Amid shuffling schedules, Capella to fly its first commercial satellite with Rocket Lab

Artist’s concept of a Capella synthetic aperture radar satellite. Credit: Capella Space

After switching rockets two times due to launch delays, Capella Space is set to launch the first spacecraft in a constellation of commercial radar reconnaissance satellites from New Zealand Sunday on a Rocket Lab Electron booster.

The small radar satellite, named Sequoia, is scheduled to take off during a four-hour window opening at 11:05 p.m. EDT Sunday (0305 GMT; 3:05 p.m. New Zealand time Monday).

Rocket Lab has delayed the launch four days to wait for improved weather at the company’s privately-run spaceport on Mahia Peninsula, located on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. But the U.S.-based launch company said early Sunday that managers completed a launch readiness review and were proceeding with final launch preps for liftoff Sunday night, U.S. time.

After launching toward the east from New Zealand, the 55-foot-tall (17-meter) light-class Electron launcher will deliver Sequoia to a roughly 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) orbit inclined 45 degrees to the equator, according to Rocket Lab.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Capella plans to deploy a fleet of small radar observatories to provide regularly-updated imagery to the U.S. government, international governments, and commercial customers.

Payam Banazadeh, founder and CEO of Capella, says much of the early demand for the company’s imagery is coming from governments.

“I think initially it’s going to be government, defense and intelligence, both for the domestic U.S. government as well as international governments,” Banazadeh said in an interview with Spaceflight Now before the launch of the Sequoia satellite. “That’s going to be the primary driver for a lot of the applications in the short term.”

Capella plans a constellation of small satellites to enable rapid revisit, allowing the company’s orbiting radar observers to collect imagery of the same locations multiple times per day. That will allow government and commercial customers to detect changes in the environment.

Other remote sensing companies have similar business plans.

Planet, another San Francisco-based company, operates a fleet of around 150 small optical Earth observation satellites. BlackSky is also deploying a constellation of optical remote sensing spacecraft.

But Capella’s satellites use synthetic aperture radar technology, allowing imagery collection night and day and in all weather conditions. Optical satellites are limited to observations in daylight and in cloud-free skies.

Last year, the National Reconnaissance Office awarded Capella a contract to study the integration of Capella’s commercial radar imagery with the NRO’s government-owned surveillance satellites. The U.S. Air Force awarded Capella a contract in November 2019 to incorporate the company’s imagery into the Air Force’s virtual reality software.

Capella also has a contract with the Navy, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, earlier this year to allow researchers from the U.S. government’s intelligence community to assist Capella.

An inter-satellite link with Inmarsat’s network of geostationary communications satellites will enable real-time tasking of Capella’s satellites. Customers can use an electronic portal to task a Capella satellite for a radar image.

“In the long term, like other remote sensing companies, everyone is really still trying to find those applications,” Banazadeh said. “The most interesting ones that we’re finding are things that require an understanding of change, whether it be monitoring infrastructure, or just looking around and identifying change.”

He identified pipeline, easement and infrastructure monitoring as possible uses for Capella’s imagery. Radar images are also helpful in identifying oil spills, tracking agriculture, and in disaster response.

A Finnish company named ICEYE is also building out a fleet of small commercial radar observation satellites. ICEYE has launched five radar satellites to date, more than Capella. But Capella is a U.S. company, which could give it an advantage selling to the U.S. military.

Capella has a license from NOAA, which regulates space-based remote sensing by U.S. companies, for a constellation of 36 small radar surveillance satellites. The company says it also has permission from U.S. regulators to sell high-resolution radar images globally.

Capella’s Sequoia radar satellite is encapsulated inside the payload fairing of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. Credit: Rocket Lab

Capella’s first test satellite, named Denali, launched in December 2018 on a rideshare mission aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After surveying prospective customers, Capella began redesigning its next series of larger satellites to gather sharper imagery, and collect more data on shorter notice, two leading demands from consumers of satellite remote sensing data.

The first of the new satellites is Sequoia launching Sunday night on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

With a launch weight of roughly 220 pounds, or 100 kilograms, Sequoia was built by Capella in-house. It’s the sole payload on the Electron mission, according to Rocket Lab.

