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Basalt plans to hack into a defunct satellite and install its own space-specific operating system

Space startup Basalt Technologies started out in a shed behind a dentist’s office in Los Angeles, but things quickly escalated: Soon it would be trying to hack into an abandoned satellite and install its own space-specific operating system.

The startup’s co-founder, Alex Choi, lived in the shack after he was abruptly evicted from his MIT dorm due to the coronavirus pandemic. Choi had been busy building the university’s first custom satellite bus and continued that work in Los Angeles. With nearly everyone else on the project quitting, Choi began hiring. He eventually hired physicist and engineer Maximillian Bhatti, who had lost his optical physics job at Caltech for the same reason.

“I had my parents drive me to this old, run-down shed,” Batty recalled in a recent interview. “This nerdy guy opened the door. And then there were tens of thousands of dollars of aerospace-grade equipment in this shed because we were building a satellite here. So that launched the next six months of our lives.”

The two eventually parted ways — Choi went to the University of Toronto and Batty joined the Aerospace Corporation and then SpaceX — before reuniting in October 2023 to found Basalt.

“We looked around the industry and we realized: The problem we saw at MIT, where the hardware was really good but the software was dying from cookie-cutter paper cuts… this wasn’t just an MIT problem,” Baty said.

Those thousands of paper cutouts hint at the difficulties of legacy hardware and software in space missions. Batty said the status quo dates back to the Apollo era, when custom software was designed to maximize the full hardware utility of individual components on a spacecraft. This way of operating made sense for one-off, extremely ambitious missions like the Mars rover, but the space industry is rapidly moving to entire constellations of spacecraft, launching and iterating faster than ever before. It no longer makes sense to write custom software for each mission.

Two other things have changed: First, ground-based computing is an order of magnitude cheaper than it was ten or twenty years ago. Second, space hardware and components have become commoditized. Software, however, remains highly customized and manual—which is why Choi and Bhatti think it will be the next big breakthrough in space.

“Right now, we build space missions into hardware, and then all the software and operations and so on are customized to that hardware. That’s the result of it. So what Basalt is doing is trying to change that paradigm,” Baty said.

The company is doing this by building an operating system for satellite operators called Dispatch: an analog-based control system that makes software portable between different hardware, just like you can run Windows on a laptop made by Asus or Dell. Bhatti also likens it to Anduril’s Lattice, which enables software-defined control of different vehicles.

Dispatch OS. Image source: Basalt

Dispatch will be able to autonomously perform spacecraft missions, enabling operators to coordinate satellites from different constellations and quickly re-task existing on-orbit assets to perform national security missions. For example, using Dispatch, national security customers can re-task any nearby satellite running an operational system for non-Earth imaging in the event of a space security crisis, or for Earth imaging in the event of a terrestrial situation.

It enables unprecedented operational flexibility in mission operations. Basalt can allow users to reuse orbital assets or allow unrelated spacecraft to work together in orbit.

Choi agrees that this is indeed a paradigm shift: “We are at a very interesting inflection point now where this industry (the space industry) that was defined by hardware is transforming into an industry that is defined by software,” he said. “So, what if you could distribute constellations, instead of building constellations? [What if] Can you bring legacy assets and new assets together and use them dynamically?”

To scale its product and achieve a flight record this summer, the startup has raised a $3.5 million seed round led by Initialized Capital, with participation from Y Combinator, Liquid2, General Catalyst, and other unnamed VCs. This summer, Basalt will attempt to hack, recover, and orbit a defunct satellite to demonstrate the technology.

From there, the company also hopes to build a three-person team and earn its first revenue. Basalt is currently in negotiations with ten missions, which include spacecraft under development as well as hardware already in orbit.

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