Rocket Lab launch fulfills initial block of BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket streaks into the sky over Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand in this long exposure image. Credit: Rocket Lab

The fourth and last spacecraft in BlackSky’s initial flock of commercial Earth-imaging microsatellites successfully launched Monday aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket with three other payloads, setting the stage for the final assembly and launch of at least 20 more BlackSky orbiting surveillance platforms starting later this year.

The 123-pound (56-kilogram) BlackSky Global 4 spacecraft lifted off aboard Rocket Lab’s kerosene-fueled Electron booster at 1212 GMT (8:12 a.m. EDT) Monday, riding into orbit with three CubeSats — two for the U.S. Air Force and one for the the French startup UnSeenLabs.

Powered by nine Rutherford engines generating nearly 50,000 pounds of thrust, the 55-foot-tall (17-meter) Electron launcher climbed through a cloud deck and arced east from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, a locale on the eastern coastline of New Zealand’s North Island.

Liftoff occurred at 12:12 a.m. local time Tuesday in New Zealand.

The privately-developed rocket shed its first stage around two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. A data recorder was programmed to capture information on the first stage’s re-entry, informing Rocket Lab’s initiative — announced earlier this month — to eventually recover and reuse Electron boosters.

A Rutherford engine on the Electron’s second stage fired more than six minutes to place the rocket and its four satellite passengers into a preliminary transfer orbit. The second stage deployed a Curie kick stage, which fired some 50 minutes into the mission to reach a targeted circular orbit around 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 45 degrees to the equator.

All four spacecraft mounted on the Curie kick stage separated moments later, and Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck said the mission reached a “perfect orbit.”

Three of the satellites launched Monday rode to space through an agreement brokered by Spaceflight, a Seattle-based company that aggregates small satellites on rideshare missions.

The fourth spacecraft in BlackSky’s fleet of commercial Earth-observing microsatellites also launched on the Electron rocket, joining two satellites launched into polar sun-synchronous orbit last year, and a third delivered to a similar 45-degree inclination orbit on the most recent Rocket Lab mission June 29.

Monday’s launch was timed to space the BlackSky Global 4 satellite into a specific slot in orbit relative to the Global 3 satellite launched in June.

BlackSky is a sister company of Spaceflight, which aims to build and launch a fleet of Earth-imaging satellites to enable frequent revisits over the same location to help analysts identify changes over short time cycles.

“Thank you to our dedicated team for another flawless launch, and to our mission partners for entrusting Rocket Lab with the continued expansion of their constellations,” Beck said in a statement. “Every mission is a privilege, but it was as especially proud moment for our team to launch another BlackSky Global satellite for Spaceflight just weeks after putting the last one in orbit.

“This mission was also another exciting step towards our plans to recover and reuse Electron’s first stage in future missions,” Beck said. “The team is eagerly analyzing the data as we work towards reusability.”

Nick Merski, vice president of space operations at Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky’s parent company, said the BlackSky Global 4 satellite contacted ground controllers as expected after Monday’s launch.

“It was a fantastic launch this morning,” Merski said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “Everything went really smooth.

“We had acquisition at our first planned contact and have been moving through our commissioning exactly on plan,” he said Monday. “Everything from the launch vehicle to the satellite commissioning has really been right on track for today, so it’s a good day for us.”

The first batch of BlackSky’s surveillance satellites weigh around 123 pounds (56 kilograms), and each spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).

Merski said BlackSky started collecting imagery for customers in May. The first two satellites launched into sun-synchronous orbit to provide a “foundation” for the BlackSky fleet, while subsequent launches will primarily place new satellites into mid-inclination orbits.

“We spent the first four months in 2019 making sure our broader product offering and architecture was ready for the market, and then started delivering data commercially from our first two satellites in May,” he said.

With the BlackSky Global 4 satellite now in orbit, BlackSky will next begin deployment of a new set of 20 privately-funded optical surveillance satellites built in Washington by LeoStella, a joint venture between BlackSky’s parent company Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a European satellite manufacturer.

BlackSky holds a contract with the National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the U.S. government’s spy satellites, to allow government analysts to evaluate the utility of commercial imagery in intelligence-gathering and overhead surveillance.

The next 20 satellites will be roughly the same size as the first four, but they come with some upgrades, Merski said.

“The next four are going to be launched, planned for the end of the year, and those four are the first four from our production contract,” he said. “Those four are going to be the first that are going to be developed by LeoStella, and are from our high-rate production line that they’ve kicked off.”

The next four BlackSky satellites are expected to launch on India’s new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, based on regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

The next block of BlackSky satellites will produce the same quality 1-meter resolution images as the first four.

“But we’ve made a number of targeted improvements in terms of things that are related to the manufacturing, how quickly they can be produced, how easy it is to calibrate them and test them on orbit,” Merski said. “We’ve really taken the benefit of the design and the on-orbit experience to date and been able to use that to influence the next 20 satellites to continue to provide a better and more reliable product to our customers.”

BlackSky introduced an improved satellite propulsion system on the Global 4 satellite launched Monday.

“Global 5 through 24 will feature a new payload, which we will be able to calibrate a little bit more rapidly and will ultimately shorten our commissioning timeline in space,” Merski said.

BlackSky’s short-term plan is to build, launch and maintain a constellation of at least 16 satellites. If there’s enough customer interest, the company could expand that fleet to 60 or more spacecraft, which would give users an updated view of any location on a populated land mass on Earth every 15 minutes or so.

Some of the early BlackSky satellites will eventually need to be retired, and the company’s commitment to buy 20 spacecraft from the LeoStella joint venture includes orders for replacements.

“That 16-satellite (constellation) provides a service level that we’re committed, as a company, to carry on indefinitely,” Merski said. “We’re going to grow that beyond a 16-satellite capability.”

With 16 satellites, BlackSky could provide customers with an refreshed image of the same location as often as once per hour, during daytime.

“If you think about population centers of interest, you’d be getting five-to-eight unique revisits per day during the sunlit part of the day (with 16 satellites,” Merski said. “It’s a fundamentally different type of capability than (what) is available on the market today commercially, which is what we’re really excited about.”

Two experimental satellites for Air Force Space Command also flew into space on Monday’s Electron rocket launch, which Rocket Lab nicknamed “Look Ma, No Hands.”

The two 6U CubeSats are part of Air Force Space Command’s “Pearl White” technology demonstration program. The two CubeSats were built and will be operated by Tiger Innovations, a company based in Washington, D.C.’s Virginia suburbs.

“The demonstration will test new technologies including propulsion, power, communications, and drag capabilities for potential applications on future spacecraft,” the Air Force said in a statement. The mission is set to last one year.

A French startup named UnseenLabs also launched its first satellite on the Rocket Lab Electron booster. The briefcase-sized six-unit CubeSat, named Bro-1, was built by the Danish smallest manufacturer GomSpace.

The Bro-1 mission is the first spacecraft in a planned constellation of CubeSats for maritime surveillance. UnseenLabs says its fleet of nanosatellites will be able to locate and identify ships around the world, providing tracking services for maritime operators and helping security forces watch for pirates and smugglers.

“Total success!” the company tweeted after Monday’s launch. “Bro-1 is fully alive and already talking with us! Ready to deliver valuable data to our customers. Another big step for UnSeenLabs, who becomes the first French private CubeSat operator in space!”

Monday’s mission was the eighth flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle, and the fourth this year. Rocket Lab plans another launch as soon as next month, but officials have not identified what satellites will be aboard.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.