TAMPA, Fla. – Canadian company NorthStar Earth and Space has signed a multi-launch contract with Rocket Lab after Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy scuttled plans to begin deploying its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) satellites this summer .
NorthStar announced on June 22 that Rocket Lab has been commissioned to launch the company’s first four satellites on an Electron rocket this fall. Spire Global is providing the satellites, each the size of 16 cubesats.
NorthStar had planned to launch three satellites with Virgin Orbit in its first batch before the air carrier went bankrupt in April.
By leveraging greater capacity on Electron to launch more satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), the SSA system provides greater coverage for early adopters from the start, said David Saint-Germain, NorthStar’s chief operating officer.
“We were able to turn a negative into a positive,” said Saint-Germain, who joined the company just before Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
“It’s really a testament to the maturity of the industry that we were able to find another launcher so quickly,” he added. “I mean, that would have been impossible just a few years ago.”
He said the deal with Rocket Lab includes two more four-satellite missions that could begin launching as early as next year.
At least 12 satellites are required to provide full commercial services from an SSA platform designed to track objects as small as 5 centimeters in LEO and 40 centimeters in geostationary orbit.
NorthStar’s agreement with Spire includes options for up to 30 satellites that would allow the SSA platform to track these objects more frequently.
While tracking frequency depends on the type of object and orbit, Saint-Germain said a LEO object could eventually come into view of its entire fleet of space cameras several times an hour.
“If there is a collision in space that creates a cloud of debris and you don’t track that debris often enough, you could end up hitting others [satellites] without having the time to move them,” he said.
“So it’s really important to get that time down so you can have an accurate track and get into tactical mode – you can actually trigger behaviors that you can’t do if you only see the object once a day.”
He said the company is exploring inter-satellite links and onboard processing capabilities to reduce the time it takes tracking information to be relayed to customers on the ground.
According to Saint-Germain, NorthStar’s optical satellites would be able to simultaneously acquire all objects moving through their field of view, unlike ground telescopes which only track one object at a time.
The SSA system is also expected to improve tracking of unknown objects in low Earth orbits.
“When you’re doing things from the ground, it’s very difficult to spot unfamiliar objects because you have to know what you’re looking for in order to track it,” he said.
“When you’re in space, it just crosses your field of vision. Whatever’s up there that we don’t know about, we’re going to see it and collect data on it in a way that’s never been possible before.”
NorthStar has yet to announce the mix of commercial and government customers said to have signed up for a partial SSA service that would use its first four satellites.
The company announced in early January that it had secured $35 million in funding for its plans. The burgeoning space-based SSA market has also seen recent funding deals for startups like Vyoma and Digantara, and Scout Space.
Meanwhile, several aerospace companies have agreed to take over Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy assets, including Rocket Lab, which is buying the company’s main manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California.
Saint-Germain said Rocket Lab plans to deploy NorthStar’s first satellites from its launch site in New Zealand.