Vega rocket set to launch next Airbus Pléiades Neo remote sensing satellite

The payload compartment containing the Pléiades Neo 4 Earth observation satellite is lifted into the Vega rocket’s launch pad gantry in preparation for Monday night’s mission. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

An Airbus-owned commercial optical Earth-imaging satellite and four small CubeSat rideshare payloads are set for launch Monday night from French Guiana aboard a European Vega rocket.

The 98-foot-tall (30-meter) Vega launcher is poised for liftoff from the Guiana Space Center, located on the northeastern coast of South America, at 9:47:06 p.m. EDT Monday (0147:06 GMT Tuesday).

The mission, managed by the French launch services company Arianespace, will deploy the second of four planned satellites in a modernized fleet of Airbus-built Earth observatories, joining an identical spacecraft launched on the previous Vega rocket flight in April.

Monday night’s mission will deliver Airbus’s Pléiades Neo 4 Earth observation satellite into a sun-synchronous polar orbit at an altitude of around 388 miles (625 kilometers).

The new satellite will take a position in a similar orbit as the Pléiades Neo 3 spacecraft that launched in April, but will fly in a slot 180 degrees from its counterpart to begin enabling repeat coverage of the same location on Earth.

The Pléiades Neo satellites feature improvements over Airbus’s first-generation Pléiades Earth observation satellites launched in 2011 and 2012. The final two Pléiades Neo satellites will launch together on an a Vega C rocket — an upgraded variant of the Vega launcher — in 2022.

Airbus says it entirely funded the development of the Pléiades Neo satellites, with intentions to sell the imagery commercially to private companies and government users. The company announced the Pléiades Neo program in 2016, and Airbus assembles the Pléiades Neo spacecraft at its facility in Toulouse, France.

The four-satellite program is costing Airbus about 600 million euros, or roughly $700 million.

The Pléiades Neo satellites can produce optical imagery of Earth’s surface with a resolution of 11.8 inches, 0r 30 inches, according to Airbus. That’s good enough to resolve features such as vehicles and road markings.

The Pléiades Neo 4 Earth observation satellite is enclosed inside the Vega rocket’s payload fairing in preparation for launch. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

The imaging resolution of Airbus’s four Pléiades Neo satellites is comparable to the resolution provided by Maxar’s six-satellite WorldView Legion surveillance satellites due to begin launching next year. The companies are competitors, providing the highest-resolution Earth observation imagery on the global commercial market.

With the help of laser inter-satellite communications links, the Pléiades Neo satellites will be able to respond rapidly to tasking requests within 30 to 40 minutes, according to Airbus.

A single Pléiades Neo satellite, using a new agile pointing capability enabled by control moment gyroscopes, can turn side-to-side to observe the same location every two days. Once all four satellites are in orbit, the constellation will be able to image any location on Earth twice a day.

Each Pléiades Neo spacecraft is designed to operate for at least 10 years.

One Pléiades Neo satellite can collect images covering an area of nearly 200,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) every day, Airbus says.

Airbus released the first images from the Pléiades Neo 3 satellite in May. The company plans make commercial imagery from Pléiades Neo 3 available to customers later this year.

The 2,032-pound (922-kilogram) Pléiades Neo 4 spacecraft is enclosed inside the payload fairing of a European Vega rocket for liftoff Monday night from the Guiana Space Center.

The Vega rocket’s solid-fueled first stage will quickly propel the launcher away from the spaceport in South America, steering the vehicle on a trajectory north from the tropical launch base over the Atlantic Ocean.

Producing around 680,000 pounds of thrust, the rocket’s P80 first stage booster will burn through its 97-ton (88-metric ton) supply of pre-packed solid propellants in less than two minutes.

The Vega rocket’s Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9 second and third stage motors will fire next. The launcher’s payload shroud will jettison to fall into the Atlantic Ocean around four minutes after liftoff.

A liquid-fueled upper stage, known as the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, will ignite two times to maneuver the Pléiades Neo 4 spacecraft into its targeted deployment orbit. The satellite is scheduled to separate from the AVUM upper stage about 54-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

The Great Pyramid of Giza pictured by the Pléiades Neo 3 satellite earlier this year. Credit: Airbus

Two more burns by the AVUM upper stage will reduce the rocket’s altitude to around 344 miles (554 kilometers) for separation of four rideshare payloads more than an hour-and-a-half into the mission.

One of the rideshare payloads is a briefcase-sized six-unit CubeSat for a French startup company named Unseenlabs founded in 2015.

The small spacecraft, named BRO-4, is the fourth satellite in the company’s growing constellation designed to provide maritime surveillance services. The three previous satellites launched aboard Rocket Lab missions.

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. The company plans to build out a fleet of 20 to 25 nanosatellites by 2025.

Three small CubeSats sponsored by the European Space Agency are also set for launch Monday night.

The RadCube spacecraft is a three-unit CubeSat was developed by a Hungarian company named C3S. Designed as a technology demonstration mission, RadCube carries instruments to measure radiation and magnetic fields in low Earth orbit, collecting important data for space weather forecasting.

ESA’s SunStorm CubeSat, developed by Reaktor Space Lab in Finland, will test a miniature solar X-ray flux monitor measuring X-ray missions from coronal mass ejections, huge eruptions from the sun’s surface that can generate space weather storms affecting satellite operations, and power grids and communications networks on Earth.

The instrument to be tested on the SunStorm nanosatellite is similar to a sensor ESA plans to fly on a future operational space weather monitoring mission.

The third ESA-supported CubeSat on Monday night’s launch is LEDSat, a small spacecraft developed by students at Sapienza University of Rome. The mission is designed to investigate the performance of Light Emitting Diodes as a way of tracking satellites in low Earth orbit, according to ESA.

ESA selected the LEDSat mission for a rideshare launch opportunity through the agency’s “Flight Your Satellite!” educational program.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.