July 18, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

K2 Space plans first launch as company wins customers for its large satellite bus

WASHINGTON – K2 Space, a two-year-old startup developing large spacecraft buses, will launch its first satellite this year as it attracts interest from government and commercial customers.

In an interview, Karan and Neel Kunjur, co-founders of K2 Space, said their first spacecraft is scheduled to launch on SpaceX's Transporter-12 rideshare mission, scheduled for October.

The spacecraft will be a technology demonstration mission for many of the components the company has developed in-house for its Mega Class space bus. “The objective of the mission is to basically reduce a significant amount of the technical risk of the satellite,” said Karan Kunjur, executive director.

That includes components like reaction wheels and computers, as well as flight software. Many of those components were built at K2 Space because there was no adequate supply chain for a spacecraft bus like the Mega Class, designed to accommodate payloads of up to 1,000 kilograms and produce 20 kilowatts of power.

“We have to build that supply chain from scratch for a satellite of our class, in terms of power and size,” said Neel Kunjur, chief technology officer and Karan's brother. “It's absolutely critical to get that hardware into space early in our company's trajectory.”

The company is focused on larger, but potentially less expensive, satellites that take advantage of low-cost launch options like the Falcon 9. Ten Mega Class spacecraft can be launched on a single Falcon 9 or equivalent vehicle.

“We saw an opportunity to offer the price and speed of constellation-class small satellites, without sacrificing capacity,” Karan said. “You have to go in the opposite direction of the market and grow, and that's what we've done.”

K2 Space is attracting interest from businesses and government agencies in that larger satellite bus. The company was selected for a $3.8 million Tactical Funding Increase, or TACFI, award from the Space Development Agency's Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power program executive office and Space System Command. Under the award, K2 Space will fly several Department of Defense payloads on the first Mega Class spacecraft.

“When we started this, we saw a true dual-use technology here,” Karan said. He noted that different elements of the Space Force are interested in the satellite bus for various reasons: some like the high power, while others like the bus's ability to operate in different orbits and be multi-manifested.

The company will work with the Space Force to identify payloads that will fly on the mission. “Because we have so much power and payload mass on the satellite bus, it is quite easy to accept multiple, as well as types of payloads that don't fit on other conventional small satellites,” Neel said. The company may combine commercial payloads with Department of Defense payloads on that initial mission.

K2 Space has an independent cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA, with the Air Force Research Laboratory. Under that agreement, the company will collaborate with the lab on cybersecurity issues such as “cyberhardening” and encryption.

The company signed its first commercial contract with an undisclosed client that Karan described only as a “large telecom operator.” The contract would study the development of a next-generation satellite constellation using K2 Space's bus.

“One of the ways they were really excited about this is that we showed them what was possible when you relax the power limitations that have plagued previous constellation plans,” he said. “Connecting us, with a bus that has 20 kilowatts of power at $15 million per satellite, helped basically close the business case for constellations like this.”

He declined to provide details about this system, including the number of satellites or their orbits. However, he said K2 Space has seen a lot of general interest in using its satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO). “Some people have told us that we have indeed built the best bus for MEO,” he said, based on its high power, low cost and radiation protection.

K2 Space Hall Effect Thruster
K2 Space recently tested a high-power Hall effect thruster intended for its Mega Class satellites. Credit: K2 Space

While K2 Space is preparing to conduct in-space testing of some key technologies, others are still in development. They include a Hall-effect thruster that uses krypton propellant that the company recently fired in the lab for the first time.

The thruster will use up to 20 kilowatts of power, or approximately four times more than any Hall effect thruster used to date. Neel said the company designed the booster to make the most of the power the Mega Class bus will generate, an approach he said was simpler than trying to bundle together several smaller boosters.

“That just becomes an integration or cost challenge and generally doesn't fit very well on a satellite that's trying to maximize performance,” he said of the booster grouping. The thruster that K2 Space has developed, she added, can operate at power levels as low as two kilowatts for station holding and other maneuvers that require less energy.

The large booster would also fit into K2 Space's long-term plans for larger spacecraft. “A 20 kilowatt satellite is the lowest power satellite we ever want,” he said. “Everything we're investing now is directly toward that future.”

K2 Space, which raised $50 million in February, now has 50 people, with plans to grow to 90 employees by the end of the year and 130 by this time next year. The company signed a lease for a 180,000-square-foot mass production facility in Torrance, California, 12 times the size of its current facility, also in Torrance.

“Customers ask us how many we can produce in 2026, so we need to increase mass production,” Karan said. The company plans to move into the facility in the fourth quarter of this year and begin ramping up production there in the third quarter of next year. The goal is to produce 50 satellites a year there.

The company also continues to plan even larger satellites in the future, particularly a Giga Class optimized for Starship. “When we see repeatability, when we see the Starlink stacks being filled,” he said of Starship, “we will start the timeline for the larger satellite.”

When Starship is flying and K2 Space begins work on the Giga Class satellite, Karan said he expects continued demand for the Mega Class, which could launch 50 at a time on Starship. “The Mega Class satellite will effectively be the small satellite of a post-Starship era.”

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