Commercial BlackSky imaging satellites ride with Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher streaks into the night sky over New Zealand with two BlackSky imaging satellites. Credit: Rocket Lab / Joseph Baxter

Two microsatellites for BlackSky launched Saturday from New Zealand, riding a Rocket Lab launch vehicle into orbit to join a fleet of commercial eyes supplying imagery to military and civilian users.

The twin optical imaging satellites lifted off from Rocket Lab’s spaceport on Mahia Peninsula, located on New Zealand’s North Island, at 8:41:38 a.m. EDT (1241:38 GMT) Saturday. Liftoff occurred at 1:41 a.m. local time Sunday in New Zealand.

Riding more than 50,000 pounds of thrust, the 60-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron rocket launched toward the southeast over the Pacific Ocean, streaking through clouds before climbing through the stratosphere and shedding its first stage booster.

An upper stage engine ignited for a seven-minute burn to place the BlackSky satellites into a parking orbit. A kick stage later fired its thruster to reach the mission’s targeted orbit around 267 miles (430 kilometers) above Earth, before releasing the BlackSky satellites.

The spacecraft, each about the size of a small refrigerator, were stacked one on top of the other for launch, fixed to a dual-payload adapter structure. The upper satellite deployed first, followed by separation of the adapter, then the release of the satellite in the lower berth.

A member of Rocket Lab’s launch team at mission control in Auckland, New Zealand, declared “mission success” moments after telemetry confirmed separation of the two BlackSky satellites.

“Congratulations and welcome to space once again, BlackSky,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “The past few missions for BlackSky showcase the benefits of a dedicated launch on Electron: quick constellation expansion, streamlined access to space, and fast delivery of global insights to BlackSky customers. Rocket Lab is proud to play its part.”

Rocket Lab and BlackSky announced a multi-launch agreement agreement last year. The mission Saturday was Rocket Lab’s fourth dedicated mission for BlackSky, each carrying two satellites in an arrangement made through the small satellite launch broker Spaceflight.

Another dedicated launch for BlackSky is on Rocket Lab’s schedule later this year, again carrying two satellites to orbit.

“The launch of these latest two satellites enhances our capacity-on-demand offering for customers,” said Nick Merski, BlackSky chief operations officer. “We continue to build on our strategic intelligence advantage as we expand our constellation, ensuring commercial and our government customers are the first to know about the changes that matter most to them.”

The launch was delayed for unspecified reasons from earlier in the year at the request of BlackSky. Rocket Lab shuffled its schedule and launched a different mission Feb. 28. The launch Saturday was Rocket Lab’s second flight of the year.

Ground teams integrate a BlackSky satellite with Rocket Lab’s kick stage in New Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab

Each BlackSky satellite weighs about 121 pounds (55 kilograms). The satellites are built by LeoStella, a joint venture between BkackSky and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

BlackSky, with offices in Seattle and Herndon, Virginia, is deploying a fleet of small remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution Earth imagery to commercial and government clients.

One big customer for BlackSky, with offices near Seattle and in the Washington, D.C., metro area, is the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. BlackSky has agreements to sell commercial imagery to NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

BlackSky said the launch Saturday expanded the company’s fleet to 14 satellites.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.