startup called LiveEO, which has built a satellite analytics platform to do just that, has raised €19 million ($19.5 million) on the back of strong demand for its tech from companies working in transportation and energy infrastructure.

The rise of companies like LiveEO comes on the back of a period of rapid commercialization in infrastructure intended to be used in space, typified by companies like SpaceX but also others building, for example, a new wave of satellites themselves. As with the larger opportunity in enterprise IT, big data players like LiveEO are essentially the second wave of that development: applications built leveraging that infrastructure.

“Someone has to build applications for end users to really make it simple to use and integrate that data into processes,” explained Daniel Seidel (left), who co-founded and co-leads LiveEO with Sven Przywarra (right). “That is what we are doing at scale.”

MMC Ventures is leading the investment, a Series B, and in addition to €17M of venture capital, the round also includes backing from two public bodies, the European Commission and Investitionsbank Berlin. Previous backers Dieter von Holtzbrinck Ventures (DvH Ventures), Helen Ventures, Matterwave, and motu ventures, and new backers Segenia Capital and Hannover Digital Investments (HDInv), are also participating. LiveEO had previously raised €5.25 million Series A in 2021, and it said that in that time, it’s tripled revenues with customers in five continents and more than doubled its headcount to about 100, with more than half of those engineers and data scientists.

As a German startup, LiveEO is one of a small but growing group of startups in Europe capitalizing on increasing interest in space among investors in recent years, despite the wider pressures on tech finance. Relatively speaking, though, the sums are still modest compared with other areas of tech: LiveEO says that this €19 million round is one of the largest in earth observation tech in Europe. LiveEO is focused on enterprise, specifically industrial applications for its analytics — although given the geopolitical landscape, and how that is bringing a new host of interested parties playing the part of financiers to foster its growth, it will be interesting to see how that develops.

LiveEO’s platform addresses a specific gap between space tech and enterprise data. Satellites are collectively producing more data about our world than ever before, covering not just physical objects in the most minute detail, but thermal progressions, how systems are moving, and more.

Ironically, a lot of that data is very locked up when it comes to enterprises using it: given the fragmentation in the satellite industry itself, the data is not only often in very raw, formats, but coming from multiple sources, too, so getting it into forms that can be integrated into existing IT systems and specifically (and more trickily) the IT systems that integrate with the infrastructure that is the building block of a lot of industrial deployments — let alone parsing it for insights — are all tall tasks, so much so that the opportunities of doing them often go unrealized.

The core of the company’s platform brings all this together, in what LiveEO describes as an “infrastructure monitoring suite powered by satellite imagery.” This involves taking the earth observation data produced by satellites and applying AI to it to analyze it in the context of what LiveEO’s industrial clients — which include major railway companies like Deutsche Bahn, or the energy company e.on — are seeking to understand better.

That could include data on risks from vegetation on railways or other lines; ground deformation; or other physical movements or activities; and it also includes the ability for an LiveEO user to directly integrate this data to link up with its own IT management systems for its infrastructure, for example those that monitor systems to make sure they are working as they should. It also pitches its solution as greener: using satellites to source the kind of geographic data that these industrial applications need means no need to use on-the-ground teams and vehicles to source it in other ways.

“One of the great advantages of satellite data is that we don’t require hardware to be installed at the infrastructure itself,” said Przywarra.

That data, they believe, is also more complete: as Seidel describes it, the combination of terabytes of data from multiple sources means it is not just 3D, but “4D” — with thermal and other kinds of details available, “is like the difference between using an image from a smartphone, and a high-end camera with high resolution.”

All of this is also still a relatively new field, Przywarra added. “Prior to Google Earth, satellite maps were only used by experts,” he said. “We enable more non-experts to use satellite data. We make it accessible and usable.”

Lead investor MMC is one of the more prominent deep tech investors in Europe, and it’s notable that they’re putting focus in this area as an opportunity.

“We are excited to lead this round for LiveEO and it reflects MMC’s continued focus on emerging datasets and companies that develop AI analytics to power core business decisions,” said Andrei Dvornic, a principal at MMC Ventures, in a statement. “LiveEO offers a critical tool that paves the way for sustainable industry automation, and we wholeheartedly support the company’s vision of leveraging satellite technologies, big data, and the latest developments in artificial intelligence to help companies adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.”

Max Q: Off the bench

Hello and welcome back to Max Q. Last week was the week of ambitious timelines. In this issue:

  • A modest profile of one of the foremost experts of space propulsion
  • Deep dive into the history of NASA’s Landsat
  • News from Masten Space, Swarm and more

P.S. Applications are closing soon for Startup Battlefield 200! Apply today to join Startup Battlefield 200 for the chance to exhibit your startup for free at TechCrunch Disrupt this October and win the $100,000 equity-free prize. Applications close August 5. Apply today.

On to the news.

SpaceX’s CTO of propulsion retired. Now he wants to go to Mars.

You may not have heard the name Tom Mueller, but if you’re a space fan, you’re likely acquainted with the technology he helped pioneer: the Merlin rocket engine, which powers SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and the Draco engines that power the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

Mueller spent 18 years at SpaceX before retiring. But as he told me, “I found when I stopped creating, I didn’t feel right.”

Mueller, who is widely considered one of the leading experts of propulsion alive today, started sketching up a small thruster. That thruster now has a name, “Rigel,” after the blue supergiant in the constellation Orion. It’s become a cornerstone of Mueller’s new startup, Impulse Space, which he founded in September 2021. With the new venture, Mueller wants Impulse to be the go-to option for cost-effective, efficient in-space transportation.

“It was going to be just for fun and not too serious, but then some ex-SpaceX people started talking [to me] and wanted to help and all of a sudden it became real,” he said. “Now it’s full on.”

Rigel thruster Impulse Space

Rigel thruster. Image Credits: Impulse Space

After 50 years pioneering satellite imagery, NASA’s Landsat is ready for 50 more

NASA’s Landsat satellite constellation has been making Earth observation history ever since the project launched way back in 1972, providing reams of EO data for the government, scientists and industry. TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey caught up with Jim Irons, who retired at the beginning of this year as NASA’s director of the Earth Sciences Division, on the history of the project and why it is still relevant today.

