BlackSky Global Commercial Imaging Constellation
BlackSky Global (BSG) of Seattle, WA, USA, a startup company founded in 2013, plans to launch a constellation of 60 Earth observation satellites to enable revisit times of a few hours or less. The company has already raised capital to fully fund its first six spacecraft, which are planned for launch in 2016 and will pave the way for the rest of the fleet (with initial operating capability in 2017). BlackSky Global is a new “satellite imaging as a service” provider aimed at commercializing access to high-performance satellite imagery. BlackSky is an independent company owned by Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, which specializes in launching small satellites as secondary payloads.
The first two satellites, Pathfinder 1 and Pathfinder 2, are in the process of final testing and checkout. They will precede the rest of the constellation as experimental satellites. After the first two satellites, BlackSky Global plans to launch the four additional funded satellites, which would start generating revenue by the end of 2016. 1) 2) 3)
By 2019, BlackSky Global aims to have its full constellation in orbit, providing 1meter resolution color imagery of the planet to a myriad of different customers. The satellites would be able to provide video as well at a speed of one frame per second, and the company is also planning to offer premium services. BlackSky Global has satellite imagery providers and data analytics companies as customers today, and uses a pay-per-picture business model for service from its satellites.
BlackSky Global’s satellites are designed for a three-year mission life at a fairly low altitude of 450 km. The spacecraft will include propulsion systems to reach this service life at such an orbit. The satellites are designed with pre-planned obsolescence in mind, as the lifespan of each spacecraft offers enough time to provide services and then rapidly refresh with new technology.
In June 2015, BlackSky Global revealed its content partnership with commercial imagery intelligence provider AllSource Analysis of Longmont, CO. BlackSky will provide high-resolution, rapid-revisit, cost-effective satellite imaging data to AllSource for incorporation into its multisource analytics capabilities and product development. The partnership will support a variety of analyses across multiple industries such as agriculture, forestry, civil government, non-governmental organizations, defense, finance, engineering, energy and others. Governments and organizations can leverage the combined imagery and analytics capabilities to monitor the worldwide economy, environment and trends to gain valuable business insights and intelligence. 4)
In May 2016, BlackSky announced that it has established an official partnership with UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research). UNITAR, created in 1965, is an autonomous body within the United Nations that was formed to develop capacities to enhance global decision-making and support country-level action for shaping a better future. "With BlackSky's constellation, we not only have access to more information, but we also have access to it much faster than ever before," said Nikhil Seth, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and Executive Director of UNITAR. 5)
Figure 1: Artist's rendition of the BlackSky Constellation (image credit: BlackSky Global, Ref. 3)
The BlackSky-1 pathfinder microsatellite was built by Spaceflight Industries (Spaceflight) of Seattle, WA, USA. The objective of BlackSky-1 Pathfinder mission is to validate the imaging system and data processing chain.
According to BlackSky, the spacecraft of the constellation will be launched into orbits of about 450 km to achieve high-resolution imagery of 1 m GSD (Ground Sample Distance). The microsatellites have a mass of about 44 kg, they will be equipped with a propulsion system to stay in orbit for about 3 years.
A spacecraft description will be provided when the information becomes available.
Figure 2: Photo of the BlackSky-1 pathfinder microsatellite (image credit: Spaceflight Industries)
BlackSky development status:
• April 2018: DSI (Deep Space Industries), headquartered in Silicon Valley, California, announced that it has signed a contract with Astro Digital to provide several CometTM water-based satellite propulsion systems. Comet is a simple, launch-safe, and cost-effective electrothermal propulsion system that uses water as a propellant and can be customized for nearly any small satellite application. 6)
- “We chose DSI’s propulsion solution because of the team’s ability to deliver a unique and relatively large microsat propulsion system on an incredibly aggressive schedule,” explained Chris Biddy, chief executive officer of Astro Digital. “We are quite impressed by the Comet’s scalable nature and ease of integration.”
- Comet is unique in that it uses water as propellant. This is especially important for Deep Space Industries’ future asteroid mining plans, as water will be among the first resources mined from asteroids. In the meantime, this propulsion system is efficient, affordable, and easy to use for small satellites that will stay much closer to home, for customers such as Astro Digital.
- “Astro Digital is a fantastic organization. We are proud to partner with their team on this and many other projects in the future, “commented Bill Miller, chief executive officer of Deep Space Industries. “Comet has been very successful in the market and we are adding new customers almost monthly at this point.”
Figure 3: DSI's water thruster (image credit: DSI)
DSI will provide an initial block of 20 water thrusters for the BlackSky satellites which are scheduled to start launching later this year. Comet is the first propulsion system in Deep Space Industries line of green propulsion solutions designed for small satellites. While other propulsion systems use either high-pressure or toxic propellants, DSI propulsion systems are designed to be low-pressure, non-toxic, and therefore launch-safe, while still offering suitable performance for small satellites. Comet is ride-share compatible, easy to work with, and customizable for many mission types and size. And in the context of DSI’s longer-term goals, all its propulsion systems use propellants that can be sourced from space resources. 7)
This announcement comes on the heels of Spaceflight Industries’ recent $150 million funding and the development of LeoStella LLC, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space. LeoStella is developing a Seattle-based facility to manufacture the low-cost, high-performance BlackSky satellites and is tasked with building the next 20 spacecraft with the Comet propulsion technology between now and 2020.
These smallsats are part of an ultimate constellation of 60 satellites that provide high revisit rate Earth imagery and when combined with other space and terrestrial based sensors, will enable delivery of innovative global monitoring solutions and geospatial activity-based intelligence services.
