Pléiades Neo Constellation of Airbus DS
The production of Airbus’ four new very high resolution satellites, which together will form the Pléiades Neo constellation, is well on schedule for launch in 2020. They will join the already world leading Airbus constellation of optical and radar satellites and will offer enhanced performance and the highest reactivity in the market thanks to their direct access to the data relay communication system, known as the SpaceDataHighway. 1) 2)
This first batch of four optical and very agile satellites will double the number of visits per day anywhere on Earth and offer a re-tasking rate which is five times higher than previous constellations. Each satellite will be adding half a million km2 per day at 30 cm resolution to Airbus’ offering. These images will be streamed into the OneAtlas on-line platform, allowing customers to have immediate data access, analytics and correlation with Airbus’ unique archive of optical and radar data.
“With Pléiades Neo, we will have the most advanced high-resolution constellation on offer for both commercial and secured governmental applications with another four satellites added to our existing Airbus fleet of 10 accessible Earth observation satellites,” said Evert Dudok, Head of Communications, Intelligence and Security at Airbus Defence and Space. “The fact that Pléiades Neo is equipped with the latest Laser Communication Technology gives our customers an advantage of speed that will be unrivalled in our industry for a long time.”
Pléiades Neo will utilize the SpaceDataHighway to ensure the highest system reactivity, lowest latency and high volume data transfer. Thanks to the very high communication bandwidth possible with lasers of up to 1.8 Gbit/s and the geostationary orbit positioning of the relay satellites, up to 40 terabytes per day can be transmitted securely in quasi-real-time to Earth, as opposed to the delay of several hours sometimes experienced today. The four satellites will be equipped with reactive Ka-band terminals that will allow last minute tasking updates, even if the satellites are beyond their ground stations’ line-of-sight. This is an important asset for customers, when it comes to the assessment of natural disasters and first line response for civil and military applications.
The integrated next generation laser terminals are optimized in terms of power and will save 60% in mass and size compared to currently used terminals. They are designed by Tesat Spacecom and developed under a partnership between DLR (German Aerospace Center) and Airbus. These generational advancements have the added advantage of driving significant cost efficiencies in design and integration. Development and verification are supported by the DLR’s Space Administration with funds from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.
The SpaceDataHighway, also known as the EDRS (European Data Relay System), was developed through a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) between ESA (European Space Agency) and Airbus, and actually benefits to the Sentinel satellites of the European Union’s Copernicus program. Pléiades Neo will be the first commercial constellation to be equipped with this technology, and therefore able to provide a unique responsiveness level.
Thanks to Pléiades Neo, customers will take advantage from increased monitoring capability and operational efficiency. In line with Airbus’ strategy for increased digitization and connectivity, its next-generation ground segments will foster access to the information, offering machine learning and automated analytics applications. They will also provide multi-mission capabilities and large-scale image processing.
Entirely funded, manufactured, owned and operated by Airbus, Pléiades Neo is a breakthrough in Earth observation domain and will provide customers with high-level service continuity for the next 15 years.
Figure 1: An introduction to Pléiades Neo. From 2020, Pléiades Neo will reshape Earth Observation-based services. Airbus' most advanced optical constellation, with four identical 30cm resolution satellites with ultimate reactivity, optimizes each step of the acquisition and delivery cycle. The best of very high-resolution optical imagery, for an unprecedented level of geospatial services (video credit: Airbus DS, published on 15 February 2019)
Figure 2: With exclusive access to Pléiades, SPOT, TerraSAR-X, TanDEM-X radar and DMC Constellation, our extensive portfolio spans the entire geoinformation value chain and is unrivalled in the marketplace. Our constellation provides decision makers with integrated, sustainable solutions to increase security, optimize mission planning and operations, boost operational performance, improve management of resources, and protect our environment (video credit: Airbus DS, published 3 October 2017)
Figure 3: Overview of Airbus constellation (image credit: Airbus) 3)
From 2020, Pléiades Neo will reshape Earth Observation-based services. Airbus’ most advanced optical constellation, with four identical 30cm resolution satellites with ultimate reactivity, optimizes each step of the acquisition and delivery cycle. The best of very high-resolution optical imagery, for an unprecedented level of geospatial services. 4) 5)
• Number of satellites: 4 identical satellites in constellation
• Launch: 2020 of the first two Pléiades Neo satellites.
• Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit, altitude of 620 km, descending node at 10:30,
• Product resolution: Panchromatic 0.3 m
• Expected geolocation accuracy: <5 m CE90 at nadir
• Dynamic range at acquisition: 12 bits
• Swath: 14 km at nadir
• Revisit capacity: Daily, anywhere (30° off-nadir), Twice daily, anywhere (46° off-nadir)
• Pointing agility: ± 52°
• Mission lifetime: >10 years
• Spectral bands: Deep Blue, Blue, Green, Red, Red Edge, Near-infrared, Panchromatic.
• March 25, 2021: Payload preparations have begun in French Guiana for Arianespace’s next mission – which is to utilize the light-lift Vega in deploying the first Pléiades Neo constellation satellite and other passengers in a piggyback configuration. 6)
- Produced by Airbus Defence and Space, Pléiades Neo 3 arrived yesterday at Félix Eboué Airport near Cayenne, then traveled by road to the Spaceport to begin its processing. Liftoff of this Vega mission – designated Flight VV18 in Arianespace’s launcher family numbering system – is planned in the coming weeks from the equatorial space base.
- Pléiades Neo 3 arrived in French Guiana along with Pléiades Neo 4, the second satellite scheduled to join the Pléiades Neo constellation – which is funded, manufactured, owned, and operated by Airbus Defence and Space. Pléiades Neo 4 will be orbited on the following Arianespace Vega flight.
- When fully deployed, Airbus’ Pléiades Neo constellation will comprise four identical satellites to provide commercial and institutional customers with high-resolution imaging. Phased at 90° and operated in the same orbit, these satellites are to be capable of visiting any point on the globe at least twice daily.
Figure 4: Scheduled to launch in the coming weeks on an Arianespace Vega launcher, the first of Airbus’ new generation of Pléiades Neo very high-resolution satellites is shown while being readied for shipment from Toulouse, France to French Guiana (image credit: Airbus)
Continuing Arianespace’s small satellite launch services
- The SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service) program, initiated by the European Space Agency (ESA) with the European Commission’s contribution, allows Arianespace to offer ride-share solutions tailored for the small satellite market. Arianespace performed the first SSMS launch using a Vega vehicle in September 2020 – successfully deploying 40-plus small CubeSats and seven microsatellites into Sun-synchronous orbit.
- The Small Spacecraft Mission Service dispenser system is an ESA product developed by Italy’s Avio under the space agency’s leadership, and is produced by the Czech company SAB Aerospace s.r.o. (CZ).
- Composed of modular components, the dispenser is assembled to serve as the interface with grouped payloads composed of microsatellites and CubeSats. Capable of accepting a full range of payload combinations, the SSMS configuration has been designed to be as responsive as possible in meeting the launch service market’s needs for institutional and commercial customers.
• March 9, 2021: Italian rocket maker Avio’s small launch vehicle is set to return to flight in April following a failure late last year that resulted in the loss of two European observation satellites. 7)
- Avio spokesperson Francesco Delorenzo told SpaceNews on March 8 that Vega was cleared for the upcoming Vega VV18 mission during a March 3 flight readiness review conducted by Avio, launch partner Arianespace, and the European Space Agency.
- Vega’s is slated to launch April 20 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana carrying the 750-kilogram Pléiades-Neo 1, a high-resolution Earth observation satellite built and operated by Airbus Defence and Space.
- In addition to its primary payload, the mission will also carry a number of secondary payloads including Eutesat’s ELO Alpha cubesat, and three Lemur-2 satellites for Spire Global, the San Francisco-based data analytics provider that announced March 1 plans to go public by merging with a SPAC (Special-Purpose Acquisition Company).
