Smallsat company searches for launch services

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The competition heats up: Terra Bella, formally known as Skybox Imaging, hopes to have as many as 21 satellites in orbit by the end of 2017.

Space Systems Loral (SSL) is Terra Bella’s manufacturing partner for the SkySat satellites, building 19 SkySat Cs — one prototype and 18 final versions. Joe Rothenberg, director of Skybox engineering and operations at Google, told Via Satellite that the first SkySat C satellite is currently scheduled to launch aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on May 31. The PSLV launch is for the prototype to precede the rest of the series. The next four are then to launch on an Arianespace Vega as a rideshare this summer, followed by six more on Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rocket during the fourth quarter this year.

The Skybox C satellite only weights 265 pounds, so it is larger than a cubesat but tiny compared to most commercial satellites. The company’s problem now is that, except for Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rocket, they don’t have a launch vehicle dedicated to this size satellite. And Minotaur is probably too expensive (which is why Orbital wants the right to use surplus ICBM motors to power it). Because of this Terra Bella must launch its satellites as secondary payloads, which leaves them at the scheduling mercy of the primary payload. Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne is intended to serve this smallsat market, competing directly with Minotaur, but Terra Bella is understandably skeptical of that company’s effort.

A small piece of trivia. Rothenberg was a key NASA manager running the shuttle Hubble repair missions, one of the few NASA efforts that operated like a private company: competitive, hard-working, and demanding of success. It is entirely fitting that he has moved out of the government and into the private sector, where his skills can truly shine. It speaks well of Terra Bella that they hired him.

One comment

  • Edward

    Several years ago, when Skybox (now called Terra Bella, or beautiful Earth) was just starting, I went to a talk about it. The satellites are about the size of a dorm refrigerator, around 2′ X 2′ X 3′. At that time, they were aiming to revisit every spot on Earth once a day, but the article says they eventually want to photograph each spot three times a day. The daily photographs would be accomplished by having a several satellites, perhaps fewer than a dozen.

    The advantage is that current LEO Earth sensing satellites are large, expensive, and revisit spots every few days (but low orbits allow for better resolution), so you only get before and after photos of floods and other events that are of interest. Daily (or thrice daily) photos would capture more of the unfolding of events.

    The beauty of inexpensive satellites is that they can be placed in orbits that last only a few years, thus they stop being debris shortly after their lifetimes end. Their low cost makes them easily replaced if they fail early, and it makes it less expensive to upgrade to newer technology as the tech becomes available.

    As Robert notes, there are not yet any inexpensive rockets to launch such satellites into the desired orbits at the desired times, thus they fly as secondary payloads into an orbital plane and at a time that is determined by the rocket’s primary customer.

    This size of satellite (and the smaller cubesats) is becoming more popular, especially since nanotechnology is reducing the size of several components, which is why several companies are working on inexpensive rockets for these lightweight payloads.

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