Launch: The BlackSky-1 pathfinder microsatellite was launched as a secondary payload on Sept. 26, 2016 (03:42:00 UTC) on the PSLV-C35 vehicle of ISRO. The launch site was SDSC (Satish Dhawan Space Center) on the east coast of India. The primary payload on this flight was SCATSat-1(Scatterometer Satellite-1) of ISRO. 8) 9) 10)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit of SCATSat-1, altitude = 720 km, inclination = 98.1º, LTAN = 9:20 hours.
All secondary payloads were deployed into an orbit of 670 km altitude.
This was ISRO's first multi-orbit mission. It was the longest ever PSLV flight which lasted for more than 2 hours 15 minutes. According to ISRO, PSLV-C35 successfully placed all satellites into their respective orbits.
Figure 4: SCATSat-1 spacecraft integrated with PSLV-C35 with two halves of the heat shield seen (image credit: ISRO)
The secondary payloads (7 co-passengers) on this flight were:
• Pratham, a student-built nanosatellite (~10 kg) of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay, India to study the ionosphere.
• PISAT, a student-built nanosatellite (5.3 kg) of PES University in Bengaluru, India. PISAT is a joint initiative of PES University and five other colleges. 11)
• BlackSky Pathfinder-1, a high-resolution (1 m) imaging microsatellite (~44 kg) of BlackSky Global. BlackSky Global is a commercial company of Seattle, WA, USA. The goal of BlackSky Global is to build a constellation of 60 satellites by 2019.
• AlSat-1N, AlSat-1B and AlSat-2B of ASAL (Algerian Space Agency), Algiers, Algeria. The three satellites were manufactured at SSTL partnership with Algerian engineers, ALSAT-1B is a 103 kg microsatellite based on the SSTL-100 bus. It carries an Earth imaging payload with panchromatic and multispectral cameras. AlSat-2B (117 kg) carries the NAOMI (New AstroSat Optical Modular Instrument). AlSat-1N (AlSat-Nano) is a 3U CubeSat which carries a technology demonstration payload as part of a partnership between ASAL and the UKSA (UK Space Agency).
• CanX-7, a nanosatellite (3U CubeSat, 8 kg) of UTIAS/SFL (University of Toronto’s Institute of Aerospace Studies/Space Flight Laboratory), Canada.
Launch: The BlackSky-2 microsatellite (56 kg) of BlackSky Global was launched on the rideshare mission of Spaceflight Industries (Seattle, WA) on 3 December 2018 (18:34 GMT) on a SpaceX Falcon-9 Block 5 vehicle from VAFB (Vandenberg Air Force Base) in California. 12) 13)
SpaceX statement: On Monday, December 3rd at 10:34 a.m. PST (18:34 GMT), SpaceX successfully launched Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express to a low Earth orbit from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Carrying 64 payloads, this mission represented the largest single rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date. A series of six deployments occurred approximately 13 to 43 minutes after liftoff, after which Spaceflight began to command its own deployment sequences. Spaceflight’s deployments are expected to occur over a period of six hours. 14)
This mission also served as the first time SpaceX launched the same booster a third time. Falcon 9’s first stage for the Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission previously supported the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 mission in May 2018 and the Merah Putih mission in August 2018. Following stage separation, SpaceX landed Falcon 9’s first stage on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship, which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean.
Orbit: Sun-synchronous circular orbit with an altitude of 575 km, inclination of ~98º, LTDN (Local Time of Descending Node) of 10:30 hours.
List of payloads on the Spaceflight SSO-A rideshare mission
The layout of the list follows the alphabetical order of missions as presented on the Wikipedia page ”2018 in spaceflight” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_in_spaceflight#November — as well as with the help of Gunter Krebs's short descriptions at https://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/skysat-3.htm
This mission enabled 34 organizations from 17 different countries to place spacecraft on orbit. It’s also special because it was completely dedicated to smallsats. Spaceflight launched 15 microsatellite and 49 CubeSats from government and commercial entities including universities, startups, and even a middle school. The payloads vary from technology demonstrations and imaging satellites to educational research endeavors.
• AISTechSat-2, a 6U CubeSat for Earth observation of AISTech (Access to Intelligent Space Technologies), Barcelona, Spain.
• Al Farabi-2, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstration mission of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Kazakhstan.
• Astrocast-0.1, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstration mission of Astrocast, Switzerland, dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT)
• Audacy-0, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstration mission of Audacy, Mountain View, CA, built by Clyde Space.
• BlackSky-2, a microsatellite (56 kg) of BlackSky Global (Seattle, WA) which will provide 1 m resolution imagery with improved geolocation accuracy.
• BRIO, a 3U CubeSat of SpaceQuest Ltd. of Fairfax, VA to test a novel communications protocol that uses SDR (Software Defined Radio).
• Capella-1, a microsatellite (37 kg) of Capella Space, San Francisco, CA featuring a X-band SAR (Synthetic Aperture) payload.
• Centauri-1, a 3U CubeSat of Fleet Space Technologies, Adelaide, South Australia. Demonstration of IoT technologies.
• CSIM-FD (Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor-Flight Demonstration), a 6U CubeSat of LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) at the University of Boulder, CO, USA. The goal is to measure solar spectral irradiance to understand how solar variability impacts the Earth’s climate and to validate climate model sensitivity to spectrally varying solar forcing.
• Eaglet-1, the first 3U CubeSat (5 kg) of OHB Italia SpA for Earth Observation.
• Elysium Star-2, a 1U CubeSat of Elysium Space providing space burial services.
• ESEO (European Student Earth Orbiter) sponsored by ESA, a microsatellite of ~40 kg with 6 instruments aboard.
• Eu:CROPIS (Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-Food Production in Space), a minisatellite (230 kg) of DLR, Germany. The objective is to study food production in space in support of future long-duration manned space missions (life sciences). The main payloads are two greenhouses, each maintained as a pressurized closed loop system, simulating the environmental conditions of the Moon or of Mars.
• eXCITe (eXperiment for Cellular Integration Technology), a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) mission to demonstrate the 'satlets' technology. Satlets are a new low-cost, modular satellite architecture that can scale almost infinitely. Satlets are small modules that incorporate multiple essential satellite functions and share data, power and thermal management capabilities. Satlets physically aggregate in different combinations that would provide capabilities to accomplish diverse missions.Built by NovaWurks, eXCITE has a mass of 155 kg. eXCITE also carries the See Me (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements), a prototype microsatellite (~22 kg) built by Raytheon for DARPA to obtain on-demand satellite imagery in a timely and persistent manner for pre-mission planning.
• ExseedSat-1, a 1U CubeSat mission by the Indian company Exseed Space. The goal is to provide a multifunction UHF/VHF NBFM (Narrow Band Frequency Modulation) amateur communication satellite.
• FalconSat-6, a minisatellite (181 kg) of the USAFA (U.S. Air Force Academy) and sponsored by AFRL. FalconSat-6 hosts a suite of five payloads to address key AFSPC (Air Force Space Command) needs: SSA (Space Situational Awareness) and the need to mature pervasive technologies such as propulsion, solar arrays, and low power communications.
• Flock-3, three 3U CubeSats (5 kg each) of Planet Labs to provide Earth observation.
• Fox-1C, a radio amateur and technology research 1U CubeSat developed by AMSAT and hosting several university developed payloads.
• HawkEye, a formation-flying cluster of three microsatellites (13.4 kg each) of HawkEye 360, Herndon, VA, USA. The goal is to demonstrate high-precision RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) geolocation technology monitoring.
• Hiber-1 and-2, these are 6U CubeSats, a pathfinder mission of Hiber Global, Noordwijk, The Netherlands, for Hiber Global's planned (IoT) communications CubeSat constellation.
• ICE-Cap (Integrated Communications Extension Capability), a 3U CubeSat of the US Navy. The objectives are to demonstrate a cross-link from LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to MUOS (Mobile User Objective System) WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) in GEO (Geosynchronous Orbit). The objective is to send to users on secure networks.
• ICEYE-X2, a X-band SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) microsatellite (~ 80 kg) of Iceye Ltd, a commercial satellite startup company of Espoo, Finland.
• Irvine 02, a 1U CubeSat educational mission by the Irvine Public School Foundation, Irvine, CA. The Irvine CubeSat STEM Program (ICSP) is a multi-year endeavor that directly impacts over a hundred students from six high schools and two school districts.
• ITASAT-1 (Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica Satellite), a Brazilian 6U Cubesat (~8kg) built by the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA). A former rescoped microsatellite mission.
• JY1-Sat, a 1U CubeSat of Jordan developed by students of various universities. The satellite will carry a UHF/VHF amateur radio.
• KazSTSAT (Kazakh Science and Technology Satellite), a microsatellite (<100 kg) of Ghalam LLP, Astana, Kazakhstan. Developed by SSTL on a SSTL-50 platform including an SSTL EarthMapper payload designed for global commercial wide-area imaging with a resolution of 17.5 m on a swath of 250 km.
• KNACKSAT (KMUTNB Academic Challenge of Knowledge SATellite) of Thailand, a 1U technology demonstration CubeSat, the first entirely Thai-built satellite, developed by students of King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok (KMUTNB). Use of an amateur radio for communication.
• Landmapper-BC (Corvus BC 4), a 6U CubeSat (11 kg) of Astro Digital (formerly Aquila Space), Santa Clara, CA, USA. The satellite features a broad coverage multispectral (Red, Green, NIR) imaging system with a resolution of 22 m.
• MinXSS-2 (Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2), a 3U CubeSat(4 kg) of LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) at the University of Colorado at Boulder,CO, USA. The objective is to study the energy distribution of solar flare SXR (Soft X-ray) emissions and its impact on the Earth’s ITM (Ionosphere, Thermosphere, and Mesosphere) layers.MinXSS-2 is a copy of the MinXSS-1 but with some improvements. — MinXSS-1 was launched on 06 December 2015 onboard of Cygnus CRS-4 to the ISS, were it was deployed into orbit on 16 May 2016. It reentered Earth's atmosphere on 6 May 2017.
• NEXTSat-1, a multi-purpose microsatellite (~100 kg) of Korea designed and developed at SaTReC (Satellite Technology Research Center) of KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology). The goal is to conduct scientific missions such as star formation and space storm measurements and also technology demonstration in space. Instruments: ISSS (Instrument for the Study of Space Storms) developed at KAIST to detect plasma densities and particle fluxes of 10 MeV energy range near the Earth. NISS (NIR Imaging Spectrometer for Star formation history), developed at KASI (Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute).
