Tag Archives: smallsat

Pathfinder 1 communications confirmed

The competition heats up: One of the smallsats launched by India’s PSLV rocket this weekend, Pathfinder 1, has successfully begun communicating with the ground as well as transmitting data.

This is a test demonstration flight of this new smallsat Earth observation imaging satellite. As the company notes,

The on-orbit demonstration of the BlackSky Pathfinder spacecraft validates the future vision of real-time global observation and understanding. Specifically, BlackSky’s Pathfinder spacecraft is unique and revolutionary in its size, cost and performance. By comparison, Digital Globe’s WorldView 4 spacecraft — which has truly impressive resolution and spectral diversity — weighs 2,500 kg and costs $750M to put on orbit. Pathfinder represents the pinnacle in rethinking spacecraft design and economics. Our spacecraft, complete with propulsion system and high gain communications, can provide high resolution (1 meter) imagery in a 50 kg package that will fit in a middle seat on a commercial airplane – all for less than $7.5M on orbit. It’s this unique combination of size, cost and performance that enables us to orbit a constellation of 60 spacecraft for less than the cost of a single Digital Globe spacecraft.

As I’ve mentioned several times in the past year, the space industry is diverging into two streams, smallsats for unmanned communications and research satellites, and big spacecraft for human exploration. Tomorrow, Elon Musk will give us his vision of the big spacecraft stream in his much hyped speech at the International Astronautical Congress.

Firefly tests aerospike engine

The competition heats up: Firefly Space Systems has successfully tested its aerospike engine.

They are, like Virgin Galactic and Rocket Lab, aiming for the smallsat market, and hope to fly their first launch by 2018.

Posted from Los Angeles, where I am stranded for the nighr because my flight to Tucson today was cancelled due to bad weather.

Smallsat company searches for launch services

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.