Europe’s largest satellite maker, Thales Alenia Space, has agreed to partly fund Seattle-based digital imaging company BlackSky’s planned satellite constellation and to form a joint venture that will manufacture the satellites in Seattle.

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Seattle-based digital imaging company BlackSky has won the backing of Europe’s largest satellite maker, Thales Alenia Space, and expects to open a satellite manufacturing facility in the Seattle area with 30 to 35 initial employees, company co-founder Jason Andrews said Friday.

Thales Alenia, owned by Thales of France and Leonardo of Italy, has formed a joint venture with BlackSky and agreed to partially fund its planned constellation of 60 small imaging satellites that will circle the globe to provide on-demand, high-resolution images of the Earth.

Andrews, chief executive of BlackSky’s parent company, Spaceflight Industries, spoke by phone from Paris, where the agreement was signed Friday.

He said that after three previous rounds of venture capital financing raised $53 million for BlackSky, the Thales Alenia deal provides “sufficient capital to deploy spacecraft, and the revenue from those will result in a full build-out of the constellation.”

Thales Alenia will get a small minority interest in BlackSky. The financial details were not disclosed.

Jean-Loic Galle, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said in a statement that the deal furthers the company’s goal to become a major manufacturer of small observation satellite constellations both in Europe and the United States.

Competition in space

BlackSky has so far built just two satellites, one launched a year ago to test the technology. The company is currently building four more second-generation satellites.

Andrews said the European backing will allow BlackSky to move into mass production, creating a facility to build the rest of the small, high-performance satellites that will complete the constellation.

“Thales is the world’s largest producer of high-performance satellites,” said Andrews. “We are tapping their manufacturing know-how, and they are tapping our design innovation.”

In the short term, he said, the satellite manufacturing will remain located at Spaceflight Industries’ two existing facilities in Tukwila and South Lake Union.

The deal also includes the backing of Telespazio, a separate joint venture of Thales and Leonardo that provides analysis and marketing services for geospatial imaging data. This element will give BlackSky access to the European customers who use Thales Alenia Space satellites, Andrews said.

Despite burgeoning competition in the geospatial imaging market from other satellite-based companies, Andrews said the new investment secures BlackSky’s future.

“We’ll be here for a long while and will revolutionize how we see the planet,” Andrews said.

A recent indicator of the expanding satellite imaging market was provided by the plethora of satellite images of damage from Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

As the market grows, BlackSky’s biggest competitors have been consolidating.

In the biggest deal to date, MDA, a Vancouver, B.C.-based satellite information company, is moving its base to San Francisco and is expected to soon close its $2.4 billion acquisition of Colorado-based satellite imaging company DigitalGlobe.

In December, San Francisco-based Planet announced plans to open an office in Bellevue, and in April the company bought Google’s imaging satellite business Terra Bella for an estimated $500 million.

Adam Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington, said the steady miniaturization of electronics and computer technology now allows “a sophisticated satellite the size of a Coca-Cola can.”

“Because the cost is much lower to launch such satellites, a lot of players have gotten in the game,” he said, making the market “extremely competitive.”

“Earth imaging is a big business. BlackSky is relatively small,” said Bruckner. “They need the money to do this. An alliance with Thales makes sense.”

“It’s good to have competition,” he added. “It’s a matter of who will dominate the market. Let’s see what happens.”