• Orbital Reflector, a 3U CubeSat project (4 kg) of the Nevada Museum of Art and artist Trevor Paylon. The Orbital Reflector is a 30 m sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar. On deployment, the sculpture self-inflates like a balloon. Sunlight reflects onto the sculpture making it visible from Earth with the naked eye — like a slowly moving artificial star as bright as a star in the Big Dipper.
• ORS-7 (Operationally Responsive Space 7), two 6U CubeSats (-7A and -7B) of the USCG (US Coast Guard) in cooperation with DHS (Department of Homeland Security), the ORS (Operationally Responsive Space Office) of DoD, and NOAA. The objective is to detect transmissions from EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons), which are carried on board vessels to broadcast their position if in distress.
• PW-Sat 2 (Politechnika Warszawska Satellite 2), a 2U CubeSat of the Institute of Radioelectronics at the Warsaw University of Technology, Warsaw, Poland. The objective is to demonstrate a deorbitation system - a drag parachute opened behind the satellite - which allows faster removal of satellites from their orbit after it completes its mission.
• RAAF-M1 (Royal Australian Air Force-M1), an Australian 3U CubeSat (~4 kg) designed and built by UNSW (University of New South Wales) for the Australian Defence Force Academy, Royal Australian Air Force. RAAF-M1 is a technology demonstration featuring an AIS receiver, and ADS-B receiver, an SDR (Software Defined Radio).
• RANGE-A and -B (Ranging And Nanosatellite Guidance Experiment), two 1.5 CubeSats of Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology), Atlanta, GA, USA, flying in a leader-follower formation with the goal of improving the relative and absolute positioning capabilities of nanosatellites.
• ROSE-1, a 6U CubeSat of Phase Four Inc., El Segundo, CA, USA. ROSE-1 is an experimental spacecraft designed to provide an orbital test-bed for the Phase Four RFT (Radio Frequency Thruster), the first plasma propulsion system to fly on a nanosatellite.
• SeaHawk-1, a 3U CubeSats of UNCW (University of North Carolina, Wilmington), NC. The goal is to measure the ocean color in project SOCON (Sustained Ocean Observation from Nanosatellites). SeaHawk is considered a prototype for a larger constellation. The SOCON project is a collaboration between Clyde Space Ltd (spacecraft bus), the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cloudland Instruments, and NASA/GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center).
• See Me (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements), a prototype microsatellite (~22 kg) built by Raytheon for DARPA to obtain on-demand satellite imagery in a timely and persistent manner for pre-mission planning.
• SkySat-14 and -15. Planet of San Francisco has 13 SkySats in orbit. The commercial EO satellites were built by Terra Bella of Mountain View, CA, which Planet acquired from Google last year. At the time of the purchase, there were 7 SkySats in orbit. On 31 October 2017, Planet launched an additional six on a Minotaur-C rocket. The 100 kg SkySats are capable of sub-meter resolution – making them the most powerful in the constellation. Customers can request to have these high-resolution satellites target their locations of interest.
• SNUGLITE, a 2U CubeSat designed by the SNU (Seoul National University) for technology demonstrations and amateur radio communication.
• SpaceBEE, four picosatellites of Swarm Technologies (a US start-up), built to the 0.25U form factor to make up a 1U CubeSat.
• STPSat-5 is a science technology minisatellite of the US DoD STP (Space Test Program), managed by the SMC of the USAF. STPSat-5 will carry a total of five technological or scientific payloads to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) in order to further the DoD’s understanding of the space environment. The satellite was built by SNC (Sierra Nevada Corporation) on the modular SN-50 bus with a payload capacity of 50-100 kg and compatible with ESPA-class secondary launch adaptors.
• THEA, a 3U CubeSat built by SpaceQuest, Ltd. of Fairfax, VA to demonstrate a spectrum survey payload developed by Aurora Insight, Washington DC. The objective is to qualify Aurora’s payload, consisting of a proprietary spectrometer and components, and demonstrate the generation of relevant measurements of the spectral environment (UHF, VHF, S-band). The results of the experiment will inform future development of advanced instrumentation by Aurora and component development by SpaceQuest.
• VESTA is a 3U CubeSat developed at SSTL in Guildford, UK. VESTA is a technology demonstration mission that will test a new two-way VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) payload for the exactEarth advanced maritime satellite constellation. Honeywell Aerospace is providing the payload. VESTA is a flagship project of the National Space Technology Program, funded by the UK Space Agency and managed by the Center for EO Instrumentation and Space Technology (CEOI-ST).
• VisionCube-1, a 2U CubeSat designed by the Korea Aerospace University (KAU) to perform research on Transient Luminous Events in the upper atmosphere. The image processing payload consists of a multi-anode photon multiplier tube(MaPMT), a camera, and a real-time image processing engine built by using SoC (System-on-Chip) FPGA technologies.
Spaceflight has contracted with 64 spacecraft from 34 different organizations for the mission to a Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit. It includes 15 microsatellites and 49 CubeSats from both commercial and government entities, of which more than 25 are from international organizations from 17 countries, including United States, Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Finland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, UK, Germany, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Poland, Canada, Brazil, and India. 15)
Figure 5: The smallsat express (image credit: Spaceflight)
• October 5, 2020: BlackSky, a leading provider of global monitoring services, geospatial intelligence and satellite imagery, announced its fifth and sixth global satellites have completed commissioning and are in commercial operations. The addition of these two satellites to the BlackSky constellation brings higher resolution and increased revisits for key customer markets around the world. 18)
- These latest two satellites launched in August 2020 and successfully achieved first images within 58 hours of operation. The satellites have been delivering customer collections since that time while concurrently completing the commissioning process.