Now, myriad constellations like that of Planet Labs are imaging the whole globe on a daily basis. Which begs the question: Why have Landsat at all?

“Those of us who work on Landsat are very impressed by what the commercial providers have achieved,” Irons said. “The message we want to get out is that Landsat is complementary to that data — they don’t replace Landsat data. One, it’s open and transparent access — that’s key, and it’s true of all the data collected by NASA satellites.

“Two, the USGS has maintained this 50-year archive of data. Is there a business case for companies to archive their data for decades, so we can observe the effects of climate change over the long term rather than just have short bursts of data? I don’t know that the business case is there.”

Image Credits: NASA

More news from TC…

  • Eutelsat and OneWeb agreed to a merger valued at $3.4 billion, a move that is widely viewed as a challenge to SpaceX’s Starlink.
  • The Exploration Company is developing a brand new reusable orbital spacecraft, à la SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. I sat down with CEO Hélène Huby to talk about the young startup’s ambitious plans.
  • Masten Space Systems filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, telling a Delaware court that it owed millions in liabilities to companies including SpaceX, Astrobotic, NuSpace and others.
  • Swarm Technologies was acquired by SpaceX 10 months ago. Darrell Etherington caught up with co-founder and CEO Sara Spangelo (now senior director of Satellite Engineering at SpaceX) to discuss what Swarm has been up to in that time.

Nyx orbital vehicle The Exploration Company

A rendering of The Exploration Company’s Nyx orbital vehicle. Image Credits: The Exploration Company (opens in a new window)

…and beyond

  • AST SpaceMobile has signed a five-year 4G and 5G deal with Nokia to build out a cellular broadband network delivered via satellite.
  • Blue Origin is planning to launch its sixth crewed mission of the New Shepard rocket on August 4, from its sprawling launch site in West Texas.
  • Boeing said it incurred an additional $93 million in costs related to its Starliner capsule, bringing the total costs to the company to nearly $700 million.
  • China launched an experimental module for its developing space station, which will attach to the Tianhe module already in orbit. Unfortunately, it appears that the booster of the Long March 5B rocket from the launch will reenter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled reentry.
  • Congress passed a NASA authorization bill, part of the sweeping “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act,” affirming operations of the International Space Station through 2030 and directing NASA to build a “Moon to Mars Program,” which includes the existing Artemis program.
  • Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket is on the launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, indicating that a second test launch of the vehicle is likely imminent.
  • NASA detailed changes to its Mars Sample Return plan, to return samples collected by the Perserverance rover back to Earth by 2033. Instead of rovers and rockets, the new plan will replace a rover with two helicopters.
  • Rocket Lab and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office are now targeting August 2 for the next launch of an NRO satellite, after the organization needed more time to perform software updates on the spacecraft.
  • Rocket Lab will be providing the solar power units for three satellites being made by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Space Force, indicating that the company’s acquisition of SolAero at the beginning of this year is already paying off.
  • Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, is apparently intending to continue using the International Space Station through 2028, after first insinuating it would break ties with the station in 2024.
  • Sierra Space formed a National Security Advisory Group “to help Sierra Space continue to meet the evolving and complex needs of the United States and its impacts on the commercial space industry.”
  • SpaceX applied for more spectrum with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, telling the regulator it wanted to “optimize performance” for Starlink customers.
  • Starlink’s second-generation satellites will emit less light than their first-gen counterparts, SpaceX said in a blog post. The company has taken “unprecedented steps” to work with the astronomy community on this issue, it said.
  • The Space Foundation found that the space economy reached $469 billion last year, a 9% increase from 2020.
  • X-Bow Systems launched its Bolt rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for the first time. X-Bow Systems was testing a payload test vehicle for the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory.

X-Bow Systems Bolt Rocket

X-Bow’s Bolt Rocket. Image Source: X-Bow Systems. 

Max Q is brought to you by me, Aria Alamalhodaei. If you enjoy reading Max Q, consider forwarding it to a friend. 

Product Managers Go Searching For More Kitchen Space To Complete Orders

Delivery wars cause product managers to search out unused spaces
Delivery wars cause product managers to search out unused spaces
Image Credit: Parm Parmar

Just in case you didn’t know it, ordering food to be delivered to your home has exploded in the past few years. More and more customers are going online and placing orders for food that they expect to show up at their home quickly. For the product managers who are working at the restaurants that are providing all of this food, times have been tough. As the number of orders has been increasing, the restaurant’s ability to create and ship that much food has been strained. What the product managers need is more kitchen space. They are starting to think that they may have found a new place to build more of what they need.

A New Life For Old Malls

What the restaurant product managers have realized is that they have to update their product development definition. There are a lot of malls around. These malls are all struggling to get more people to visit them and most of them have lost some of their major customers. This means that they have large amounts of empty space. Product managers are building kitchens in empty mall space and parking lots to fill food-delivery orders, a new approach in the fast-growing business of shuttling meals to customers. The plan is to make restaurant food for delivery in former retail space. This melds two industries that have been upended by e-commerce. Restaurants are struggling to find a cost-effective formula for meeting their growing demand for delivery of online food orders. Meanwhile, developers say “ghost” kitchens can create new interest in retail and warehouse space that has been vacated by merchants that have struggled to compete with e-commerce.

A retail developer is working with a hospitality company to develop some 200 commissary kitchens to cook up restaurant-quality food for customers at malls and hotels as well as delivery for people nearby. Growth like this can look good on anyone’s product manager resume. The first of those are planned to roll out in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. The companies say that their goal is to create a 5,000-square-foot ghost kitchen in a Brookfield Properties development that will provide delivery for the nearby Hudson Yards and surrounding areas in Manhattan. They are attempting to use all available area: the group will also develop delivery-only locations in mall parking lots, storage areas and unused retail space.

The group has also signed four leases with CloudKitchens. This company is the delivery-kitchen venture of former Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Travis Kalanick. Their plan is to open additional delivery locations at some properties in Los Angeles. Product managers view this as a relooking at all real estate that is obsolete. The companies declined to say how much they are investing in the partnership. Delivery now accounts for roughly 9% of the $282 billion U.S. fast-food sector and is currently growing faster than dine-in and drive-through sales.