- Vega’s upcoming return to flight follows a string of two failures in its last three launch attempts. The first, in July 2019, resulted in the destruction of the United Arab Emirates’ FalconEye1 Earth observation satellite.
- The most recent failure occurred 16 November 2020 when Vega’s upper stage (VV17 flight) malfunctioned eight minutes after liftoff from Europe’s French Guiana spaceport. The failure resulted in the loss of both of the rocket’s payloads, the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the 175 kg TARANIS satellite built by the French Space Agency CNES.
Figure 5: A flight readiness review conducted March 3 has cleared the Avio Vega launch vehicle to return to flight in April (image credit: ESA /M. Pedoussaut)
• February 24, 2020: The first two Airbus-built Pléiades Neo imaging satellites in Toulouse have started comprehensive environmental testing, to ensure they are ready for in-orbit operation. 8)
- During the tests, the satellites are subjected to extreme temperatures and vacuum, vibration and acoustic noise, as well as electromagnetic interference. This will ensure they can withstand the harsh conditions they will experience during launch and their mission in orbit.
- These first two new generation very high-resolution satellites are on schedule for launch as planned in mid-2020. They will join the already world leading Airbus constellation of optical and radar satellites, improving both the revisit and resolution capacities.
Figure 6: Pléiades Neo about to start thermal vacuum tests in Toulouse (image credit: Airbus DS)
• April 1, 2019: Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) and Airbus have signed a contract for SSC ground segment support services to the new Pléiades Neo constellation of very high resolution Earth Observation satellites — this contract marks an important step in the long-term partnership between SSC and Airbus and extends the capabilities of both companies. 9) 10)
- The first two very high resolution Pléiades Neo satellites will be launched in mid-2020, followed by a second pair in 2022. They will join the existing Airbus constellation of optical and radar satellites, and will offer enhanced performance, and the highest reactivity in the market.
- SSC will provide comprehensive ground segment support for the Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP), as well as routine on-orbit support for Telemetry, Tracking and Control (TT&C) and data reception. The core SSC ground network for Pléiades Neo will consist of the unique dual polar ground station solution of Kiruna, Sweden and Inuvik, Canada - often referred to as “Kinuvik” as it is operated as a virtual single polar station. The partnership also includes an option to provide potentially higher data volumes at a later stage, using the southern hemisphere station of Punta Arenas, Chile.
- The optimized and highly resilient SSC ground network provides effective tasking and downloading of large data volumes more than once every orbit, enabling rapid delivery of Pléiades Neo data from anywhere on Earth.
- The ground network has been designed by SSC and Airbus to complement Airbus’ Direct Receiving Stations (DRS) as well as the Airbus SpaceDataHighway relay satellite system, while being flexible to adapt to changing seasonal needs and to give critical network diversity.
- François Lombard, Head of Intelligence Business at Airbus Defence and Space, said the Pléiades Neo constellation will be adding two million km2/day at 30 cm resolution to Airbus’ imagery offering. As tasking and downloading will be possible in every orbit, up to 60 times a day for the constellation, the company needs to rely on very efficient commercial polar communication services.
- Stefan Gardefjord, CEO at SSC, added that Pléiades Neo is a cutting edge, very high resolution, Earth Observation constellation and this contract represents a huge milestone in the close cooperation between Airbus and SSC.
The Pléiades Neo spacecraft are based based on the S950 optical satellite bus enhanced avionics product, and will offer first rank performances thanks to an innovative design which allows: better imaging capacity, up and down transmissions, agility, compact design (with a mass of ~ 900 kg, power budget class 1 kW). The spacecraft design life is 10 years.
Communication and connectivity 11)
The four satellites in the constellation will feature reactive Ka-band terminals to allow last-minute tasking updates, even when the satellites are beyond the line-of-sight of the ground stations.