- “The addition of our fifth and sixth satellites into our commercial constellation is an important step in our strategy to provide our customers with data that materially impacts their mission and business objectives,” said Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky. “We’ve always prioritized speed and utility so our customers experience incredible first-to-know insights. This campaign continues to execute on that commitment by delivering intelligence that can change outcomes.”
- BlackSky’s fifth and sixth satellites are already delivering enhanced image performance and growing revisits for BlackSky customers. By flying at lower altitudes than other satellites in BlackSky’s constellation, these latest two satellites can produce images with resolution up to 80 cm — a 20 percent improvement over the existing satellites in the constellation.
- The position of these satellites at an inclination of 53 degrees will allow additional revisits across all markets with heightened performance in Europe and Asia. These advances will unlock more analytic and data driven opportunities for BlackSky’s customers.
- The BlackSky constellation now includes six satellites. The company is on track to add 10 more satellites to its constellation by the end of 2021.
- The new so-called Gen-3 satellites will produce images with 50-centimeter resolution, compared to the current Gen-2 satellites that provide one-meter imagery. The first Gen-3 satellites will launch in 2022, BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole told SpaceNews.
- The U.S. Army will be one of the users of Gen-3 satellites, O’Toole said. BlackSky in January received a contract to prototype the service from the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s outreach organization that works with commercial tech industries.
Figure 6: BlackSky satellites are made by LeoStella in Seattle, Washington (image credit: BlackSky)
- Under the Army’s “tactical geoint” program, military users will be able to task a Gen-3 satellite. “They will own the satellite, and we will help them operate it,” O’Toole said. The Army can downlink imagery to its existing remote ground terminals. Under the contract, BlackSky will provide analytics services using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.
- O’Toole said this program is an example of how the military “benefits from commercial investments to accelerate the access to this type of capability.”
- The Gen-3 satellites will have dual optical-infrared sensor payloads that can see at nighttime, in low light conditions and in bad weather.
- The Gen-3 design is a larger modified version of the 50 kg Gen-2 microsatellites produced by BlackSky’s sister company LeoStella, based in Seattle, Washington.
- BlackSky currently has six Gen-2 satellites on orbit. O’Toole said the plan is to deploy 16 of the current version and to replace them with Gen-3 when they begin to age out.
• August 17, 2020: BlackSky announced it has completed initial system checkouts and has begun delivering imagery from its fifth and sixth satellites 58 hours after launch. Taking full advantage of the advanced analytics offered by its Spectra AI platform, BlackSky is now providing customers high velocity insights that were previously unattainable. 20)
Figure 7: Three images were collected in rapid succession over Port Elizabeth, South Africa on August 10th, 2020 at 11:31am local time. By analyzing these images, BlackSky is able to extract critical economic and financial indicators to offer a near real time view of commercial activity in Port Elizabeth. In particular, with the assistance of Spectra AI, BlackSky can count the number of container stacks in the container yard, identify the container and bulk carrier ships currently berthed, count the number of vehicles awaiting export in the car terminal, track ground vehicle movements, and even determine which cargo holds are actively being loaded. With the ever-increasing revisit rates offered by the BlackSky Global constellation and the advanced automation capabilities enabled by Spectra AI, economic activity is revealed at a velocity previously thought impossible (image credit: BlackSky)
- “The rate and volume at which our customers are consuming global monitoring information is increasing dramatically,” said Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky. “To help customers immediately access critical information, BlackSky has developed GEOINT technologies combined with machine learning to rapidly deploy and seamlessly integrate satellites into our product suite. The speed with which we were able to reach first light, demonstrates our ability to move industry benchmarks forward so our customers are always the first to know.”
- The addition of these satellites to the BlackSky constellation increases opportunities for intraday observation of customer targets and reduces decision-making timelines. In collaboration with satellite manufacturing partner LeoStella, BlackSky has an active assembly line delivering two satellites per month.
- BlackSky’s latest two satellites were launched into an inclined orbit at 1:12 a.m. EDT on August 7 via SpaceX’s Starlink mission. The satellites provide panchromatic and color imagery with submeter resolution. BlackSky now has six satellites on orbit and plans to launch six additional satellites by the end of Q1 2021, advancing its dawn-to-dusk global monitoring capability.
• April 22, 2020: BlackSky announced today its new Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle to support remote work options for intelligence analysts. The new Spectra solution allows analysts to securely share unclassified information. The Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle includes the ability to review multi-source data feeds, obtain timely access to satellite imagery and gain resources for event analysis. 21)
- “Given the coronavirus pandemic, intelligence analysts, financial analysts and researchers are seeking solutions that allow teams to continue critical security and intelligence projects while working remotely,” said Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky. “Our Spectra platform offers a blend of secure tools that help analysts continue monitoring the globe, even when constrained to working from an offsite location.”
- The Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle offers unique global monitoring and satellite imaging including:
a) Global activity monitoring: Access, coordination and management of a wide range of open and commercial monitoring sources
b) Comprehensive commercial satellite imagery: Fast tasking and delivery with rapid access to image archives
c) Automated tipping and cueing: Rapid selection and tasking of the right sensor at the right time
d) Secure online environment for analyst collaboration, publication and dissemination: Internet accessible and unclassified resources.
- Strategic focus for the new Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle includes site, activity and crisis monitoring while leveraging ad-hoc imagery ordering. Intelligence analysts can access data from BlackSky’s satellites and multi-source event feeds in addition to information from third-party satellite sensors. BlackSky offers low latency, rapid task collection, frequent revisits and temporal diversity across time of day with imaging satellites in Sun-synchronous and mid-inclined orbits.
