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Former Federal Way student now builds “rockoons” for mini-satellites

From left to right, Abishek Murali, Drew Sherman and Mike Hepfer of Leo Aerospace after taking second place in a pitch competition.
LISTEN: Abishek Murali went to high school in Federal Way, now he’s the founder of an aerospace startup.

Satellites used to be massive, but they’re getting smaller,  and with the help of innovators like Abishek Murali more people would get a chance to launch them into space.

“Back in the 80s, we used to have these really giant satellites weighing on the order of one thousand, two thousand kilograms,” Murali told 770 KTTH’s Jason Rantz. “Thanks to the miniaturization of technology and electronics, we’re now seeing satellites that are about the size of a loaf of bread to maybe even a microwave.”

Murali graduated from Federal Way’s Thomas Jefferson High School in 2013. Now he’s a Master’s student at Purdue University. He’s also one of the founders of Leo Aerospace, a startup company trying to make satellites more intuitive and more accessible to people that don’t own their own giant rockets.

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“Right now, the current model doesn’t really support small satellite manufacturers,” Murali said. “If I wanted to get my small satellite into orbit I would have to go to another company and basically use their huge rocket, but I take up the extra space on the rocket. It’s not like that rocket is meant for me. I’m just kind of a secondary customer off to the side.”

Leo Aerospace’s attempt to make satellites more egalitarian involves balloons.

“We want to fit a rocket onto a high altitude balloon or a hot air balloon,” Murali said. “We want to send that hot air balloon about 18 kilometers in altitude and then launch the rocket from the balloon. Of course, the balloon itself is going to have the small satellite inside it.”

There are several important ways satellites can be helpful to people all over the world.

“Some of the people that we talk to are using it to fight piracy off the coast of Africa,” Murali said. “Or even fighting illegal fishing, tracking sheep herds. It’s kind of crazy, but people are using them for all sorts of really cool stuff.”

As a startup, Leo Aerospace is still in the pre-seed funding phase, and they’ve raised $160,000 with hopes to raise $250,000 by the end of May. Right now, they’re mostly asking friends and family to invest, but they’re also accepting donations of as little as $101 from the general public.

“We’re talking to one investor who’s actually from Federal Way and getting them involved and seeing if they’d be interested,” Murali said. “So far, it seems like they are which is really exciting for us to see support from back home.”

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