Vega To Launch Skybox Satellites

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WASHINGTON — Arianespace has signed the first American customer for its Vega small launch vehicle, agreeing to launch several Skybox Imaging satellites in 2016, the launch services company announced March 17.

Arianespace said it will launch a “block” of Skybox Imaging satellites some time in 2016. Details of the contract, including the number of satellites to be launched and a more specific launch date, were not disclosed. Ching-Yu Hu, head of business operations for Skybox, said at the Satellite 2015 conference here March 17 that four satellites will be launched on the mission.

“This new contract with Skybox marks our first U.S. customer of the Vega and adds to Vega’s order book of nine small satellites to be launched in the coming three years,” Arianespace chief executive Stephane Israel said in a statement announcing the deal.

Skybox Imaging, a commercial remote sensing company acquired last year by Google, currently has two remote sensing satellites in orbit and a dozen more under contract with SSL. The two operational satellites were launched as secondary payloads on a Dnepr in November 2013 and a Soyuz in July 2014.

In a presentation at the Satellite 2015 conference here March 16, Joe Rothenberg, director of engineering and operations for Skybox Imaging, said that after the launch of a third prototype satellite late this year, the company plans to launch four satellites in July 2016 and six more in September 2016, with the final two of the 12 ordered from SSL to launch in early 2017. Rothenberg did not disclose the launch vehicles the company would use.

Skybox Imaging announced a contract with Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) in February 2014 for the launch of six satellites on a Minotaur-C rocket, a commercial version of its Minotaur vehicle normally reserved for government-sponsored payloads. At the time of the contract announcement, the launch was planned for late 2015. Hu said March 17 that the Minotaur-C launch is now planned for 2016.

Skybox Imaging is also a customer for Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne small-satellite launch vehicle, one of several that Virgin announced when it announced the vehicle in 2012. Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides said March 16 that the first LauncherOne mission should take place by the end of 2016.

Rothenberg said March 16 that Skybox Imaging is working a plan for a second group of 12 satellites that it expects to present to Google executives for funding this summer.

The Vega rocket lifting off for its inaugural launch in 2012. Credit: Arianespace
The Vega rocket lifting off for its inaugural launch in 2012. Credit: Arianespace