Despite the increasing choice of rockets, the availability of on-time launch services is still a key factor in bringing BlackSky’s small constellation of Earth imaging satellites into orbit. SpaceX’s rideshare launch service will give BlackSky the opportunity to add two spacecraft to its fleet on the Falcon 9 rocket on Friday, with the next batch of Starlink Internet loads.
BlackSky, based in Seattle, is deploying a series of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes in the Earth’s surface and provide near real-time geospatial intelligence data to government and corporate customers.
Scott Herman, BlackSky’s chief technology officer, said this week that the company’s next two satellites are the first of a new assembly line designed to be produced at a rate of one to two per month Spacecraft. The same satellite is scheduled to launch at 4:18:02 pm. Eastern Daylight Time (2018: 02 GMT) was launched on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Falcon 9 rocket.
According to the 45th Meteorological Squadron of the US Space Force, there is a 70% chance of launching good weather from the space coast of Florida on Friday.
BlackSky is one of several companies that develop a small fleet of Earth imaging satellites. The other is Planet, which has been developed before BlackSky, and has more than 100 medium-resolution CubeSat and 18 larger SkySat spacecraft with clearer vision.
In the Falcon 9/Starlink launch earlier this month, Planet launched three of the latest SkySat as a piggyback payload. Like BlackSky, Planet is also attracted by SpaceX’s regular launch rhythm. Friday’s mission will be SpaceX’s 11th launch this year and the eighth SpaceX launch for the Starlink network so far in 2020.
Herman said: “Probably the most dependent on satellite launch is the launch schedule.” “Because we have a production line that can launch satellites, so what really matters is whether we can ensure the required driving, and ensure that these driving On schedule. To manage this risk, we use a variety of suppliers, not just SpaceX. We work with the Indian Space Agency, we work with Rocket Lab. We are closely watching other emerging companies such as Virgin Orbit, Firefly, etc. Not only can we spread the risk, we can also improve the pace of launching and have more confidence in the launch schedule.”
The BlackSky satellites scheduled for launch on Friday are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but in fact they are the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet.
Herman said that BlackSky is willing to cooperate with SpaceX. BlackSky’s parent company, Spaceflight Industries, has already arranged a carpool mission for the Falcon 9 rocket for other customers, and launched the global No. 2 satellite in the 2018 Falcon 9 flight.
Our cooperation with SpaceX has a long history,” Herman said. “We work with others (Indian Space Agency and Rocket Lab), but we have a very deep relationship with SpaceX, and because we have gone through various journeys, We are one of the largest client brokers outside the US government. “
The BlackSky satellite launched on Friday was produced by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. The LeoStella production plant is located in Tukwila, Washington, DC, a suburb of Seattle.
Each BlackSky spacecraft weighs approximately 121 pounds (55 kilograms). They have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant.
The first four BlackSky Global satellites manufactured internally by the company were launched on the Indian PSLV, Falcon 9 and Rocket Lab Electron rockets in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Two of them were launched into polar orbits for global imaging coverage, and two were in inclined orbits in mid-flight, similar to a pair of BlackSky platforms launched on Friday.
BlackSky launched its first technology demonstration pathfinder satellite in 2016.
Currently, each generation of BlackSky global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day with a resolution of approximately 3 feet (1 meter).
Herman said: “Our work on satellites is different from historical commercial remote sensing tasks.” “Historically, this is about mapping tasks and expanding coverage every few years or every few months. . What we are trying to do is to build a constellation of satellites-a bunch of satellites-that does allow us to make very high visits and have the ability to handle many different customer needs, and to be able to collect the day from dawn to dusk.”
Herman said the two satellites launched on Friday were the first of BlackSky’s “2.1 generation” spacecraft. Engineers have introduced complete optical systems, software and improved communication systems. In the future, BlackSky will deploy the third-generation BlackSky satellite with a resolution of about 20 inches (50 cm).
“The next two satellites are the next iteration. From a software perspective, they are basically version upgrades. They are based on this assembly line and are now producing these satellites at a rate of about one or two a month.”, Hull Mann said. “Therefore, this is the beginning of a faster rhythm. This rhythm installs and deploys more and more satellites into the constellation faster and faster.”
In an interview with Spaceflight Now, he said: “The next two satellites are a very important part of it.” “Although we are definitely collecting images, analyzing and conducting global surveillance today, every satellite added to the constellation So that we have more opportunities to revisit, have greater capacity and be able to serve more customers.
Herman said: “The good news is that we are moving towards our target architecture of 16 to 24 satellites. We don’t have to wait until everyone reaches critical mass,” “This is different from some Internet constellations, you need to first All the Internet is assembled before the service can be opened. For us, this is a gradual increase in capacity, but each satellite we release will greatly increase the capacity.”
Herman said that BlackSky could eventually expand its fleet to 50 or 60 satellites, depending on customer needs.
The National Reconnaissance Agency, which has a US government spy satellite, signed a research contract with BlackSky, Planet and Maxar last year to enable government analysts to assess the effectiveness of commercial images in intelligence collection and elevated surveillance.
Herman said: “It is very important to provide on-site monitoring or activity monitoring tasks for the US government.”
BlackSky also believes that foreign governments may not use their own reconnaissance satellites, large multinational companies and the financial industry as other major customers.
Later this year, BlackSky has booked satellites to be launched on India’s new small satellite launch vehicle or SSLV. However, due to the delay in the development of SSLV, the launch date of the task originally scheduled for last year is still changing, and SSLV has not yet begun to execute. In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed India’s progress in space development.