- “Our offering provides one pane of glass for deep visibility and access to the data and analytics our customers need, delivered within a matter of hours,” continued O’Toole. “With our extensive experience combining AI- and ML-driven analytic models and geospatial images, BlackSky’s global monitoring capabilities are already playing a crucial role supporting the redistributed workforces of U.S. analysts.”
• November 12, 2019: An industry first will create a strategic relationship that pairs Earth observation with a global communications infrastructure. The companies are BlackSky, provider of geospatial intelligence, satellite imaging and global monitoring services, and a $50 million senior secured loan from the global satellite communications company, Intelsat . BlackSky currently has four 1-meter satellites in orbit with another four slated for launch in early 2020, and plans to have 16 satellites in its constellation by early 2021. 22) 23)
- The new capital enables BlackSky to further its existing assets and alliances to remain competitive in delivering Earth intelligence faster, with greater accuracy and more affordably. The objective is that over time, BlackSky could incorporate access to Intelsat’s global communications infrastructure, delivering first-to-know insights to customers anywhere in the world. With an established manufacturing capability, mission operations center and sales channels in place, BlackSky is in the process of expanding its constellation of smallsats that the company declares "will deliver the highest revisit rate in the industry."
- The company is also leading the industry in fusing AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning)-powered computer vision, high revisit rate imagery from orbital assets and open-source intelligence to provide customers with comprehensive, deep insights about the locations in the world they care about.
- Brian E. O’Toole, President and CEO of BlackSky stated that BlackSky is enabling a whole new level of global intelligence by leveraging the economics of small satellites so that their customers will always be the first to know. It takes a lot of expertise, engineering and capital to make smallsats viable; BlackSky is the first company to overcome these challenges with proven economies of scale. This latest partnership is a vote of confidence in their ability to deliver industry leading insights to their customers from one of the biggest players in the market.
- Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler offered that, BlackSky is well positioned to be a significant player in the expanding Earth observation sector, which they believe benefits from accelerating trends including cloud computing, change detection, predictive analytics and machine learning. They believe a significant number of commercial and government sector customers will increasingly rely on geospatial intelligence. Their investment will be used to fund enhancements to the current BlackSky infrastructure and will serve as a springboard for a commercial alliance with Intelsat and their Intelsat General government subsidiary.
• June 6, 2019: The talk of the industry at this week’s geospatial intelligence symposium GEOINT 2019 was the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office’s) friendly outreach to commercial suppliers of satellite imagery that for years have felt shut out of the market. 24)
- A year after taking over the responsibility for buying commercial satellite imagery from the NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency), the NRO is ready to start buying products from new vendors and move beyond the single-supplier arrangement that NGA signed nearly a decade ago with DigitalGlobe, which has recently been rebranded by its parent company as Maxar Technologies.
- Maxar is now the NRO’s sole supplier of commercial satellite imagery under the EnhancedView contract, which NGA inked in 2010 with two companies — DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. By 2012, government spending cuts forced NGA to slash its imagery budget by half. EnhancedView subsequently was reduced from more than $7 billion to about $3.5 billion, which led to the merger of the two companies under DigitalGlobe.
- Now, the NRO pays $300 million a year for access to Maxar’s WorldView-1, WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 satellites and its image library under the program it renamed EnhancedView Follow-On. EnhancedView was originally a 10-year deal set to expire in 2020. When the NRO took over the management of the contract, it added three yearly options worth about $300 million a year.
- NRO officials said extending Maxar’s options until 2023 gives the agency sufficient time to transition to a new procurement while continuing to buy imagery from Maxar to ensure there is no disruption in supply.
- Troy Meink, director of the NRO’s geospatial intelligence directorate, announced June 3 that the agency in 2020 will start a new procurement that will include multiple companies. To begin the process, it awarded one-year contracts to Maxar and two other suppliers — Planet and BlackSky — to allow the NRO to study the companies’ products and gain insight into the projected size and capacity of their satellite constellations.
- The NRO calls these “study contracts” because the information they receive from vendors will be used by the agency to examine the companies’ abilities to task, collect process and deliver satellite imagery. “These are major efforts to start working with vendors that traditionally we have not, to figure out how they can deliver product and best meet the requirements,” Meink told SpaceNews in a June 3 interview. “We are trying to understand how we can use their capability. Licensing is always a big deal. That’s part of the study phase. How could we license that data?”
- Meink said the opportunities for new players will be significant because the NRO expects it will need more imagery than it currently acquires from Maxar, which means it is likely to spend more than $300 million annually. Meink declined to say how much more.
- A newly created Commercial Systems Program Office at the NRO will oversee the procurement of imagery. The office’s director, Peter Muend, said that after the one-year study phase, the NRO will start planning large procurement awards in late 2020. “We see a dramatic increase in commercial requirements. That means we’re going to be buying a lot more commercial imagery than we have in the past,” he said June 4 at GEOINT.
- Both Planet and BlackSky are commercial players that have been eager for a shot at the biggest imagery buy from the U.S. government.
- When BlackSky was formed in 2015, several of its employees were GeoEye and DigitalGlobe alumni, including chief technology officer Scott Herman. “We’re made up of people from the national security community that support national security missions,” Herman told SpaceNews. “We see that as our primary and first vertical that we really want to focus on.”
