Updated at 10:20 a.m EDT

PARIS — Orbital Sciences Corp. will launch six 120-kilogram Skybox Imaging optical Earth observation satellites in late 2015 aboard a Minotaur-C rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., under a contract the two companies announced Feb. 20.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital said the Minotaur-C is a commercial variant of the Minotaur rocket that the company has been using for U.S. government satellite launches since 2000. The company said it is designing a new SkySat satellite dispenser that will hold up to six Skybox satellites per launch.

While the Minotaur is based on the U.S. Peacekeeper and Minuteman missile programs, its commercial Minotaur-C version uses four solid-fueled motors built by ATK. Orbital said the motors have substantial flight heritage on Orbital’s Pegasus and Taurus launch vehicles, as well as on the company’s Orbital Boost Vehicle interceptor for the U.S. missile defense program.

Space Systems/Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, Calif., is building 13 Skybox satellites using a Skybox-licensed design. Six of these will be aboard the Minotaur-C.

Ching-Yu Hu, a spokesman for Mountain View, Calif.-based Skybox, said the company is evaluating launch options for a single Skybox satellite late this year, and is also running an international competition for the remaining six spacecraft under the SSL order. Each satellite is expected to operate for more than six years.

The 13 satellites will be placed into a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit offering images with a ground resolution better than 80 centimeters at nadir, with an 8-kilometer-wide swath. 

Skybox has said it can provide color imagery with a resolution sharper than 1 meter as well but is limited by its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration license to 2-meter resolution in color and 50 centimeters in black and white.

Skybox’s first satellite, SkySat-1, was launched in November aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr converted missile as one of several payloads placed into low Earth orbit. The company has published multiple images from this spacecraft showing its capabilities.

In a Feb. 20 statement, Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said his company has offered options to Skybox for future launches. “[W]e are looking forward to the opportunity to forge a long-term, multi-launch relationship with their team,” he said.

Skybox ultimately plans a 24-satellite constellation using several orbital planes.

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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