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The 10 most innovative space companies of 2021

Why SpaceX, LeoLabs, and GHGSat top our 2021 list of the biggest innovators in the space industry

The 10 most innovative space companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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While things on Earth weren’t so great, the conquest of space proceeded full speed ahead this year, led by SpaceX, which sent its first manned vessel to the International Space Station and added nearly 1,000 satellites to its Starlink constellation. Its commercial launch business could face increasing competition from up-and-comers Rocket Lab and Relativity Space. Rounding out our list are companies that identify and clean up space junk, and that offer an orbital view of wide range of human activity.

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1. SpaceX

For flying past competitors in the space race

In May, SpaceX became the first private company to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, the first crew to launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade. Its Crew Dragon spacecraft carried a second crew of four astronauts to the ISS in November, with a third crew mission planned for 2021. In 2020, the company hit the 100-launch milestone for its Falcon 9 cargo rockets, and added nearly 1,000 satellites to its Starlink constellation—and the Falcon 9 that delivered its last 60 satellites was on its seventh trip, a milestone in reusable rocketry.

[Illustration: Jason Solo]

2. LeoLabs

For spotting space junk

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Cofounded by a former NASA astronaut, LeoLabs uses proprietary radars to track objects in Lower Earth Orbit, the area 62 to 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface where some 2,000 active satellites operate—up from 400 just a few years ago (and with 50,000 more planned for launch in the next few years). In 2020, the company introduced its Collision Avoidance Service, a subscription that alerts customers when their satellites are on course for a crash. SpaceX has signed on its Starlink sats for tracking, and LeoLabs also works with regulators, insurers, and the Department of Defense to “make sure there are no surprises in space,” says CEO Dan Ceperley. In 2021, the company will onboard two more radars, which will give the company the ability to track more than 250,000 pieces of debris, down to the size of a nut and bolt.

3. GHGSat

For monitoring methane leaks from space

Montreal-based startup GHGSat uses its own satellites to measure greenhouse gases from outer space, using spectroscopic sensing to detect even small leaks from oil and gas and other industrial emitters anywhere on Earth. In September, they successfully launched their second satellite, which has sensors that can detect methane emissions 100 times smaller than any other technology. Last March, GHGSat’s Risk Index, which predicts oil and methane leaks, was incorporated into Bloomberg terminals.

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4. Orbital Insight

For bringing space-based transparency to industrial supply chains

Palo Alto-based geospatial analytics company Orbital Insight meshes cell phone geolocation with images obtained from satellites, drones, and balloons to give businesses a god’s-eye view of a range of human activity. That power can be used for good: In 2020, it scaled up a partnership with Unilever to monitor its sustainable palm-oil supply chain in Southeast Asia, using cellphone data from delivery trucks to track how raw materials get from farm to refinery, to make sure suppliers are not contributing to deforestation of virgin rainforest for new plantations.

5. Slingshot Aerospace

For simulating space

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Slingshot Aerospace specializes in “situational intelligence,” helping companies in aerospace and defense rapidly make sense of reams of data collected by radar and other observation technology aboard satellites, airplanes, and drones. The company works with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, and in October was contracted by the U.S. Space Force to create a VR space simulator to for training. Called the Slingshot Orbital Laboratory, the simulator was made in partnership with VFX studio Third Floor, the special effects studio that’s worked on projects including Gravity, The Martian, and The Mandalorian. In June, Slingshot launched a customized version of their earth mapping tool to help people in the Los Angeles area locate free or low-cost food during the pandemic.

6. Rocket Lab

For scaling small-load launch services

Since its first test flight in 2017, Rocket Lab has launched 96 small satellites into space aboard its Electron rockets. In 2020, the launch provider started offering a comprehensive commercial service that designs, builds, launches, and operates satellites as a bundled service. It launched its first in-house satellite in August. In 2021 NASA’s Capstone project will use Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket and its photon satellite launch platform to send up a lunar orbiter, which will test and verify the stability of the moon for the Lunar Gateway space station.

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7. Planet

For aiding Human Rights Watch with its worldwide, high-res satellite images

With 130-plus mini satellites in orbit, Planet can deliver customers daily high-resolution images of any location on Earth. In 2020, it launched two news service: Rapid Revisit, which provides 50-centimeter-resolution satellite imagery updated between seven and 12 times per day, and Automated Change Detection. The company says bookings doubled this year, as customers made more remote check-ins of locations they would have visited in-person pre-pandemic. In December, Human Rights Watch used Planet imagery to monitor illegal rocket and missile fire by Armenian forces against Azerbaijan.

8. Relativity Space

For getting 3D-printed rocketry off the ground

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In November, small-launch vehicle startup Relativity Space raised $500 million in one of the largest investments ever in a private space company, valuing it at over $2 billion. The money will go toward scaling up production of its 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket. In 2020, the company reported successful pressure tests of its 3D-printed fuel tanks and a test firing of its Aeon 1 rocket engine. In June, it signed a contract with Iridium for up to six launches of the company’s communications satellites. Its first rocket launch is planned for the end of 2021.

9. Capella Space

For seeing clearly through the clouds

In August 2020, San Francisco-based startup Capella Space launched the first of a planned constellation of SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellites, becoming the only U.S. commercial provider of SAR imaging. SAR can render clear images of earth night or day, through fog, clouds, or smoke. In December, the company began offering “Spot” imaging mode, with 50 cm x 50 cm resolution—orders of magnitude sharper than any other commercial SAR imagery. Capella has contracts with the National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Air Force, and plans to launch six more satellites this year. Its Capella Console on-demand satellite data service lets anyone with internet access acquire data already captured by the Capella-2, or submit a request for new observations.

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10. Astroscale

For cleaning up space and spiffing up satellites

Japanese startup Astroscale’s first test of its system for removing defunct satellites and other space debris from orbit is set for launch on a Soyuz rocket in March 2021. In September, the company was tapped for a UK Space Agency-funded project, with partners including Fujitsu and Amazon Web Services, to work on optimizing trajectory planning for multi-object removal missions. Astroscale raised $51 million in a Series E in October, for total funding of $191 million, with the acquisition of satellite-servicing company Effective Space by its U.S. arm in June. The company is also moving into the related business of satellite life extension services.