Furthermore, the Pléiades Neo - satellite is equipped with laser communication terminals through the SpaceDataHighway (EDRS), a network of European ground stations and control centres and satellites, which allows earth-observation satellites to deliver information to customers on the ground in near real-time. The spacecraft can transfer data at up to 1.8 Gbit/s or up to 40 terabytes a day.
Optimised for power, the integrated laser terminals are 60% lighter and smaller in size compared to the currently used terminals. The advancements helped in reducing design and integration costs.
The Pléiades Neo 3 satellite provides customers with increased monitoring capability and operational efficiency. It adheres to Airbus’ strategy for increased digitalisation and connectivity.
Figure 7: Artist's rendition of the Pléiades Neo satellite in orbit (image credit: Airbus DS)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous rear-circular orbit, altitude = 620 km, LTDN (Local Time on Descending Node) = 10:30 hours.
The launches are provided in reverse order.
Launch 2: On 17 August 2021 at 01:47 UTC, the Pleiades NEO-4, the second very high-resolution satellite of the new Airbus Defence and Space’s Earth Observation satellite constellation, was launched successfully on a Vega launch vehicle (VV19) of Arianespace from Kourou in French Guiana. 12) 13)
This mission marked Arianespace’s 7th successful launch of the year and the second with Vega in 2021. It lasted one hour, 44 minutes and 59 seconds during which Pléiades Neo 4 separated on a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 625 km while the four auxiliary payloads separated at 551 kilometers.
The 19th mission of Europe’s Vega light launcher also injected four CubeSats on a sun-synchronous orbit, three for the European Space Agency (ESA) and one for the French start-up Unseenlabs:
• LEDSAT, an educational project (1U CubeSat) from the University of Sapienza, Italy, participating in ESA’s Fly Your Satellite! program, that has been conceived to investigate the performances of a technology based on Light Emitting Diodes for optical Low-Earth Orbit satellites tracking.
• RadCube, a 3U CubeSat from C3S, Hungary, to demonstrate miniaturized instrument technologies that measure in-situ the space radiation and magnetic field environment in Low Earth Orbit for space weather monitoring purposes.
• SUNSTORM, a 3U CubeSat from RSL, Finland, with an innovative solar X-ray spectrometer to detect the X-ray pulses produced by coronal mass ejections – massive eruptions of many millions of tons of material from the Sun’s surface.
• BRO-4, fourth 6U CubeSat from Unseenlabs, France, of the constellation BRO (Breizh Reconnaissance Orbiter), a spectrum monitoring and electromagnetic intelligence service for maritime surveillance.
Table 2: Delopment of the Pleiades Neo constellation
Pleiades Neo-4, the primary payload with a launch mass of 922 kg, was the first to be released into a Sun-synchronous orbit about 55 minutes into the mission (Ref. 13).
Then, following two burns interrupted by a ballistic phase lasting 41 minutes, Vega’s upper stage released four auxilliary payloads in a coordinated sequence.
To comply with debris regulations to help keep space clean, the upper stage burned a final time to deorbit itself to ensure direct reentry and burn up high in the atmosphere over the ocean.
Launch 1: On April 29, 2021 at 01:50 UTC (10:50 local time in Kourou on April 28), a Vega launch vehicle operated by Arianespace lifted off successfully from the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana (South America). This mission marked Vega’s return to flight, and was also the second successful launch by Arianespace’s teams in less than 72 hours. This launch orbited Pleiades Neo-3, the first satellite in the new very-high-resolution Earth observation constellation operated by Airbus, as well as five innovative small satellites using the advanced SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service) system. 14) 15)
Figure 8: Vega's return to flight April 28 was Arianespace's third mission of 2021, following two successful Soyuz launches (image credit: Arianespace)
Orbit: The Pléiades Neo constellation will be placed into sun-synchronous morning-descending orbits (10:30 hours) at approx. 620 km altitude.
Arianespace’s 18th Vega mission also deployed several small satellites using its innovative rideshare service SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service).
• NorSat-3, a microsatellite (16 kg) of the Norsk Romsenter (Norwegian Space Centre), built by UTIAS/SFL of Toronto, Canada.