- At the same time, BlackSky is rapidly building a commercial business. “The government wants us to have a commercial business,” Herman said. “They don’t want us to be solely dependent on the government.”
- Based in Seattle, BlackSky is owned by Spaceflight Industries, a space services firm. BlackSky has two Earth imaging satellites in operation and plans to have eight in service by year’s end, Herman said. The company’ long-term goals are to deploy 30 satellites by 2023, and possibly 60 in the years after, depending on the market demand.
- BlackSky supplies high-revisit imagery but primarily sees itself as a provider of global monitoring and alerting services that combine pictures — taken by its own satellites and other companies’ satellites — with other sources of intelligence such as social media, news and other data feeds. “We are not just a satellite company,” said Herman. “We build satellites to support our global monitoring.” BlackSky’s foreign military customers have described the company’s service as “NGA in a box,” Herman said.
- San Francisco-based Planet has been making modest inroads into the defense and intelligence market. In March, the NGA renewed its third contract since 2016 with Planet, extending the agency’s subscription access to daily imagery over select areas of the Earth.
• March 6, 2018: BlackSky, the geospatial intelligence service of Spaceflight Industries, today announced the first of its next generation of small Earth observation satellites is complete, qualified, and awaiting launch. This spacecraft, called Global-1, is the first of four smallsats that are scheduled to launch in the next year on both US and foreign launch vehicles. 25)
- The Global series of spacecraft builds on the success of BlackSky’s initial technology demonstration spacecraft, called Pathfinder, which was launched in September 2016. The Global spacecraft provides 1-meter resolution and features improved image quality, geolocation accuracy, and on-orbit lifetime. The spacecraft is complemented by an enhanced ground system to minimize the latency between image tasking and receipt.
- “The Global satellites are an important step forward for the satellite industry,” said Nick Merski, vice president of space operations at Spaceflight Industries. “We are continuing to advance the boundaries of what can be achieved in terms of price point, capability and form factor, and these improvements ultimately help to make space more accessible for a broader set of business applications.”
- BlackSky’s Global smallsats will join the virtual constellation of commercial imaging satellites accessible through the BlackSky geospatial platform. Within the platform, users can access BlackSky Spectra’s on-demand imagery service to search, purchase, task, and download visual imagery and multi-spectral data from a global collection network. They can also subscribe to BlackSky Events, the platform’s global event monitoring service that fuses news, social media, industry data services, and physical sensor networks to provide early warning and insights on risks, threats, and opportunities that can impact their business. The platform is currently in use by several large government and commercial organizations to actively monitor global assets.
• September 15, 2017: The Space Alliance, formed by Thales Alenia Space (Thales 67%, Leonardo 33%) and Telespazio (Leonardo 67%, Thales 33%), today signed a partnership with the US-based company Spaceflight Industries of Seattle, WA, which includes the following elements: 26)
- A minority investment in Spaceflight Industries, which through its BlackSky business, has developed a geospatial platform and plans to build and operate a constellation of 60 small high-resolution observation satellites featuring very short revisit times;
- The creation of an industrial Joint Venture in the United States between Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries specialized in the production of small satellites;
- The implementation of a Joint Cooperation and Marketing Agreement between Telespazio and BlackSky enhancing their respective product and analytics portfolios on the market.
“This partnership reflects the ‘new space’ transformation strategy being implemented by Thales Alenia Space, with the ultimate aim of becoming a major manufacturer of small observation satellites constellations featuring short revisit times, both in Europe and the United States,” said Jean-Loic Galle, President and Chief Executive Officer of Thales Alenia Space.
• December 14, 2016: Spaceflight Industries today announced the availability of its BlackSky global intelligence platform, as well as its EAP (Early Adopter Program) participants, and the diverse partner ecosystem fueling the platform. The highly scalable, cloud-based platform enables organizations to observe, analyze and act on global events as they happen. Unparalleled in the industry, the BlackSky platform integrates diverse sensors and data – including satellite imagery, social media and other data feeds – to reveal timely and relevant insights around specific topics or locations. 27)
Currently, the platform is in early adoption with a select group of customers, including the World Bank, RS Metrics, United Nations, and others. “Our business plan has always been to look at the planet in real time, in every spectrum, to solve real-world problems,” said Jason Andrews, chief executive officer of Spaceflight Industries. “Today we are announcing significant progress on that journey. For the first time, organizations can fuse satellite imagery with a wide array of data services contextualized in time and space to better understand the most critical issues of our time.”
The BlackSky platform offers two major capabilities:
1) Imagery: Customers can discover, purchase and download imagery via the BlackSky platform, which currently provides access to more than 10 high-resolution imaging spacecraft including those from 21AT’s TripleSat constellation, SIIS’s (SI Imaging Services) KOMPSAT, and UrtheCast’s Deimos-2. The platform will incorporate data from BlackSky’s 60-satellite constellation as it enters commercial operation in 2017. Additionally, customers can acquire real-time images by tasking partner satellite systems and soon the BlackSky constellation.
2) Insights: The platform fuses the satellite imagery with information from other sources including news outlets and social media to create curated data feeds by location (ex: port, pipeline, border) or theme (ex: geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, energy, or health/outbreak). Through machine learning, predictive algorithms and natural language processing techniques, the platform triangulates these relevant global events in time and space. Customers then receive customized results that are prioritized based on their preferences.
With this multi-source analysis, the platform can alert the customer of critical events related to their area of interest – enabling them to take immediate action. For example, an organization can opt to have BlackSky monitor its manufacturing facility and send an alert if a natural disaster or conflict is detected within 50 kilometers. With this information at their fingertips, the organization can make well-informed decisions about their global assets.
