Aussie startup Spiral Blue launches computers into space aboard Richard Branson’s maiden Virgin Orbit mission

A still from the livestream of the Satellite Payload Bay in flight. Source: Virgin Orbit.

Aussie space-tech startup Spiral Blue has successfully launched two of its image processing computers into orbit aboard the maiden flight of Richard Branson’s satellite taxi service.

The first prototypes of Spiral Blue’s Space Edge Zero (SEZ) computers were shot into orbit from California in a so-called ‘ride-share mission’.

The computers are hosted on two small-scale satellites produced by Polish manufacturer SatRevolution, which were on board Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.

Entitled Tubular Bells, Part One, the mission marked the first commercial flight of Richard Branson’s satellite launch service.

The seven payloads also included satellites developed by the US Department of Defence and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

The launch means the Spiral Blue team can start end-to-end testing of the tech, which is designed to allow for in-space processing of satellite imagery.

Currently, raw data from satellites is downloaded and processed on earth, into a format readable to non-technical decision makers.

The SEZ units process the data in space and deliver pre-processed information, improving efficiency of satellites and making earth-observation data more affordable and accessible.

This kind of observation has the potential to help us understand and manage anything from climate change and deforestation to pollution and natural disasters, Spiral Blue chief executive Taofiq Huq tells SmartCompany.

“But Earth observation satellites today can only return a very small fraction of all the data that they can collect due to limitations in bandwidth,” he adds.

“This makes Earth observation data expensive and difficult to access, limiting it to developed nations and large corporations.”

Spiral Blue’s tech will “help democratise Earth observation, making it available to even everyone, even subsistence farmers in my native Bangladesh”.

The news follows the announcement this week that Aussie space-tech startup Gilmour Space has secured $61 million in funding.

According to an ACMA market study, the Australian space sector generated some $5.9 billion in 2020. That’s predicted to increase to $12 billion per year by 2030, largely due to a maturing of the local tech players and increased venture capital investment.

Following the successful launch, Huq and the Spiral Blue team will be awaiting contact with the satellites, to confirm they are “alive and well up there”, the founder explains.

Once that’s confirmed, they can start working with other Australian space companies, helping bolster the industry further.

“Australian companies will gain access to satellite infrastructure on our Space Edge Computers, helping them prove out their own Earth observation applications affordably, as they can now run their code on our service,” Huq says.

Founded in 2018 and based in Sydney, Spiral Blue is a graduate of the Catalysr accelerator program for migrants and refugees.

The startup was awarded a Moon to Mars Supply Chain Capability Improvement grant in March 2021, securing $416,250 to continue building out its software infrastructure.

It is also working on a contract with the Defence Innovation Hub to develop a system using AI for processing satellite images to detect vessels in large areas of the ocean.

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