How Restaurants Will Use All Of That Extra Space

Restaurant product managers realize that the move to making delivery a bigger part of their business carries with it a number of risks. Restaurants are expanding their delivery offerings to generate sales despite the fact that those orders often have an impact on their operational efficiency and profits. The good news about remote kitchens is that they can reduce their real-estate costs while expanding the reach of the restaurant. Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A and Sweetgreen are among those chains turning to remote kitchens that don’t serve customers to move delivery orders outside their existing restaurants. Product managers know that it’s about unlocking additional demand.

Some product managers and startups are seizing the opportunity to build and lease those “ghost” or “dark” kitchens. Some restaurants and chefs that already operate at offsite properties will design menus for new kitchens. A group that is creating remote kitchens plans to open 85 kitchens this year and at least 100 more by the end of next year. They anticipate spending about $60,000 on upfront costs at each location and reaching profitability in about six months if a kitchen manages to fill around 125 orders averaging $30 each a day. The kitchens will rely on established delivery companies to carry food to customers, such as Uber Technologies’ Uber Eats, DoorDash Inc. and Postmates Inc.

A 230-square-foot CloudKitchens site can be built in two weeks at a cost of around $30,000. A traditional 3,500-square-foot restaurant costs $1 million to outfit. Venture-capital firms have invested nearly $5 billion in companies operating virtual kitchens since 2018. Some in the restaurant industry are skeptical of ghost kitchens. The doubters predict that the model will only be profitable for big brands that can generate high order volumes at more than one mealtime. Some restaurants, such as Fat Brands, are testing separate delivery-only operations at existing restaurants. The company is preparing and delivering food out of some existing Fatburger locations. That is generating an average of $1,000 in additional sales for those stores each week, adding around 5% to the overall store revenue. Those deliveries are helping generate sales outside the standard lunch and dinner rushes.


What All Of This Means For You

Restaurant product managers have a real problem on their hands. With the growth of at home ordering of restaurant food, they have never been busier. However, their kitchens have not become any larger and so they are struggling to create and deliver all of the food that is being ordered. In order to solve this problem these product managers are starting to look at their product manager job description for other locations where they could set up new kitchens. They need someplace that is both local and large.

It turns out that such a location may exist close to most of these product managers. Traditional shopping malls have a lot of space and many of them have vacant stores because the previous tenants went out of business. New developers are planning on creating 5,000 sq foot “ghost kitchens”. This new purpose is allowing real estate that had previously been ignored to be reevaluated. The good news about remote kitchens is that they can reduce their real-estate costs while expanding the reach of the restaurant. These remote kitchens can reach profitability in about six months if they fill enough orders each day. Some restaurants are adding delivery only operations to their existing locations.

Restaurant product managers are facing the kind of problem that we would all like to have to deal with: too much business. However, they need to solve this problem and solve it quickly or else they’ll lose the customers that they need. Expanding into new unused locations is a great way to go about solving their immediate needs. We’ll have to see if going to the mall provides these product managers with the solution that they are looking for…


– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™


Question For You: How far away from a restaurant do you think a ghost kitchen can be located?


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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

In just the past few years, the music industry has been rocked. Once upon a time people would go out to the store and purchase a CD with the latest music album on it. However, that all changed when Apple opened their online music store. Now people were able to purchase digital copies of their music and download them onto their phones, tablets, and computers. Well, things have changed once again. Music streaming services have shown up and now people can tune in to listen to song after song in a wide variety of styles and types. If the user subscribes to the music streaming service, they can listen to music from one specific artist or a specific set of songs. India is one of the world’s largest untapped markets and music streaming is only now arriving there. Which streaming service will serve this new market?

The post Product Managers Go Searching For More Kitchen Space To Complete Orders appeared first on The Accidental Product Manager.

Here’s what Swarm has been up to in the 10 months since being acquired by SpaceX

It’s been nearly a year since satellite Internet-of-Things connectivity provider Swarm was acquired by SpaceX, and Swarm co-founder and CEO Sara Spangelo (now senior director of Satellite Engineering at SpaceX) is ready to talk about what Swarm’s been up to in that time. SpaceX is not known to be a super acquisitive company, so I was curious to hear about what it’s been like for Spangelo and for Swarm. Mostly, it’s been 10 months of rapid acceleration, she says.

One of Swarm’s biggest blockers in terms of speed of deployment and growing its network was the ability to actually launch its satellites, which themselves are tiny — the company says they’re “the smallest operational satellites in space,” at little more than the size of your average sandwich. Spangelo said that unlocking launch availability has been one of the biggest benefits of operating under the SpaceX umbrella so far.

“Access to basically free launch is pretty exciting,” she told me in an interview. “We actually have launched probably three or four times since we last spoke [Editor’s note: in June 2021 for our Found podcast], and we now have over 160 satellites in LEO [low-Earth orbit] — some of those are experimental.”

Those experimental payloads have helped the company improve its overall latency, so now it can guarantee latency at under one hour (meaning a Swarm satellite passes overhead any given point on Earth at least once an hour), which opens up broad new customer categories and applications for its low-bandwidth, hyperefficient connectivity services.

“That’s a pretty important threshold, if you’re doing any sort of monitoring, whether it’s floods, water, forest fire detection, agriculture applications, logistics applications — that’s like a pretty important threshold in that community,” Spangelo explained. “So being low [latency], that has unlocked a bunch of exciting new use cases and customers.”

Swarm’s tiny satellites have essentially been hitching a ride on SpaceX launches for other customers, where it’s easy for the company “to just pop them on” in Spangelo’s words. Satellite launch tends to be a game of ounces because of weight considerations, but the benefits of being the smallest operational satellites in space mean that you stand a better chance than most of fitting within existing mission payload parameters for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets even with other cargo on board.

While access to regular orbital delivery service is incredibly valuable to a technology like Swarm’s, Spangelo says that it’s also unlocked a host of other efficiencies that help the previously small startup leap ahead in terms of its maturation and infrastructure.

“We’ve had access to just more support systems,” she said. “So legal, accounting, HR, recruiting, logistics, supply chain and production. That’s also helped us accelerate a lot of our production rate, [and] our hiring rate. We’ve been scaling up and we’ll probably do 10x the number of devices sold this year vs. what we did last year.”

Of course, it’s a two-way street (it wouldn’t make much sense as an acquisition otherwise) and Spangelo says SpaceX is already benefiting plenty, too.

“We’re also supporting SpaceX in a bunch of ways, from engineering and technology, and regulatory strategies, to lots of other programs that hopefully we get to talk about in the future,” she said, reserving details on just what those programs might entail for now. I suggested that some kind of marriage between Starlink’s consumer internet service and Swarm’s connected device offerings might make sense, and she did agree that there are synergies they’re exploring there.

“We’re definitely having product discussions across the chasm that is Starlink broadband, to Swarm IoT and everything in between,” she said. “And the roadmap really fills in a lot of the gaps between those things that you’re hinting at. Certainly on the enterprise side, we’ve started to engage with some of the same enterprise customers. You can imagine big agriculture companies, or oil and gas, or maritime companies have need for broadband, as well as for satellite IoT. So we’ve definitely been able to benefit from those mutual relationships really both ways: Some Swarm customers are interested in Starlink, and vice versa.”

With new use cases and new sales relationships, as well as plenty of demand on both sides, Spangelo says both Starlink and Swarm within SpaceX are still growing their teams despite the current macroeconomic conditions, especially when it comes to specific types of talent.

“A lot of people don’t know that Starlink is actually kind of a networking company,” she said. “We think of [SpaceX] as a hardware rocket company — a bunch of mechanical engineers. But the sophistication of the software, networking algorithms, back ends at the core networks and laser mesh networks, it’s incredibly complicated. So we have, I think, over 200 software engineers on Starlink, and 500 or so at [SpaceX]. But we are definitely looking for incredible talent there.”

As for what Spangelo is excited that Swarm has been able to do, and do better, working as a SpaceX company, she mentioned a number of new use cases that have come online since we last spoke, including wildfire detection. With a max of under one hour of latency, and often results that refresh in minutes, you can change considerably the approach to detection and mitigation of wildfires, which can spread for hours or even days without people knowing when monitored only through traditional methods. Swarm is working with a number of companies there, including Berlin-based Dryad Networks.

Another recent customer, Rainforest Connection, uses Swarm’s IoT network to connect simple acoustic sensors deployed in the Brazilian rainforest.

“Basically, they have just an acoustic sensor, like you have on your phone, and it basically just hears a chainsaw, and then calls in the people that will stop the [deforestation],” she said. “That one is just so cool to me — that such a simple sensor can have like such a big impact, because it’s so hard to find these things.”

As for what the future holds for Swarm, Spangelo says that they’re actually pretty pleased with where the satellite hardware and design is currently, though they’re looking to build more software products for enterprise customers. There are also “some products that are more standalone that are actually more appropriate for tracking use cases, and some of the bigger enterprise use cases” that don’t require the sophisticated integration of their current modem design, she said, something more “on brand with” Elon Musk’s “out of the box philosophy”; something she said has already had influence on the product side.

Meanwhile Swarm continues to operate out of its facility in Mountain View, just a short distance from a nearby SpaceX office, making collaboration relatively simple. The Falcon 9 launch pads are a little farther away, but you can’t beat the price for the ride.

NASA lunar payload service provider Masten Space Systems begins bankruptcy process

Masten Space Systems began the process of filing for bankruptcy on Thursday, telling a Delaware court that it owed millions in liabilities to companies including SpaceX, Astrobotic, NuSpace and others.

Masten Space, a startup founded in 2004, had ambitions to send a lander to the Moon as early as next year. The company was selected by NASA under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program to deliver eight payloads to the lunar surface. That contract was for $75.9 million. The agency also tapped Masten for a separate lunar mission to collect moon-based resource for return to Earth.

More recently, the company said it was developing a GPS-like navigation system for the Moon, part of a contract awarded through the Air Force Research Laboratory’s AFWERX program.

According to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing, Masten estimated that it had between 50-99 creditors, between $10 million-$50 million in assets, and between $10 million-$50 million in liabilities. The Chapter 11 request was signed by David Masten, President and CTO of the company. The filing breaks down the exact amount Masten owes its creditors: the largest amount to SpaceX, for $4.6 million; $2.7 million to Psionic; $2.7 to Astrobotic; and $1.6 to NuSpace. An additional 16 creditors are listed on the application.

The company will be selling its launch credit with SpaceX (SpaceX was selected to send Masten’s XL-1 lander to the Moon) to Intuitive Machines, one of its competitors.

TechCrunch has reached out to Masten Space for comment and will update the story if it responds. The filing was made in the Delaware Bankruptcy Court, case number 22-10657.

After 50 years pioneering satellite imagery, NASA’s Landsat is ready for 50 more

NASA’s Landsat satellites have consistently made history in Earth observation since the project’s first launch in 1972, with this year marking 50 years of innovation and science. Its influence may surprise you, as will its continued relevance in the face of a fast-growing commercial imaging satellite sector.

Landsat may be a familiar name to you but doesn’t ring any particular bells. It’s understandable — there are a ton of NASA satellites up there looking down on the planet. But the easiest way to say it is this: In 1972, Landsat basically invented modern Earth observation. Then, remember a while back when every Google Earth image said “USGS” on it? Yeah, that was Landsat too. The project has basically ushered satellite imaging from bleeding edge research tool to everyday technology.

Landsat 9 just launched last September, the latest in a long line of influential spacecraft.

A schematic sketch of Landsat-1. Image Credits: NASA

I talked with Jim Irons, who has worked at NASA since 1978 and on Landsat since 1992. Irons told the story of Landsat from the beginning, both what he took part in himself and the lore he’s absorbed over the years. It’s fitting that for a project that would redefine Earth imaging, its very first satellite was both innovative and historically significant.

“Landsat 1 launched in 1972 — it carried two instruments, one was the Return Beam Vidicon, and it was kind of like a TV camera, it took analog data,” Irons said. “But Hughes [Aircraft Company] convinced NASA to put another instrument on the payload that was more experimental: the Multi-Spectrum Scanner. And it provided digital data.”