“We’re excited to expand the community that can take advantage of having relevant and timely information readily available – whether they’re monitoring illegal maritime activity, providing humanitarian relief, securing troops and borders, or tracking economic assets,” added Rakesh Narasimhan, executive vice president at BlackSky. “Having the support of these high-caliber partners and customers at this early stage is very encouraging, and we intend to use their feedback to ensure the platform is poised to provide actionable and tangible value to our global society.”
Key features of the BlackSky global intelligence platform include:
- Ease of use: BlackSky’s easy-to-use web-based interface speeds and simplifies the viewing, purchasing and downloading of geospatial products. Users can securely log on, search the archive of images, task or request a new image (complete with “add to shopping cart” functionality), analyze and store data via the secure Web portal.
- Rapid revisit: Through its vast partner satellite systems, the platform provides access to the largest virtual commercial constellation with industry-leading revisit abilities. The deployment of the 60-satellite BlackSky satellite constellation will provide a rapid revisit rate with the ability to pass over key zones hourly, making images fresher to provide a more comprehensive story. In addition to the successful launch of BlackSky’s Pathfinder-1 in September 2016, four more satellites are expected to launch in 2017, and the complete constellation will be on orbit by 2020.
- Affordability: BlackSky holds a unique market position as a product offering of Spaceflight Industries, which develops launch capabilities, innovative spacecraft, communications networks and cloud-based software services. By leveraging this vertical integration, BlackSky is able to pass the savings along to its customers.
• November 14, 2016: Following the launch, the Spaceflight Industries’ operations team has conducted extensive spacecraft level testing and is currently in the process of working through payload calibration as well as transitioning to automated operations. Pathfinder-1 is presently operating in a 690 km circular orbit because it was launched as a rideshare spacecraft, while the future BlackSky constellation will operate at 450 km - providing 1 m resolution. 28) 29)
- The following first sample images of the BlackSky Pathfinder-1 spacecraft were presented by the BlackSky project on Nov. 14, 2016. Even at the present altitude of 690 km the project at Spaceflight Industries is pleased with the detail and performance. Each image spans an area measuring about 10 km x 3 km, with a resolution of ~2 m/pixel. 30)
- According to Jason Andrews of Spaceflight Industries: ” We are still very early in our spacecraft mission and there is a lot more to learn and improve on from a performance standpoint. But to be clear, these pictures represent mission success.”
Figure 8: BlackSky Pathfinder-1 scene showing farms and industrial sites around Beijing, China (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
Figure 9: BlackSky Pathfinder-1 scene of mountains around Kandahar in Afghanistan (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
Figure 10: Desert mountain in China's Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
Figure 11: BlackSky Pathfinder-1 scene of Tokyo Suburbs, Tokyo, Japan (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
• Sept. 27, 2016: BlackSky Global announced the successful launch of Pathfinder-1 and the subsequent first communication! 31)
Sensor complement (SpaceView 24™)
The spacecraft is equipped with a SV-24 (SpaceView 24™) imaging telescope, built by Harris Corporation, allowing it to image an area approximately 30 km2 at high resolution.
Harris SpaceView™ payloads provide high-resolution imagery in a small, lightweight form factor. With apertures ranging from 0.24 m to 0.7 m, SpaceView™ systems meet imaging and size, weight and power requirements for nanosats, microsats, and smallsats with high-resolution imaging ranging from 0.24 m – 1.1 m GSD (Ground Sample Distance). SpaceView™models 24, 36, and 42 are high-resolution payloads that even offer the potential to capitalize on standard ESPA(EELV Secondary Payload Adapter) APL envelope configurations. 32)
SpaceView 24™ imaging telescope parameters:
- Aperture: 24 cm diameter
- Payload mass: < 10 kg
- Resolution @500km (GSD): 0.9-1.1 m.
- Sensor capabilities: • Staring, • Motion, Imagery/ Video, • Low Light.
- Bands: Visible Pan / Color.
Figure 12: GSD (Ground Sample Distance) comparison for various SV (SpaceView) instrument configurations (image credit: Harris)
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4) “AllSource and BlackSky Global Create Content Partnership,” AllSource Analysis, June 23, 2015, URL: http://allsourceanalysis.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BlackSkyAllSource.pdf
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2018, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2018/12/03/
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deploys seven satellites to orbit,” Rocket Lab, 29 June, 2019, URL:
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2022, signs deal with U.S. Army,” SpaceNews, 24 September 2020,
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Intelligence Analysts,” BlackSky Press Release, 22 April 2020, URL: https://blacksky.com/2020/04/22/
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big government contracts,” Space News, 6 June 2019, URL: https://spacenews.com
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26) ”Thales Alenia Space, Telespazio and Spaceflight Industries Partner to Accelerate the BlackSky Geospatial Platform and High Revisit Rate Constellation,” Spaceflight Industries Press Release, Sept. 15, 2017, URL: http://tinyurl.com/yasxwmvk
27) ”Spaceflight Industries Unveils its BlackSky Platform for Observing the Planet,” BlackSky, Dec. 14, 2016, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2016/12/14
”Spaceflight Industries Shares First Images from BlackSky
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Release, Nov. 14, 2016, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2016/11/14
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32) ”SpaceViewTM Small Satellite Imaging Solutions,” Harris brochure, URL: https://www.harris.com/sites/default/files/downloads
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).