PARIS — Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher on April 29 successfully placed into low Earth orbit a high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite for the government of Kazakhstan in the rocket’s third success in three attempts since its February 2012 inaugural launch.
The launch was Vega’s first fully commercial flight, meaning there were no European government customers on board.
With its French-built KazEOSat-1 satellite, also known as DZZ-HR, now healthy in orbit, Kazakhstan joins the fast-growing list of nations with autonomous reconnaissance satellites capable of detecting objects as small as 1 meter in diameter.
KazEOSat-1, like most of the other new high-resolution satellites ordered by national governments in the past few years, was built by Airbus Defence and Space. With its occasional — but not systematic — partner, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, providing the optical sensors, Airbus Defence and Space has carved out for itself a dominant position in a market that now appears to be taking off.
In addition to providing work for its satellite-building division, Airbus’ success in the Earth observation export markets has had the effect of adding capacity to Airbus’ service division. The division markets geospatial imagery from Airbus’ 1.5-meter-resolution-capable Spot 6 and Spot 7 satellites — the latter to be launched this year — and Airbus’ share of the two civil-military Pleiades satellites in orbit, which have a 70-centimeter resolution after image resampling.
KazEOSat-1, using the Airbus Astrobus platform, is part of a two-satellite agreement concluded in October 2009 with the involvement of the French and Kazakh governments. Valued at $336 million, the agreement included training some 60 Kazakh engineers in satellite operations and image processing in France.
A second, medium-resolution satellite, KazEOSat-2, is being built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which is owned by Airbus. The second satellite was also covered by the French-Kazakh accord.
The KazEOSat-1 launch came just a week after Airbus, again with substantial French government support, concluded an agreement with the government of Peru to build a satellite with a ground resolution sharper than 1 meter.
Several other nations, including Colombia, are currently managing or planning international bid competitions for satellites with in-orbit repointing and ground-resolution characteristics that were the exclusive province of a handful of governments just a few years ago. For the Peruvian competition, the final contenders were from Israel, Spain and Britain, in addition to France.
Other nations that have managed competitions in addition to Peru include the United Arab Emirates, for two submetric satellites; Morocco, also for two submetric spacecraft; and Turkey, for a single submetric satellite.
Operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center, on the northeast coast of South America, the Vega rocket placed KazEOSat-1 into a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. The 830-kilogram satellite, carrying about 80 kilograms of fuel, is expected to operate for slightly more than seven years.
Launch services operator Arianespace of Evry, France, in November ordered 10 more Vega rockets from the Vega contracting team, led by Avio SpA of Italy. Three Vega vehicles remain from a previous order conducted with the 20-nation European Space Agency.
ESA is financing portions of Vega’s first flights to help Vega prime contractor ELV of Italy and Arianespace get to the point where Vega production and operations are sufficiently mature to permit the vehicle to compete on international markets.
Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes