Basalt plans to 'hack' a defunct satellite to install its space-specific OS

Space startup Basalt Technologies started in a shed behind a Los Angeles dentist's office, but things have escalated quickly: Soon it will try to “hack” a derelict satellite and install its space-specific OS. (With the owner’s permission, of course).

The startup’s co-founder, Alex Choi, found himself living in said shed after suddenly getting kicked out of his MIT dorm due to the coronavirus pandemic. He had been in the thick of building the university’s first custom satellite bus, and was continuing that work in LA. Because almost everyone else on the project had quit, Choi was hiring. He ended up bringing on physicist and engineer Maximillian Bhatti, who had, for the same reason, lost his optical physics job at the California Institute of Technology.

“I get my parents to drive me to this dilapidated shed,” Bhatti recounted in a recent interview. “This nerd opens the door. And then inside this shed are tens of thousands of dollars of space-grade equipment, because we're building a satellite here. So that kind of kicked off 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 coming back together in October of 2023 to found Basalt.

“We looked around the industry, and we realized: The kind of issues that 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 cuts are an allusion to the difficulties of legacy 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 on the spacecraft. This way of operating makes sense for one-off, ultra ambitious missions like Mars rovers, but the space industry is rapidly shifting toward entire constellations of spacecraft, launched and iterated on faster than ever before. It no longer makes sense to write custom software on a per-mission basis.

Two other things have changed: First, compute on the ground is an order of magnitude cheaper than a decade or two ago. Second, space hardware and components have become commoditized. Yet software has stayed highly custom and manual — which is why Choi and Bhatti are betting it 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 stuff is custom from that hardware. It's a consequence of it. So what Basalt is doing is trying to shift that paradigm,” Bhatti said.

It’s doing so by building an operating system for satellite operators called Dispatch: a simulation-based control system that enables software to be portable across different hardware, in the same way that one can run Windows on a laptop built by ASUS or Dell. Bhatti also likened it to Anduril’s Lattice, which is enabling software-defined control of different vehicles.

Dispatch OS. <strong>Image Credits:</strong> Basalt
Dispatch OS. Image Credits: Basalt

Dispatch will be capable of autonomous spacecraft tasking, enabling operators to coordinate satellites from different fleets, and rapidly enable re-tasking of existing on orbit assets for national security missions. Using Dispatch, for example, a national security customer could reassign any nearby satellite running the OS to conduct non-Earth imaging in the case of space security crisis, or to do Earth imaging in the case of a situation on the ground.

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

It’s indeed a paradigm shift, echoed Choi: “We’re at this really interesting inflection point now where this hardware-defined industry, which has been space, is turning into a software-defined industry,” he said. “So instead of building constellations, what if you can assign constellations? [What if] you can take legacy assets alongside new assets and put them together and use them dynamically?”

To scale their product and reach flight heritage 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. Basalt is going to attempt to hack into, recover and fly around a defunct satellite on orbit this summer to prove out the tech.

From there, the company is also looking to build out its three-person team and get its first revenue. Basalt is currently in talks with 10 missions, which includes spacecraft in development as well as hardware already on orbit.