• Bravo, a 6U CubeSat demonstration mission of Aurora Insight, Denver, CO, built by NanoAvionics. The objective is to gather data on terrestrial and satellite communications. The data is used to produce valuable information on RF spectrum and the networks that rely on it.
• ELO Alpha (Eutelsat LEO for Objects), is a 6U CubeSat built by Tyvak International SRL. ELO Alpha is a prototype for Eutelsat's low earth orbit Internet of Things (IoT) constellation.
• Lemur-2 x 2. Two 3U CubeSats of Spire Global Inc. of San Francisco. The company currently operates a fleet of more than 100 CubeSats.
On this flight, Vega made use of part of its ESA-developed Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) multiple payload adapter. The SSMS is a modular lightweight carbon-fibre structure, which can accommodate multiple light satellites with a mass of 1–500 kg (Ref. 15).
The flexibility of the SSMS system allows spare capacity on Vega to be used to launch small satellites piggyback to the main customer payload. Using more than one burn of the upper stage means that they can be delivered into different orbits too.
Europe’s first use of the SSMS was a rideshare mission in September last year, carrying 53 small satellites. This demonstrated Vega’s new service to offer affordable routine access to space for multiple light satellites.
With a liftoff mass of 920 kg, Earth observation satellite Pléiades Neo-3 was the first to be released into its target Sun-synchronous orbit about 54 minutes into the mission.
This was followed about 47 minutes later by the coordinated release of Norway’s NorSat-3 microsatellite and four CubeSats: Bravo, two Lemur-2 satellites and Tyvak-128A.
Complying with debris regulations to help keep space clean, Vega’s upper stage fired a final time to ensure direct reentry and burn up high in the atmosphere over the ocean.
Pleiades Neo-3 is the first in a constellation of four identical imaging satellites. 16)
A second spacecraft is slated to launch in July, and two more are set to be lofted on a single Vega C rocket in the first half of 2022.
The full constellation will be able to visit any point on Earth at least twice a day, supplementing the lower resolution optical — and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) — spacecraft that Airbus also operates.
Five years in the making, it is the company’s biggest 100% self-funded program in space and defense, Airbus Defence and Space head of intelligence Francois Lombard told SpaceNews in a pre-launch interview.
Up until now, Lombard said only U.S.-based Maxar Technologies has been offering commercial customers 30-centimeter resolution imaging with its WorldView constellation.
Pleiades Neo will be Airbus’ workhorse imagery constellation for the next 10-12 years.
Lombard said the company’s bet on four identical satellites underlines its confidence in the market’s direction toward higher resolution imagery.
• December 16, 2021: Pléiades Neo 4, the second of four planned high-resolution images satellites built and operated by Airbus Defense and Space, entered service Dec. 15 free from an issue that prompted an insurance claim for Pléiades Neo 3. 17)
- Francois Lombard, Airbus Defense and Space head of intelligence, told SpaceNews that Pléiades Neo 4 “is fulfilling all expected performance specifications” as it begins commercial operations four months after its mid-August launch aboard a Vega rocket.
- Pléiades Neo 3, the first of four 30-cm-resolution imaging satellites Airbus plans to have in orbit by mid-2022, entered commercial service in early November, some six months after its launch aboard another Vega rocket.
- However, an equipment issue onboard Pléiades Neo 3 prompted Airbus to file a partial insurance claim soon after the satellite’s late April launch, according to an industry source.
- Airbus has not disclosed details of Pléiades Neo 3’s problem and Lombard declined to comment on the company’s insurance claim. However, Lombard said the problem, which he would only describe as an “equipment issue,” has not affected the satellite’s ability to meet customer commitments.
- “It hasn’t impacted service [enabling the company to] respect all our service agreements and commitments,” he said, adding that “there are some marginal effects that we could manage” within the wider four-satellite constellation.
- Airbus Defense and Space has signed more than $500 million in imagery orders to date for the constellation, according to Lombard.