Herman said BlackSky also plans to launch satellites to Rocket Lab and SpaceX missions later this year. The company said it plans to launch eight satellites by the end of 2020, including the pair launched on Friday. But this assumes that there will be no delays in the production of launch vehicles and spacecraft.
SpaceX has released price information for its smallsat ride-sharing service. According to SpaceX’s website, the company charges $1 million to perform a ride-sharing mission and launch a 440-pound (200 kg) satellite. This is much lower than any other launch service provider, including Rocket Lab’s Electron and other small satellite launchers.
However, Rocket Labs and other companies can put small satellites into orbit on dedicated aircraft, giving operators more flexibility in choosing altitude and inclination.
The BlackSky satellite launched on Friday was stacked on top of 57 Starlink satellites inside the Falcon 9 rocket payload shroud.
SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet services worldwide. Since the full deployment of the orbital network began in May 2019, SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft, making the company the owner of the world’s largest satellite group.
With the launch on Friday, SpaceX will deliver 595 Starlink satellites to orbit in the past 13 months.
Each flat panel satellite weighs about a quarter of a ton and was built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to start generating electricity, and then activate their rypto ion thrusters to increase their altitude to 341 miles (about 550 kilometers).
The goal of Falcon 9 is to deploy Starlink and BlackSky satellites on a near circular orbit up to 249 miles (401 kilometers) at a 53-degree angle to the equator on Friday.
This is different from the recent Starlink launch, when StarX separated from the Falcon 9 rocket and placed the satellite in a lower egg-shaped orbit. This means that when the satellites start to orbit towards altitude, they are closer to Earth, where they will use antennas to start signal testing in SpaceX’s Starlink network.
SpaceX said it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage in almost all densely populated worlds, and 12 launches can cover high-latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.
Falcon 9 can fly 60 Starlink satellites in a Falcon 9 launch, each weighing about a quarter of a ton. However, launches with auxiliary payloads (such as BlackSky’s new Earth Imaging Satellite) can carry fewer Starlinks, making the space for passengers shared by cars suitable for rockets.
According to the regulatory documents submitted by SpaceX to the Federal Communications Commission, the initial stage of the Starlink network will have 1,584 satellites. But SpaceX plans to launch thousands more satellites based on market demand. The company has received FCC regulatory approval to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low-Earth orbit.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, said that the Starlink network can earn income to fund the company’s ambitions for interplanetary space travel and eventually establish human settlements on Mars.
However, astronomers raised concerns about the brightness of the SpaceX Starlink satellite and other companies planning to launch a large number of broadband satellites into low-Earth orbit.
Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and they can be seen on the train shortly after each launch, then spread and darken as they cross over the earth.
SpaceX introduced a darker coating on the Starlink satellite launched in January to reduce the amount of sunlight that the spacecraft reflects to the earth. This provides some improvements, but it is not enough for an ultra-sensitive observatory like the Chilean Vera Rubin Observatory funded by the U.S. government, which will collect images of the entire sky to study distant galaxies, stars, and search close to Earth Of potentially dangerous asteroids.
SpaceX launched a satellite with a new, continuously radiopaque sunshade on June 3 to prevent direct sunlight from hitting the bright surface of the spacecraft, such as its antenna.
Earlier this month, SpaceX said that all Starlink satellites scheduled for launch on Friday will be equipped with awnings.
Coupled with the satellite’s azimuth change at a lower altitude immediately after launch, the visor can mitigate the Starlink network’s most severe impact on astronomy and reach a 341-mile-high orbit when the Starlink satellite reaches.
The 32-megapixel camera at Vera Rubin Observatory will begin astronomical measurements in 2022. Each image will cover 40 full moon-sized sky areas, many of which will contain the light streaks left by the satellites of the Starlink network, and possibly other satellite constellations.
The worst effects will occur after dusk and before dawn. That was the day when astronomers wanted to search for asteroids.
Astronomers at the Vega Rubin Observatory team said SpaceX has been working with them since last year to reduce the impact of the Starlink network on its scientific programs.
Tony Tyson, a professor of physics at the University of California, Davis, said: “SpaceX has done all this work to darken satellites and set an example for the entire industry.”
“The Vera Rubin Observatory is actually an extreme case,” said Tyson, the chief scientist of the Vera Rubin Observatory. “The reason for this is that it was built to discover anomalies in the sky. Unfortunately, this is a perfect machine that can encounter satellite trails.”
Astronomers illuminated the Vera Rubin imaging probe during the test to see how it responded to the passage of a bright satellite like Starlink. They found that the satellite not only left a trajectory, but also left the “ghost” trajectory of the spacecraft’s path.
Tyson said: “We have been developing software to mitigate these effects, but it has only a limited dynamic range.” “Only when we can dim these low-Earth orbit satellites to about 7 apparent sizes, the software can start working. . That is the limit of human vision.”
The spacecraft that flew into a higher orbit after launch had a darker coating with a measured value of 6.1. SpaceX and astronomers will not know how effective the sun visor is before dimming satellites on the ground until VisorSat, the first spacecraft equipped with a sunshade, reaches its operating altitude of 341 miles.
Tyson said: “We need to reach the seventh level.” “VisorSat may actually reach 7. We will only know after a few months, that is 550 kilometers (341 miles)… if it can be dimmed to level 7 , Then our software will start to get rid of these electronic ghosts…” But this will not get rid of the main problem. “
Tyson said: “Even if all of these work can work, the satellite (main) trace will obviously still exist in the data, which greatly complicates the data analysis and limits the discovery.”
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