Mission Control, a startup that is based in Ottawa, has raised $3.25 million in a seed round led by a Toronto Company.
Mission Control officials said that the seed round of equity financing was led by GreenSky Ventures. The company plans to use the funding, principally, for two major ventures. The first is to continue work on its Spacefarer platform, which manages space-based robotics and payloads. The second is to continue the company’s long-standing work on artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for spaceflight.
Mission Control also has received $10 million in non-diluted funding, in large part from the Canadian government and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). CEO Ewan Reid said this government support has been immensely helpful. The new funding, however, will cover more of Mission Control’s research and development initiatives.
“With all this funding together, we’re going to be able to do kind of two broad things,” he said in an interview with SpaceQ.
First, the company plans to scale its employee base from about 35 individuals to 47 individuals. The hires will come gradually, Reid emphasized, and the final number may alter as projects and funding require. They will include a wide range of roles, including business development, sales, engineering support, and project management support, in both senior and junior roles.
Additionally, both sets of funding will allow Mission Control to advance its AI capabilities, including demonstrations in space. The company has already tested one of these platforms recently. It had a lunar rover that could classify features on the surface, but that rover never made it to the moon. The lander that was carrying it, built by Japanese private company ispace, crashed during landing. That said, Mission Control was able to test the rover before it landed on the moon, showing that the software was working to plan.
Spacefarer is also key to Mission Control’s software plans. Reed describes the platform as one that lets the customers “operate and engage with space-based robotics and advanced payloads. It’s basically a software-as-a-service to do mission operations with those complex spacecraft.”
Reed said there are a few other companies that have software-as-a-service for mission operation tools, such as satellite station keeping, or satellite uplinks and downlinks. Mission Control’s focus, however, is “advanced spacecrafts that are robotics, rovers, manipulators, advanced sensors – things that generally you need to have a human in the loop to operate.”
The goal of Spacefarer is to be as intuitive as possible, recognizing that humans would be a part of the operations process, he said. “It’s very important to have a seamless and easy-to-use user interface that can allow you to bring up past images and new images and make quick, actionable decisions, so that you can get the most value out of your mission.”
As an example, a rover operating on the moon under such an interface would presumably have a more intuitive platform, allowing for more efficient operations. Given that a typical private mission these days aims for just 14 Earth days on the surface — the length of a lunar day — Reid emphasized it is important to get as much return as possible in that short period of time.
“The low-hanging fruit in terms of near-term customers for space are lunar exploration missions,” he said. “There is a massive reinvigoration of lunar exploration and lunar activity, really a new space race in terms of going back to the moon. And so those are a bunch of near-term customers that that we are targeting.”
Further afield for Spacefarer, he said, would be on-orbit manufacturing and satellite servicing. As for AI, two deep learning systems have been sent into space by Mission Control so far, on a rover mission (with ispace) and an Earth observation satellite (for the European Space Agency).
“That notion, right now, is AI is used extensively to process the datasets that are generated in space, but by and large that’s done on the ground,” Reid said.
“Companies are spending millions of dollars to downlink all the data, and then waiting for the AI to do something on the ground, and then having an actionable insight from that. And we believe that moving forward, there’ll be all sorts of use cases where if you can do something smart onboard on the edge in space, you’re going to get a lot more value for whatever that is.”
Examples could include searching for “dark ships” – ships that are travelling without the required transponder to give information about its origin, destination and such – or talking to other spacecraft without a human in the loop.
Mission Control will announce several new space missions in the coming months, he added, and Reid also paid tribute to the role of CSA in providing funding, which assisted in showing anchor customer credibility for this seed round.
“The Canadian Space Agency and the Canadian government have supported us. It is critical for space companies in Canada to get support from the government to enable us to then close this other equity financing. And ultimately, what that means is to go out and capture customers around the world – which then of course drives revenue, growth, GDP, foreign investment into Canada, which is what the Canadian government is looking for.”