Commercial Earth imager launched into space

Posted: June 26, 2003

File image of Pegasus rocket launch. Photo: Orbital Sciences
A commercial satellite that will snap sharp photos of Earth's surface soared into space Thursday, boosting a Virginia-based company's hopes of establishing a foothold in the high-resolution imaging business.

An air-launched Pegasus XL rocket dropped from a carrier jet at 1853 GMT (2:53 p.m. EDT) over the Pacific Ocean, off California's central coast, and successfully propelled the OrbView 3 spacecraft into orbit around Earth's poles during a nine-minute mission.

"We are very pleased with the results of the Pegasus launch and with the early indications that the OrbView 3 satellite is operating as expected," said David Thompson, chairman and CEO for Orbital Sciences, which built the rocket and spacecraft.

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Putting OrbView 3 into service is a make-or-break situation for Orbital Imaging Corp. and its plans for selling Earth imagery to U.S. government and commercial buyers.

"This is an extraordinary day for OrbImage," Matt O'Connell, the company's CEO said after Thursday's launch. "We now have a lot of work ahead of us, but the successful launch today of OrbView 3 marks the single most important milestone for the company over the past 18 months. Once the check out is completed and imagery starts flowing, we will begin fulfilling the large backlog we have secured with our U.S. customers and international partners."

The launch comes nearly two years after OrbImage lost its OrbView 4 high-resolution spacecraft in the failed flight of a Taurus booster. The firm entered voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2002 to restructure.

The OrbView 3 spacecraft during pre-launch testing. Credit: Orbital Sciences
OrbView 3 will be tested and readied to begin its work in a couple of months, beginning a five-year mission to return one-meter resolution panchromatic (black and white) and four-meter resolution multispectral (color) imagery.

"We already have a backlog in anticipation of the launch of OrbView 3 -- over $300 million on contract," Timothy Puckorius, OrbImage's senior vice president for worldwide marketing and sales, said in an interview this week.

The company currently uses its low-resolution OrbView 2 satellite for ocean studies, selling that data to fishing businesses. NASA also relies on the craft's information for scientific research.

But OrbView 3 will take OrbImage "to the next level," Puckorius said, allowing the company to compete with rivals Space Imaging and Digital Globe. The two Colorado-based firms operate the Ikonos and QuickBird Earth-imaging satellites, respectively.

"OrbView 3 is a great addition to our current portfolio of products and services," Puckorius said. "In addition to the markets we currently serve with data from OrbView 2 and our map production services in St. Louis, OrbView 3 will enable OrbImage to meet the growing national and international needs for detailed, accurate high-resolution images for a broad array of primary applications such as mapping, environmental monitoring, city planning, news gathering, agriculture, forestry and resource management.

The OrbView 3 mission logo. Credit: Orbital Sciences
"We already enjoy partnerships around the world and want to thank them for their support and patience. We will soon be able to support them and their regional market needs thanks to the successful launch today of OrbView 3."

OrbImage also expects to sell OrbView 3 data to the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency as part of the "ClearView" contract. NIMA has entered into deals with Space Imaging and Digital Globe.

"Thanks to the restructuring and thanks to the ClearView contract and other international opportunities that have come to light, profitability is now on the horizon and the industry is poised to take off," said Puckorius.

"There's a host of applications ... but the fact remains the single biggest single user is the U.S. government."

The next Pegasus launch -- the rocket's 35th flight -- is scheduled for the night of August 2 when the Canadian SciSat-1 ozone monitoring satellite is carried aloft. The mission will originate from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Thursday's launch, which also was based at Vandenberg, marked Pegasus' 20th consecutive successful flight and third of 2003.

Flight data file
Vehicle: Pegasus XL
Payload: OrbView 3
Launch date: June 26, 2003
Launch window: 1850-1905 GMT (2:50-3:05 p.m. EDT)
Mission staging site: Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
Satellite broadcast: None

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