PARIS — Satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SSL) will build 13 small high-resolution Earth observation spacecraft for Skybox Imaging under a contract announced Feb. 10.

The deal is a sharp departure for Palo Alto, Calif.-based SSL, whose bread-and-butter products are large, high-power telecommunications satellites for commercial television and data transmission.

Under the contract, whose financial terms were not disclosed, SSL will build 13 120-kilogram Skybox satellites using a Skybox design for which SSL has been given an exclusive license. The spacecraft will be launched in 2015 and 2016, SSL said.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Skybox has one satellite, dubbed SkySat-1, in orbit. Its business plan is to deploy a constellation in low Earth orbit capable of revisiting a given plot of ground three times per day. 

This revisit will be possible once the 13 SSL-built satellites are operational. Skybox has said it ultimately plans a 24-satellite constellation.

Skybox’s current satellite has a 90-centimeter resolution in black-and-white mode when the satellite is looking straight down, with an 8-kilometer swath width. Resolution, which refers to the size of objects that can be detected in an image, is 2 meters in color mode. SSL said the satellites it is building will have a resolution, also known as ground sampling distance, sharper than 1 meter even in color mode.

One of Skybox’s selling features — the company has been successful in raising capital from private investors in several rounds of financing — has been its promise to offer up to 90 seconds of high-definition video at 30 frames per second.

SSL officials have said that the company’s November 2012 purchase by MDA Corp. of Canada would help broaden the scope of SSL’s business beyond large commercial telecommunications satellites.

“This contract award … is tangible evidence of our success in working with MDA to expand into new markets,” SSL Chief Executive John Celli said in a statement. “We are developing new capabilities that will enable us to pursue other Earth observation and [low Earth orbit] satellite opportunities in the U.S. and abroad.”

Michael Trela, Skybox vice president for satellite systems, said the launch of SkySat-1 in November, and its successful performance since then, “validated our high-performance imaging satellite design and economics. By partnering with SSL, we can leverage their unique production capabilities to scale with greater cost-efficiency and speed while allowing us to focus on prototyping next-generation systems to better serve our customers.”

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.