It hardly needs to be said that in 1972, digital anything was pretty innovative, let alone high-performance digital sensors in orbit. But the team clearly saw the writing on the wall, and good thing too.

“After launch, the RBV had problems, and the data from the MSS became the preferred data. That was a big turning point,” recalled Irons. “It was an instrument that used an oscillating mirror that went back and forth to scan a path at 7-14 Hz, underneath the orbital path of the sensor, to create a digital image. And it’s mechanical! It was amazing.”

“The designer of this sensor, Virginia Norwood, she’s still with us, in her 90s. It was very unusual at the time to have a female engineer at all. She came to the launch of Landsat 9 last month, actually.”

Virginia Norwood (photo taken in 1972) with the MSS instrument she created. Image Credits: NASA

It’s a remarkable fact that the beginning of the orbital imaging revolution was the brainchild of one of the then-rare women in the space and tech industries, whose roles in many of the era’s important accomplishments have only recently begun to be given the attention they deserve. You can read more about Norwood’s role in the creation of the MSS, which is the precursor to many more such systems, at this NASA history article, or this more recent piece.

A successor to the MSS called the Thematic Mapper launched in 1982 with more spectral bands, but then in 1984 another big improvement struck a nerve at HQ:

“Landsat 5 in 1984 carried both a multispectral scanner and advancement on the thematic mapper idea that improved the spatial resolution of the data, from what had been 80 meters with the MSS to 30 meters, and spectral bands were added,” Irons said. “But there was all this data! Some people were afraid of that data, that analysts would be overwhelmed by it — but it didn’t turn out that way. Computer capacities kept up and soon the thematic mapper data was preferred.”

Image Credits: NASA

That would prove a rule as time went on and right up until the present: There really is no such thing as too much data. As long as you can collect it and store it, someone will find a use for it.

They might even pay you for it — but an attempt to privatize Landsat in the following years fell flat, or burned up on reentry in the case of Landsat 6, which never made it to orbit. Meanwhile, the private company created to operate and distribute the rest of the data jacked up the price until no one was willing to pay any more. “It was up to $4,400 per scene of thematic mapper data. People just stopped using it,” Irons said.

When NASA and the USGS, which handled the distribution of the imagery originally, returned to the reins, they had an international data recovery problem. Imagine having reams of data in a ground station in China or South America, long before ubiquitous broadband networks. How do you get it back to HQ in the States for central processing and analysis? I told Irons I was picturing big trucks full of hard drives, the internal combustion equivalent of Sneakernet.

“That’s exactly what happened!” he laughed. “They just drove up to the [USGS] facility with semi truck trailers full of magnetic tapes. It was difficult because they had all these different formats and instruments. So that created a little chaos. They bought pizza ovens to bake the water out of some of those tapes.” (I wanted to hear more about that part but our time was limited.)

Image Credits: NASA

But the repatriation of the data was only a precursor to an even larger shift.

“After Landsat 7 launched was perhaps the biggest change in the entire program,” Irons said. “USGS was still charging $600 for a mapper scene of data. And they made made what I consider an institutionally brave decision in 2008, to be consistent with NASA and provide Landsat data at no cost to anyone who wanted it. So it went from $400 to $600 to free.”

As you can imagine, this choice completely upended the model, and overnight, it changed everything.

“There was an explosion of use and redistribution of the data,” he continued. “Now, some places like Google Earth and Amazon Cloud Services, they’d gone in and downloaded the whole archive from USGS.”

Remember the old Google Earth app? Image Credits: Google

That’s why for years, whenever you looked at an online map, it credited the USGS. Of course Google and Amazon didn’t own the imagery, or capture it themselves, though now all the majors are doing that at various scales. They simply downloaded a huge picture of the entire Earth and re-served it to their customers in a new form.

“It’s a struggle for us to brand the data and the program so taxpayers know they’re getting their money’s worth,” admitted Irons. It’s not like every time you opened Google Maps, it thanked you for making their business possible!

In the years since, Landsat 8 and 9 have launched with improved sensors and continued to collect invaluable data that is continuous with the previous decades — a free, long-term database of a large portion of the planet imaged every couple weeks or so depending on the era.

Image Credits: NASA

Of course nowadays constellations like Planet’s are imaging the whole globe on a daily basis. So why have Landsat at all?

“Those of us who work on Landsat are very impressed by what the commercial providers have achieved,” Irons said. “The message we want to get out is that Landsat is complementary to that data — they don’t replace Landsat data. One, it’s open and transparent access — that’s key, and it’s true of all the data collected by NASA satellites.

“Two, the USGS has maintained this 50-year archive of data. Is there a business case for companies to archive their data for decades, so we can observe the effects of climate change over the long term rather than just have short bursts of data? I don’t know that the business case is there.”

You can see an example of what decades of continuous data looks like here:

“And one of the things that enables our time series analyses is that NASA pays a great deal of attention to inter-sensor calibration,” Irons continued. “If you’re going from one Landsat image to another, you know it’s been calibrated — if you see a change over time, you can be clear that the thing is changing rather than the camera. [Commercial constellations] use Landsat data to do that; we serve as an industry standard to help them do their calibration.”

Here the conversation overlapped with what I talked about with Ginger Butcher, who’s done outreach for the project for years.

“We can compare a Landsat image today to a Landsat image from 1972,” she said. “That’s one of the tenets of the program: We have a dedicated calibration team keeping an eye on the instruments. Every full moon we turn the spacecraft around to use it as a kind of photographer’s grey card.”

With the increasing prominence of commercial providers in the U.S. space program, it was a real question over the last few years whether Landsat was worthwhile to continue funding, but arguments like those above won out.

“We used to have to work really hard to get that next mission, but now we’ve basically got the government saying this is a valuable resource worth continuing with,” Butcher said. “Now we’re looking to the future and what kind of capabilities we want to get out of the next Landsat. What kind of research are people doing? What additional wavelengths are needed for work on ice, or on forests, or particular areas in agriculture? For example, with thermal data we can look at crops and see if they’re being overwatered or underwatered — with water rights out west, that’s really important. As scientists take on new questions and new areas of study, they decide where Landsat goes next.”

More than ever, the project will work collaboratively with the commercial sector and with ESA satellites like Sentinel-2.

