Basalt plans to hack into a defunct satellite to install the space-specific operating system

Starting up the space Basalt technologies started in a shed behind a dentist's office in Los Angeles, but things have quickly escalated: soon it will try to hack into an abandoned satellite and install its space-specific operating system.

The startup's co-founder Alex Choi lived in the shed after he was suddenly evicted from his MIT dorm room due to the coronavirus pandemic. He was busy building the university's first custom satellite bus, and continued that work in LA. Since almost everyone else on the project had quit, Choi started hiring. Ultimately, he brought in physicist and engineer Maximillian Bhatti, who had lost his job in optical physics at the California Institute of Technology for the same reason.

“I have my parents drive me to this dilapidated barn,” Bhatti said in a recent interview. “This nerd opens the door. And in this shed there are tens of thousands of dollars worth of space equipment, because we're building a satellite here. So that was the beginning of the next six months of our lives.”

The two eventually parted ways — Choi to the University of Toronto, Bhatti to The Aerospace Corporation and then SpaceX — before reuniting in October 2023 to form Basalt.

“We looked around the industry and realized: the kind of problems we saw at MIT, where the hardware is really good, and it's death by a thousand paper cuts on the software side… that's not just MIT,” Bhatti said .

Those thousand paper savings are an allusion to the problems of older hardware and software in space missions. The status quo, which goes all the way back to the Apollo era, Bhatti said, is to design custom software to maximize the full hardware utility of individual components in the spacecraft. This way of working makes sense for one-off, ultra-ambitious missions like Mars rovers, but the space industry is quickly shifting to entire constellations of spacecraft, launching and repeating faster than ever before. It no longer makes sense to write custom software based on permissions.

Two other things have changed: First, ground computing is an order of magnitude cheaper than it was a decade or two ago. Second, aerospace hardware and components have become commoditized. Yet the software is still highly customized and manual. That's why Choi and Bhatti are betting this will be the next big unlock in space.

“Right now we build space missions into the hardware, and then all the software and operations and things like that are customized based on that hardware. It is a consequence of it. So what Basalt is doing is trying to change that paradigm,” Bhatti said.

This is done by building an operating system for satellite operators called Dispatch: a simulation-based operating system that allows software to be portable across different hardware, just as you can run Windows on a laptop built by ASUS or Dell. Bhatti also compared it to Anduril's Lattice, which enables software-defined control of various vehicles.

Shipping operating system. Image credit: Basalt

Dispatch will be able to perform autonomous spacecraft tasks, allowing operators to coordinate satellites from different fleets and quickly enable retasking of existing assets in orbit for national security missions. For example, using Dispatch, a national security customer can reassign any nearby satellite running the operating system to perform non-terrestrial imaging in the event of a space security crisis, or to perform terrestrial imaging in the event of a ground situation.

It could enable a level of operational flexibility never before seen in mission operations. Basalt could allow users to reuse spacecraft or allow unrelated spacecraft to work together in orbit.

It is indeed a paradigm shift, Choi reiterated: “We are now at a very interesting inflection point where this hardware-defined industry, which was once space, is turning into a software-defined industry,” he said. “So instead of building constellations, what if you could assign constellations? [What if] Can you merge existing assets next to new assets and use them dynamically?”

To scale their product and achieve flight legacy this summer, the startup closed a $3.5 million seed round led by Initialized Capital, with contributions from Y Combinator, Liquid2, General Catalyst, and other unnamed VCs. This summer, Basalt will attempt to hack into a defunct satellite in orbit, restore it and fly it around to prove the technology.

From there, the company also wants to expand its three-person team and generate its first revenues. Basalt is currently in discussions with ten missions, including spacecraft in development and hardware already in orbit.

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