Electron launch vehicle (Source: Rocket Lab)

Capella Space to launch SAR satellite on dedicated Rocket Lab flight

Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) provider Capella Space announced today, March 5, 2020, it has secured a dedicated launch from Rocket Lab to put a satellite in a mid-inclination orbit to “optimize hotspot monitoring of key regions in the world.”  The combination of commercial SAR capability and rapid launch is something the U.S. Department of Defense must love.

The first launch for Capella’s Whitney constellation will take place later this year onboard an Electron launch vehicle from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand.  Placing the satellite into a 45 degree inclination, Capella Space will maximize coverage over the Middle East, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the U.S.  Capella’s space-based radar delivers sub-0.5 meter images of the Earth’s surface day or night and in any weather conditions, unlike optical imaging satellites which lose effectiveness.

“At Capella Space, we help our customers solve some of the world’s biggest and most complex problems – from climate change to infrastructure monitoring – using on-demand, accurate Earth observation data,” said Payam Banazadeh, CEO of Capella Space. “Launching our first Whitney satellite on a dedicated Rocket Lab mission allows us to stay in control of our orbit and focus on our goal to deliver customer-focused solutions in a timely manner.”

Capella Space’s satellite is the primary payload on the Electron launch, enabling Capella to select as specific orbit and launch timetable to meet “its customer needs” in terms of coverage, revisit and image quality.  

While not explicitly stated, the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies want more and cheaper SAR imagery to keep track of military movements and ballistic missile testing and deployments around the world, especially given North Korea and Iran’s indigenous missile programs.  The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) operates a small fleet of 3 to 4 SAR satellites.

Capella Space plans to launch seven new satellites this year.  The first satellite is slated for launch in March onboard a SpaceX rideshare mission with three more slated for June onboard an India PSLV vehicle.  Capella has not announced how its last two satellites will be put into orbit, but the company may be waiting to see if its largest government customer is willing to pay a little more to launch those satellites more quickly to “optimize hotspot monitoring.”

However, Capella won’t be the only U.S.-based commercial SAR company for long.  PredaSAR this week announced it had landed $25 million in venture funding to build a pair of SAR satellites and launch one of them into orbit and plans a final constellation of 44 satellites. More information on the capabilities of the PredaSAR satellite are expected to be released in the near-future, but CEO Marc Bell said one could expect “sub-meter” resolution.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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