“We think it’s great,” said Irons. “The emergence of all these systems means the Landsat project has been incredibly successful; it basically created the market for them.”

The Exploration Company is developing a brand new reusable orbital spacecraft

The European space scene is about 5 to 10 years behind America’s, Hélène Huby explained in a recent interview. She’s certainly qualified to make such an assessment: Huby spent much of her career at major European aerospace company Airbus, where one of her roles was VP of the European Service Module (ESM). The ESM is the power and propulsion component of NASA’s Orion orbital vehicle, which the space agency wants to use to return humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era.

Huby left Airbus in August 2021. As she tells it, “I didn’t want to spend my life working on a vehicle that is not reusable, cannot be refueled.” So she decided to make one herself.

In a move that likely caused some waves inside the aerospace company, she and two others – Artur Koop, the ESM propulsion subsystem lead, and Jon Reijneveld, the deputy lead systems engineer – departed Airbus. With Sebastien Reichstat and Pierre Vinet, they founded The Exploration Company, which is developing a reusable, refuel-able orbital vehicle. Its closest analogues are SpaceX’s Dragon capsule or Boeing’s Starliner. According to Huby, there is no close European competitor – and therein lies the opportunity for a European startup to keep up on the international stage.

“The [space] exploration ecosystem is going to change dramatically in the probably next 10 to 15 years,” she said. “If you make it happen, you have a huge advantage of being one of the first in the market.”

A different model for Europe

The Exploration Company has raised around €11.5 million ($11.6 million), including a €5.3 million ($5.3 million) seed round led by Promus Ventures, with participation from Vsquared and Cherry Ventures. Its workforce has grown to around thirty people.

The startup is moving fast – it’s planning on flying a demonstrator on an Ariane 6 rocket in October – and the speed is by design. While Huby stressed that she learned everything she knows at Airbus, she ran up against what has now become almost a meme in the startup world: a desire to move fast and be risk-taking in a corporate environment that may not welcome either of those things.

“It was rational, given the nature of my project,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been the right choice to stay at Airbus because it was just not the right set-up for it to grow properly.”

While such a trend might be common in the United States, Huby added that The Exploration Company is unique in that nearly everyone in management spent the bulk of their careers in large corporations. “What you typically see in Europe is people [that] just graduated creating a company,” she explained. “I think we are the first where the majority of the co-founders are coming from a corporation.”

Bikini, then Nyx

The Exploration Company will be launching ‘Bikini,’ a reentry demonstrator of their orbital vehicle, this year — followed in 2024 by the first functional prototype. The 2024 mission is around 80% pre-booked with customer payloads, Huby said. The bookings are both letters of intent or memorandums of understanding, so no customer has yet to pay a deposit and the agreements are not binding. Huby said the company is in talks with some customers to transfer some of these agreements to signed contracts, with down payments, by October.

In 2026, the company intends to launch the maiden flight of its proper orbital vehicle, named Nyx after the Greek goddess of the night. Like the Orion spacecraft, Nyx will be composed of two components: the service module and the capsule. It will be capable of carrying up to 4,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit for a maximum six month mission. The capsule will be reusable, and the service module could also be reusable depending on the mission. The idea, Huby said, is to eventually be able to refuel the service module using propellant made in space, with space resources (often referred to as “in-space resource utilization”).

The Exploration Company is casting its net widely, so Nyx is designed to be launcher agnostic. This October, the Bikini demonstrator will fly aboard an Ariane 6 rocket out of French Guiana, while the first full-scale prototype will fly with SpaceX.

Huby pointed to Gateway, NASA’s plan to build an orbiting station around the moon, as one possible use-case. Nyx could provide last-mile delivery to the lunar surface, refuel on the Moon, and go back to Gateway. She also referred to the myriad private space station plans that have cropped up, from Orbital Reef to Stargate, that will require spacecraft capable of transporting goods and people to and from Earth.

Notably, the company was one of ten startups selected to be part of Amazon Web Services 2022 AWS Space Accelerator, and has referred to Orbital Reef as a partner. Orbital Reef is a private space station being developed by Sierra Space and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

A rendering of Nyx from The Exploration Company.

A rendering of Nyx. Source: The Exploration Company.

“I clearly see a need for more competition to basically solidify the business model of these private stations,” Huby said. “I think what is cool in what we are doing is that, on the one hand we provide Europe with independent access to what’s going to be a very big field of new activities. On the other hand, we provide the U.S. with more competition, which makes the business plan of these public-private space stations more reliable, which is in the very strong interest of NASA.”

Longer term, The Exploration Company also want to develop a human-rated version of Nyx, much like how there is a cargo and crewed SpaceX Dragon capsule. The company plans on opening a U.S. subsidiary next year, with an eye on gaining the benefits of a relationship with NASA.

“We’ve not yet built this kind of cooperation with NASA and I’ve noticed already they will be open to that,” Huby said.

The Exploration Company is developing a brand new reusable orbital spacecraft

The European space scene is about 5 to 10 years behind America’s, Hélène Huby explained in a recent interview. She’s certainly qualified to make such an assessment: Huby spent much of her career at major European aerospace company Airbus, where one of her roles was VP of the European Service Module (ESM). The ESM is the power and propulsion component of NASA’s Orion orbital vehicle, which the space agency wants to use to return humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era.

Huby left Airbus in August 2021. As she tells it, “I didn’t want to spend my life working on a vehicle that is not reusable, cannot be refueled.” So she decided to make one herself.

In a move that likely caused some waves inside the aerospace company, she and two others – Artur Koop, the ESM propulsion subsystem lead, and Jon Reijneveld, the deputy lead systems engineer – departed Airbus. With Sebastien Reichstat and Pierre Vinet, they founded The Exploration Company, which is developing a reusable, refuel-able orbital vehicle. Its closest analogues are SpaceX’s Dragon capsule or Boeing’s Starliner. According to Huby, there is no close European competitor – and therein lies the opportunity for a European startup to keep up on the international stage.

“The [space] exploration ecosystem is going to change dramatically in the probably next 10 to 15 years,” she said. “If you make it happen, you have a huge advantage of being one of the first in the market.”

