Australian space startup Esper wants to build hyperspectral sats for cheap

Australian remote sensing startup Esper wants to capture hyperspectral imagery from space at a fraction of the price of its competitors.

The company, which will launch its first demonstration satellite today on SpaceX’s Transporter-10 mission, is entering a field rife with competition. There’s a reason for that: Hyperspectral is an incredibly powerful type of remote sensing technology that uses a spectrometer to identify the spectral signature of objects. This allows users to detect the chemical fingerprint of many different substances, including minerals, chemicals, gases and vegetation.

Armed with just $1 million in pre-seed funding and assistance from the Australian government in their first mission, Esper is aiming to beat out its better-capitalized peers with lower-cost tech.

The goal of this first mission, called Over the Rainbow, is to validate the company’s core technology on a demonstrator spacecraft: a spectrometer system and proprietary software that “reads” the spectral imagery. Esper is keeping costs low by using many off-the-shelf components and consumer-level electronics, rather than more expensive optics systems; the software ensures that the data is accurate.

“We are very much a smart sensor. That's what really separates us from all the other spectrometers and hyperspectral hardware that's being put up there,” Esper CEO and co-founder Shoaib Iqbal said. “We're a really low-cost piece of equipment because we're using a lot of components off the shelf, consumer-level electronics, then we’re engineering it to be space ready. There’s a lot of software that really comes into play to make sure it works that way. Otherwise, we're capturing spectral gibberish and you can't really make a lot of sense of that.”

Esper was founded in early 2021 by Iqbal and Joey Lorenczak, who met when they sat next to each other in a chemistry class at Monash University in Melbourne. The two participated in a number of hackathons together; they ended up winning Unihack, a Melbourne student hackathon, in 2019 for a different space-focused idea, but pivoted to Earth observation after living through a particularly devastating bushfire season that same year.

“The entirety of southeast Australia was burning,” Iqbal said. “We were like, hey, we're already working in space tech, so why not move to be focused on Earth observation to prevent a lot of these disasters happening in the future. That's how we stumbled across hyperspectral.”

The two started getting traction from prospective customers both from the mining industry and from firms working in disaster response. This early response pushed the founders to “go all in” on hyperspectral, he said.

The company joined the spring 2023 cohort of Techstars’ space accelerator; through that program, they met people in major U.S. government agencies interested in purchasing hyperspectral imagery, like the Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. (The NRO has already started issuing study contracts to private hyperspectral providers, including startups.)

Along the way, the team also closed the $1 million in funding from investors including Stellar Ventures, Day One Ventures and Dolby Family Ventures, as well as secured grants from Alexis Ohanian’s 776 Foundation and the Australian Federal Government.

Esper is planning on launching a second demonstrator satellite with identical hardware later this spring with India’s ISRO. The startup aims to start launching commercial payloads by late next year or early ’26, and to have 18 satellites in orbit, providing a daily revisit rate, by 2028.