The Sequoia satellite was originally supposed to launch as a secondary payload on an Indian rocket in late 2019, but the mission was postponed, prompting Capella to move the satellite to a Falcon 9 launch, according to Banazadeh.

It was booked to fly as a rideshare passenger on the Falcon 9 launch with Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar observation satellite in late March. But that launch was also delayed at the request of Argentina’s space agency as travel and work restrictions were implemented at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

That left Capella looking for another ride for Sequoia. Capella had previously signed a contract with Rocket Lab for a dedicated launch of a future satellite, and Banazadeh said the company decided instead to put Sequoia on the Rocket Lab mission.

Rocket Lab also encountered delays after an Electron launch failed in early July. The Electron mission Sunday will be Rocket Lab’s first launch since the failure, which engineers blamed on a faulty electrical connector on the second stage, which led to a premature engine shutdown.

Meanwhile, SAOCOM 1B launch preparations resumed and the Argentine satellite is set for launch Sunday, hours before the Rocket Lab mission with Sequoia.

“We’ve been playing this aerospace poker thinking this is going to go before SAOCOM, and now it’s going pretty much at the same time,” Banazadeh said.

Capella is building and launching an initial block of seven “Whitney-class” satellites, and Sequoia is the first of the group, according to Banazadeh, a former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Two more Whitney satellites are expected to launch on a SpaceX rideshare mission into a polar sun-synchronous orbit later this year. Banazadeh said the experience with launch delays this year has reinforced the importance of having multiple rockets available to deliver Capella’s satellites into orbit.

After the seven Whitney-class satellites, Capella will assess demand to determine how many more satellites to launch.

“We’re putting up the seven, and the seven are funded and under production,” Banazadeh said. “After that, we plan to have more satellites, but whether it’s going to be 12, 24, or 36 is driven by our market, so as we launch more satellites and we identify where the market is going, we will respond to the market.”

Radar remote sensing is a newcomer in the small satellite market. Radar imaging from space has previously been limited to large government-owned satellites costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Companies like Capella and ICEYE are trying to break that paradigm, thanks to hardware miniaturization and other technological advances.

Radar instruments have an appetite for high power, and radar antennas are usually large. Those requirements have previously forced radar imaging satellites to be large and expensive.

“Power and the size of the antennas are the two biggest constraints you have for a SAR (synthetic aperture radar) satellite, and that has secondary implications,” Banazadeh said. “You need a big antenna. There are two ways to get that. You can have a fixed antenna, or you can have a deployable antenna.”

With a fixed antenna, “you can only launch as the primary payload on big rockets, which increases your price per launch,” he said. “And if you’ve got a deployable antenna and not a fixed antenna, then it’s a little more complex in the structure you build to make sure it deploys appropriately.”

Capella went with a deployable mesh-based radar reflector antenna. It folds up origami-style for launch, but then unfurls to a diameter of about 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) after the satellite separates from its rocket in orbit. The antenna deployment adds some complexity to the satellite.

“The more complex the satellite the longer it takes to commission,” Banazadeh said. “We have quite a bit of deployable structures to deploy, and we’ll be working through that for a few weeks before we release imagery. We expect to be pretty busy for those first few weeks. We’re going to take our time, and we have to calibrate the instruments, so it will definitely be a process for us.”

Capella says its spacecraft will be capable of gathering radar images for 10 minutes out of every nearly 100-minute orbit, a relatively high duty cycle for a small radar satellite. The radar imager will have a resolution of better than 50 centimeters, or about 20 inches, and can produce images in strips up to 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) long, Capella says.

Banazadeh said other challenges in fielding a fleet of radar reconnaissance satellites include downlinking and processing the vast amount of data the fleet will produce.

There is still a role for bigger, more costly radar satellites, Banazadeh said.

The bigger satellites do have other advantages,” he said. “Where they’re lacking, I think, is going to be in the revisit.”

“So I don’t see it as a replacement,” Banazadeh said. “I see it as bringing a new capability that those companies and those satellites can’t also do. They can’t put put up seven of those even, let alone 20 or 30 with this cost. I think it’s very complementary.”

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