A different model for Europe

The Exploration Company has raised around €11.5 million ($11.6 million), including a €5.3 million ($5.3 million) seed round led by Promus Ventures, with participation from Vsquared and Cherry Ventures. Its workforce has grown to around thirty people.

The startup is moving fast – it’s planning on flying a demonstrator on an Ariane 6 rocket in October – and the speed is by design. While Huby stressed that she learned everything she knows at Airbus, she ran up against what has now become almost a meme in the startup world: a desire to move fast and be risk-taking in a corporate environment that may not welcome either of those things.

“It was rational, given the nature of my project,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been the right choice to stay at Airbus because it was just not the right set-up for it to grow properly.”

While such a trend might be common in the United States, Huby added that The Exploration Company is unique in that nearly everyone in management spent the bulk of their careers in large corporations. “What you typically see in Europe is people [that] just graduated creating a company,” she explained. “I think we are the first where the majority of the co-founders are coming from a corporation.”

Bikini, then Nyx

The Exploration Company will be launching ‘Bikini,’ a reentry demonstrator of their orbital vehicle, this year — followed in 2024 by the first functional prototype. The 2024 mission is around 80% pre-booked with customer payloads, Huby said. The bookings are both letters of intent or memorandums of understanding, so no customer has yet to pay a deposit and the agreements are not binding. Huby said the company is in talks with some customers to transfer some of these agreements to signed contracts, with down payments, by October.

In 2026, the company intends to launch the maiden flight of its proper orbital vehicle, named Nyx after the Greek goddess of the night. Like the Orion spacecraft, Nyx will be composed of two components: the service module and the capsule. It will be capable of carrying up to 4,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit for a maximum six month mission. The capsule will be reusable, and the service module could also be reusable depending on the mission. The idea, Huby said, is to eventually be able to refuel the service module using propellant made in space, with space resources (often referred to as “in-space resource utilization”).

The Exploration Company is casting its net widely, so Nyx is designed to be launcher agnostic. This October, the Bikini demonstrator will fly aboard an Ariane 6 rocket out of French Guiana, while the first full-scale prototype will fly with SpaceX.

Huby pointed to Gateway, NASA’s plan to build an orbiting station around the moon, as one possible use-case. Nyx could provide last-mile delivery to the lunar surface, refuel on the Moon, and go back to Gateway. She also referred to the myriad private space station plans that have cropped up, from Orbital Reef to Stargate, that will require spacecraft capable of transporting goods and people to and from Earth.

Notably, the company was one of ten startups selected to be part of Amazon Web Services 2022 AWS Space Accelerator, and has referred to Orbital Reef as a partner. Orbital Reef is a private space station being developed by Sierra Space and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

A rendering of Nyx from The Exploration Company.

A rendering of Nyx. Source: The Exploration Company.

“I clearly see a need for more competition to basically solidify the business model of these private stations,” Huby said. “I think what is cool in what we are doing is that, on the one hand we provide Europe with independent access to what’s going to be a very big field of new activities. On the other hand, we provide the U.S. with more competition, which makes the business plan of these public-private space stations more reliable, which is in the very strong interest of NASA.”

Longer term, The Exploration Company also want to develop a human-rated version of Nyx, much like how there is a cargo and crewed SpaceX Dragon capsule. The company plans on opening a U.S. subsidiary next year, with an eye on gaining the benefits of a relationship with NASA.

“We’ve not yet built this kind of cooperation with NASA and I’ve noticed already they will be open to that,” Huby said.

SpaceX’s CTO of propulsion retired. Now he wants to go to Mars.

Tom Mueller is a self-described race car guy. Upon retiring from his role as CTO of Propulsion at SpaceX in November 2020, he “mostly wanted to go racing and ride dirt bikes and travel,” he said in a recent interview. Mueller, who is 61, was putting behind him a storied career: while at SpaceX, he led the development of the Merlin rocket engine, which powers the Falcon 9 rocket, and the Draco engines that power the Dragon spacecraft.

Retirement was the plan — but plans don’t always work out as intended.

As soon as he retired, Mueller, who is widely considered one of the leading experts of propulsion alive today, started sketching up a small thruster. That thruster now has a name, “Rigel,” after the blue supergiant in the constellation Orion. It’s become a cornerstone of Mueller’s new startup, Impulse Space, which he founded in September 2021. With the new venture, Mueller wants Impulse to be the go-to option for cost-effective, efficient in-space transportation.

“It was going to be just for fun and not too serious, but then some ex-SpaceX people started talking [to me] and wanted to help and all of the sudden it became real,” he said. “Now it’s full on.”

Rigel thruster Impulse Space

The Rigel thruster firing in the Mojave. Source: Impulse Space.

To Mars

“Full on” might be an understatement. Impulse has raised a notable amount of money for such a young space startup, including a $20 million seed round led by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and a subsequent $10 million investment from VC firm Lux Capital. Given Mueller’s resume, he didn’t have to search very hard – or at all – for people willing to put their cash behind his ideas.

“Somebody asked me, ‘How long after you incorporated Impulse did it take for investors to want to give you money? And I said, ‘Well actually, I incorporated Impulse because I had investors tell me they wanted to fund me,” Mueller said.

Nor has Impulse had too much trouble finding talent. The startup has now grown to around forty people, with many on the technical leadership team, such as Kevin Miller, VP of Propulsion, George Ketigian, VP of Integration, and Paul Seebacher, VP of Manufacturing, with prior experience at SpaceX. Impulse’s COO, Barry Matsumori, also had a nearly four-year stint at SpaceX, as the SVP of Sales and Business Development.

Impulse made the ambitious announcement earlier this month that it would be attempting a Mars mission with Relativity Space. The two companies, neither of which have yet to send their respective technologies to orbit, want to launch as soon as 2024. It was Relativity’s idea, Mueller said. He recounted how Zach Dunn, Relativity’s SVP of Engineering and Manufacturing and former SpaceX-er, approached Mueller about the mission. (Mueller and Dunn go way back, with Mueller hiring him for an internship at SpaceX.)

Impulse Space Mars Lander

The Mars Lander. Source: Impulse Space.

