WASHINGTON — Space-based radar imagery provider Capella Space will launch seven satellites and start commercial operations in 2020, the company announced Dec. 16.

The San Francisco-based startup deployed one small synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite in December 2018 to test the service. The next seven it plans to launch in 2020 are a new design, Payam Banazadeh, CEO and founder of Capella Space, told SpaceNews.

The first satellite, to be named Sequoia, will launch from Cape Canaveral in March into a polar sun-synchronous orbit on a SpaceX rocket. The next three satellites are booked on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle flight scheduled for June to a polar sun-synchronous orbit. These would be the first batch of a constellation to be named Whitney.

The next batch of three are being booked to go up late 2020. “We hope to finalize booking in the next few months,” said Banazadeh.

Sequoia and Whitney are identical satellites but get different names because they are built in separate production cycles, he said. “We plan to launch between six and 12 satellites per year.” The goal is to have 36 satellites on orbit by 2023.

Banazadeh said details of the new satellite design will be unveiled in January. Based on market research and tests with the prototype satellite, the company decided it needed larger spacecraft to accommodate a bigger sensor aperture that can provide high-resolution sub-0.5 meter imagery.

Higher resolution imagery is especially important to government and military customers the company is pursuing in addition to commercial business. Capella has contracts with the U.S. Air Force and recently won a study contract from the National Reconnaissance Office.

The new satellite design, at under 100 kilograms, is larger than the original 40 kilogram design. “It is still small but deploys to something really big in space,” said Banazadeh. “Over the last 12 months looking at the competition and talking to customers we realized we really want to dominate the very high resolution market. To meet that demand, we need a large aperture so we changed the size.”

During the past year the company built the ground infrastructure and developed a process from when a customer puts in an imagery request to when the data gets downlinked into an Amazon Web Services (AWS) ground station and cloud service. “That process is fully automated,” said Banazadeh.

The advantage of radar is that it can see through clouds. Customers want to see how patterns are changing but the higher resolution is important as well, he said. “We will be able to detect any object bigger than a half meter, and identify any object larger than 1.5 meters in any dimension.”

A half-meter SAR image of an airport, for example, would be able to discriminate the types of aircraft on the ground. A picture of a combat zone would show vehicles and identify if they are military or civilian.

“That’s where the sub half-meter becomes very useful,” said Banazadeh. “Customers want to understand change and what is changing.”

Capella expects to have an edge over competitors because it designed the new satellites to consume less power so they can image for 10 minutes per orbit, he noted.

Radar in general even for bigger satellites consumes a lot of power. While optical imagery satellites are always imaging, radar satellites are only sent to take pictures of a specific area because they have limited power on board. “You have to know where you want to look at,” said Banazadeh. Capella predicts that 10 minutes of imaging per orbit will give it a competitive advantage over other small satellite services that can only image for two minutes per orbit, he said. “That limits how many locations they can look at and how they manage orders.”

The company is promising customers that once it begins commercial operations it will be able to deliver SAR data in less than 30 minutes from the time of collection, a much faster turnaround than the industry average of eight to 12 hours, according to Banazadeh.

To help shorten the cycle, Capella signed an agreement with Inmarsat to provide a communications terminal to go on every satellite. “We can access our satellites through the Inmarsat network in real time all the time,” he said. When a request comes in, it is immediately uploaded to a specific satellite. The time it takes for the satellite to reach the target will come down as more satellites are deployed, said Banazadeh.

The 30 minute turnaround begins once the data is collected and beamed to the Amazon Ground Station. “The data gets into the cloud in 25 minutes, and we make it accessible to customers,” he said.

Banazadeh said this is important to customers that use radar imagery precisely because they’re in a hurry and can’t wait for the clouds to go away. “Having to wait eight to 12 hours defeats the purpose.”

Capella says it has funding to complete a seven satellite constellation launch in 2020, with backing from investors DCVC (Data Collective) and Spark Capital.

“With new advancements allowing sub-0.5 meter very high resolution, impressive partnerships and a commitment to delivering imagery in real time, Capella reminds me of where Planet was in the optical market several years back: on the cusp of breaking open a massive new commercial opportunity,” Chris Boshuizen, partner at DCVC and co-founder of Planet Labs, said in a statement.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...