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Space startup Astra signs first commercial launch contract, boosts rocket capacity

SEATTLE, May 19 (Reuters) - Billionaire-backed space transport startup Astra, which aims to go public before July in a $2.1 billion blank-check deal, has signed its first commercial launch contract with private imaging firm Planet, its chief executive told Reuters.

The Alameda, California-based company also said it would be able to lift satellites weighing up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) to low-Earth orbit before 2025, a tenfold leap in capacity from its current designs, aimed at winning business from forthcoming broadband mega-constellations like Amazon.com Inc’s Project Kuiper.

It was not immediately clear how the company’s rocket designs were changing to increase payload capacity.

An announcement on the commercial contract and the rocket’s payload abilities was expected later on Wednesday.

“We are committed to launching from anywhere on earth to anywhere in space, whenever our customers need us,” Astra CEO Chris Kemp told Reuters ahead of the announcement.

Kemp declined to disclose the value of the multiple-launch deal with Planet, but said Astra, which also has at least one government launch contract, has secured launch services revenue of roughly $150 million so far. Astra’s first Planet launch could happen as soon as next year.

Founded in 2016 in a garage, Astra inaugurated a headquarters and rocket factory near San Francisco in 2019, and has roughly 175 employees, Kemp said. It aims to begin launching rockets monthly next summer, though its rocket failed to reach orbit during a test flight from Alaska last year.

Its backers, including billionaire cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, hope a low-cost model and eye-catching launch cadence - with Astra rockets blasting off weekly or even daily from its portable launch pad - will set it apart from a crowded field of small-rocket startups.

Such companies hope to cash in on the growing number of compact satellites needing a ride to orbit in coming years. Those payloads, in the range of hundreds of kilograms, are far smaller than traditional commercial, scientific or military satellites, which can weigh tens of thousands of kilograms.

The trend is fueled by venture cash and technology leaps that have boosted the capabilities of scaled-down satellites for everything from broadband services to national security to climate studies.

The buzz of activity has touched off a frenzy of capital infusions and blank-check deal-making.

Astra is going public at a valuation of $2.1 billion through a deal expected to close before July with special-purpose acquisition company Holicity Inc, backed by McCaw and Gates.

The transaction includes a $200 million private investment led by funds and accounts managed by BlackRock Inc.

Small rocket maker Rocket Lab, which has already launched 97 satellites for government and commercial use, also announced a deal in March with a SPAC to go public at a roughly $4.1 billion valuation including debt.

Venture-backed Planet, founded by former NASA scientists, also joins a sprawling field of small-satellite makers that broadly includes SpaceX’s Starlink, Britain’s OneWeb, and Raytheon Technologies Corp’s Blue Canyon Technologies.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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