“[Dunn] goes, ‘Are you in?’ I just thought it was the coolest thing. It was kind of scary – super scary, super hard, but I think we’re the right guys to do it. I actually feel better if I’m kind of scared.”

The agreement between Impulse and Relativity is through 2029. If they don’t make the 2024 launch date, they’ll have another opportunity when the stars (literally) next align, in 2026. Relativity will be providing the launch vehicle, its heavy-lift Terran R rocket, while Impulse will be building a Mars cruise vehicle spacecraft, entry capsule, and lander.

If all goes to plan, the Mars mission will not be Impulse’s first mission. The company wants to fly an orbital transport vehicle late next year, and is at work in the meantime running tests on the Rigel engine, making and testing valves, the avionics suite, and more. And while Mars will likely be the most challenging mission on Impulse’s docket, Mueller has shown he is not the type to be cowed by a challenge.

A noble goal

Much of Mueller’s vision for Impulse is premised on launch becoming extremely low-cost, and as a result, there being a lot of payloads in space that need to be moved around. He likened fully reusable heavy-lift rockets like Starship, Terran R and Rocket Lab’s Neutron to the internet in the early ‘90s. “People don’t know really what it’s going to do or what it’s all about or what the real killer apps are,” he said.

Terran R will have a 20,000-kilogram payload capacity and Neutron will be capable of sending 13,000-kilograms to orbit. If SpaceX can pull it off, each Starship launch will be able to carry a staggering 100-150 tons. The possibilities that could arise from such a paradigm-shift in launch are hard to even conceive.

“I think that we’re going be surprised how much is going to change in space to be able to put so much cargo up at so low cost,” Mueller added.

Relativity CEO Tim Ellis and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have each separately talked about a vision for the future of humanity as one that is multi-planetary – in numerous public statements, Musk has summed up his mission as one to “extend the light of consciousness” in the cosmos – and Mueller is clearly on-board to go to the Red Planet. But he said he’s also motivated by things slightly closer to home.

He pointed to the Moon and the potential for a lunar and cis-lunar economy to help offload the resources of Earth. There are many valuable elements present on and below the Moon’s surface, as well as water and ice. Myriad startups, as well as the world’s major space agencies, have started eyeing up way to exploit those resources.  Mueller said he wanted to help build a future where heavy industry and power generation, two sectors that are notable for their carbon emissions, can move into space.

“That’s like my noble goal,” he said. “It may not happen in my lifetime, but I think helping establish a low-cost reliable transportation network in space can help get it started.”

Eutelsat and OneWeb agree merger to create European satellite juggernaut

Two major players in the European satellite space are merging in a $3.4 billion all-share transaction, a move that is widely seen as a challenge to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Rumors emerged earlier this week that France’s Eutelsat was gearing up to buy its British rival OneWeb, and the duo have now confirmed these plans.

Founded in 1977, Eutelsat is a long-established provider of satellite services for myriad industries, from broadcast television and aviation, to IoT and telecom. The Paris-based company, whose biggest shareholder is French state-owned investment bank Bpifrance, says it currently has 36 GEO (geostationary orbit) satellites in operation.

OneWeb, meanwhile, is a newer entrant to the space, focused on low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for delivering internet services. Although OneWeb is ten years old, it only launched its first tranche of satellites into orbit in 2019, and a year later the London-based company filed for bankruptcy having raised $3 billion from a slew of investors including SoftBank, Qualcomm, and Virgin. Later in 2020, OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy with backing from the U.K. government and India’s Bharti Global, with Eutelsat later buying a 24% stake in the company.

Crowded space

A number of notable players are battling it out in the burgeoning satellite space race, including Amazon via its Kuiper project which is expected to begin launching satellites later this year; and more notably Elon Musk-led SpaceX, which has been launching satellites at a rate of knots — the company now has more than 2,500 satellites in orbit, and completed its 33rd launch of the year on Sunday, sending a further 53 into space.

Moreover, SpaceX is already selling its Starlink-branded broadband service directly to consumers in several markets around the world.

OneWeb, for its part, currently has 428 LEO satellites in orbit, and it has been ramping up its commercial agreements, including a deal with AT&T to deliver high-speed broadband to remote locations in the U.S. And this highlights one of the key differences between SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb — the former seems to be targeting consumers directly, whereas OneWeb is pursuing a B2B approach.

Following its merger with Eutelsat, the duo are planning to double down on their existing partnership which includes a global distribution agreement they entered into back in March. And today, the two companies revealed that they have signed a new commercial partnership that addresses the “European and global cruise markets.”

Ultimately, Eutelsat and OneWeb are touting the complementary nature of their respective products as the big opportunity here: Eutelsat’s GEO satellites, which are higher altitude and thus higher latency, are better suited for things like weather forecasts and TV broadcasts. And OneWeb’s constellation of lower-altitude satellites are better for critical communications that require low-latency data transfers. Combined, the companies argue that they will be better positioned to target a broader array of use-cases across the B2B and B2C spheres.

The companies’ joint press release issued today reads:

The operations of Eutelsat and OneWeb are highly complementary. A clear roadmap has been designed to develop over time a complementary GEO/LEO service including a common platform, hybrid terminals and a fully mutualized network creating a one-stop shop solution for customers, providing them with a unique offering and a seamless user experience.

What’s also notable about this deal is that it sees both the French and U.K. governments formally coming together as joint shareholders in the new combined entity, though it’s not clear how much stakes they will each retain in the new company, or whether they will have seats on the board.

The proposal notes that the transaction will see OneWeb shares exchanged with new shares issued by Eutelsat, with Eutelsat owning 100% of OneWeb when the deal closes — with the exception of what is referred to as the “special share” that the U.K. government will retain in OneWeb.

OneWeb will continue to trade under its existing brand and remain headquartered in the U.K., while Eutelsat will still operate from its HQ in France and remain listed on the Euronext stock exchange in Paris. Under the proposals, current Eutelsat CEO Eva Berneke would stay as CEO of the new combined company, while chairman Dominique D’Hinnin will also continue as head of the board. It’s not clear what role — if any — OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson would have at the new company.

The transaction, if greenlighted by the usual regulatory bodies, is expected to close by the end of the first half of 2023 — so this potentially has another year or so until completion.