- The company announced Dec. 15 that PASCO Corporation, a Japanese geospatial solutions provider, signed a distribution agreement with the constellation for services in Japan.
- Microsoft also recently partnered with Airbus Defense and Space on the constellation to give customers of Azure Maps, Microsoft’s geospatial services platform, access to the high-resolution satellite imagery and elevation data.
- About 95% of orders are outside of the “home countries” where Airbus has an established presence, according to Lombard.
- Airbus Defence and Space said Pléiades Neo 4 has successfully doubled the coverage its 30 cm native resolution constellation provides to around one million square kilometers a day.
- The final two satellites in the constellation are currently in qualification tests ahead of their launch on an upgraded Vega C next year, Lombard said.
- The four Pléiades Neo are identical to each other apart from the laser links that will be fitted onto the two coming next year, enabling the constellation to increase data transmission speeds for ordering and downloading imagery.
- Airbus Defence and Space says the full constellation will be able to cover the entire Earth landmass five times per year, supplemented by synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) and lower resolution optical spacecraft that the company also operates.
- Before Pléiades Neo became operational, the company says only U.S.-based Maxar Technologies had been offering commercial customers 30 cm resolution imaging with its WorldView constellation.
• May 20, 2021: Today, Airbus released a first collection of sharp images at 30cm native resolution from the Pléiades Neo 3 satellite, recently safely launched and secured in orbit. The successful acquisitions and delivery of these first images are the start of a new era for both commercial and government geospatial applications requiring a high level of accuracy and the ability to see fine details. 18)
Figure 9: Pleiades Neo 3 satellite first image of the Cheops Pyramid, Cairo, Egypt - at 30 cm native resolution (image credit: Airbus)
- The Pléiades Neo 3 images, covering a variety of global locations and featuring diverse acquisition angles, provide an impressive level of detail. In one it is easy to count each and every limestone block of the Giza Pyramids, and even the number of people visiting. The multi-layered construction of Castel Sant'Angelo across the years can also be seen in detail in another. Urban areas and modern architecture, and their comprehensive diversity, are clearly visible in the images over Shanghai, Dubai and Washington DC.
Figure 10: Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy, at 30 cm native resolution by Pleiades Neo 3 satellite (image credit: Airbus)
Figure 11: United States Capitol, Washington DC, at 30 cm native resolution by Pleiades Neo 3 satellite (image credit: Airbus)
Figure 12: Shanghai Tower, Shanghai, China at 30 cm native resolution by Pleiades Neo 3 satellite (image credit: Airbus)
- These already very sharp images were acquired before full radiometric and system calibrations and the quality will continue to improve over the next few months. Imagery from Pléiades Neo 3 is expected to become commercially available in the third quarter 2021, after these calibration steps are completed.
- With the full capacity of the satellite available for commercial use, the very high-resolution and geometrically consistent Pléiades Neo 3 imagery will provide analysts with a high level of detail, including more visibility of small objects, such as vehicles and road markings. This level of detection, recognition and identification of objects provides more ground truth for image analysts and improves reliability for machine learning capabilities. The new constellation will also provide a higher geolocation accuracy and deeper spectral band information, allowing more insights to be derived for various applications.
- The Pléiades Neo constellation will be comprised of four identical and very agile satellites, offering reactive tasking and intraday revisit of any point on Earth. Entirely funded, designed, manufactured, owned and operated by Airbus, each satellite will add half a million km2 per day at 30 cm native resolution.
- The next milestone of the Pléiades Neo program is the launch of Pléiades Neo 4, which is already at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. It is expected to launch in the summer 2021, followed by the launch of Pléiades Neo 5 and 6, in 2022.
The Pléiades-Neo satellites feature an imager with 30 cm ground resolution, possibly featuring CILAS deformable mirrors. They will use the Tesat Spacecom laser communication relay terminals to transfer data via the EDRS (European Data Relay System) network, enabling near-real time access to the images. See also Table 1 for some instrument parameters.
Table 3: Key features of Pleiades Neo
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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).