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Space Truckin’: Thanks To D-Orbit, It’s Not Just A Great Old Deep Purple Song Anymore

If you need to move a lot of things around here on earth, there are countless ways to make that happen. Trucks, railcars, airplanes, and container ships (just watch out for the banks of the Suez Canal!)—there’s a good option regardless what you’re moving and where. “On earth, we take logistics for granted,” said Luca Rossettini, founder and CEO of D-Orbit.

The distinction that’s important for Rossettini’s company is that doing the same in space is far more difficult. “Here’s what we do: we created the first space logistics company,” he explained. “Without us, it will be difficult for the space economy to continue growing.”

Headquartered on the shores of stunning Lake Como near Milan, Italy, D-Orbit is a private new space company that’s raised a total of about $26 million in funding, the latest via a venture debt financing round with the European Investment Bank (EIB) that raised about $18 million last August. The company was founded in 2011 and has 115 employees.

“Think about shipping and travel, and then imagine inventing how they happen on your own,” said Rossettini. “That’s what we’ve done for satellite delivery. With the old method, even if you managed to get a satellite into space, you could only go to a very specific location. And it would take at least six months. We’ve solved that: we get you into space, where you want to go, in a short time.”

D-Orbit’s invention is their “cargo space truck,” the ION Satellite Carrier. It’s loaded with small satellites that the company puts into orbit for its customers. D-Orbit contracts out the launch of its loaded vehicle, most recently to SpaceX on the Falcon 9 rocket it launched this past January, which carried the company’s PULSE mission on its way to launch 20 satellites. “Once we’re in orbit, we switch on our engine and go deliver the satellites,” Rossettini said. “After we deliver our cargo, we still have a very good asset in space. We can deliver other kinds of services with that. We could, for example, warehouse satellites and deploy them later, while carrying data centers to provide space cloud edge computing to other satellite operators. In the future, we will also be able to reposition or remove existing satellites.”

Having been around a decade now, D-Orbit has lived through some of the challenges of being one of the first private space companies, and part of its mission is to help others based on its experiences. “The space economy is still very young,” Rossettini said. “Most of the companies were started in the last five years. They can get partial investment to develop, but it’s hard to do proof-of-concept. We allocate one or two slots for young companies so they can do proof-of-concept, generate jobs, and get additional investment.”In addition to its satellite delivery service, D-Orbit sees other big opportunities on the horizon. “NASA is planning for a base on the moon and a mission to Mars,” Rossettini explained. “They’ll need infrastructure to support those missions. Another important market is to go to the next level and manufacture in space. It seems like science fiction today, but what we’re doing now seemed like sci-fi ten years ago.”

Mission support is another area of opportunity. “When we started, no one would invest,” said Rossettini. “So at the beginning, we decided that whatever we do today, we’ll sell to support others tomorrow. We can manufacture satellites for our customers. And we can offer our Aurora software, our cloud-based mission control suite that can control a single satellite, or a constellation of satellites—hundreds or even thousands of satellites, plus it can control ground operations. We developed it for ourselves, but our customers began asking for it, so now we license it.” D-Orbit also sees an eventual need for services to deal with space debris and pollution. “You used to have to destroy space junk to remove it. Now we’re working to remove it with our systems.”

Part of the company’s challenge will be keeping up with a volatile marketplace. “The space market is changing,” Rossettini said. “It’s not driven by very large satellites and government spending so much anymore—90% of our revenue is private. Most of the market now is not for space exploration, but for services. 80% of the technology we all use now relies on space. We see our future as a society expanding into space more and more, so there will be an ever-greater need for space logistics and management.”

D-Orbit certainly isn’t slowing down. While the PULSE mission is still ongoing (currently performing in-orbit demonstration of customers’ payloads, after the successful execution of orbital maneuvers and subsequent release of customers’ satellites in the past months), just last week the company announced its next mission, WILD RIDE, which will launch later this month with six satellites and three payloads from eleven different nations. The mission will also feature a SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) experiment, and will bring the total number of payloads launched by the company to 54.

For Rossettini, it’s about more than just the space business, however. “We’re the first space company to achieve B Corporation certification,” he said. “I strongly believe companies should satisfy their shareholders, but serve the entire community too. We’re way more resilient in the marketplace that way.”

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