Final two Pléiades Neo imagery satellites land in French Guiana

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TAMPA, Fla. — The last two high-resolution imaging satellites for Airbus Defence and Space’s Pléiades Neo constellation have arrived in French Guiana ahead of their launch next month. 

Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 flew from Toulouse, France, Oct. 21 via a Ukrainian Antonov 124 cargo plane for what would be the first commercial mission for Europe’s Vega C rocket.

Arianespace completed the medium-lift launch vehicle’s maiden flight in July with a non-commercial mission that deployed an Italian physics satellite and six cubesats.

Arianespace is slated to launch the pair of Pléiades Neo satellites in late November from its launchpad in Kourou, French Guiana.

The company launched two other Pléiades Neo satellites in separate missions last year with an earlier iteration of the Vega launch vehicle. All four satellites are identical to each other apart from laser links on the final two, which enable the network to increase data speeds for ordering and downloading imagery at 30-centimeter-resolution.

Airbus built and operates the constellation, which aims to cover the entire Earth landmass five times per year once fully deployed. The company also operates satellites with synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) and lower-resolution optical sensors.

Pléiades Neo 3, the first satellite in the constellation, entered commercial service last November with an onboard “equipment issue” that prompted Airbus to file a partial insurance claim for the satellite. The second Pléiades Neo satellite entered service in December without this issue.

Airbus expects to leverage the full constellation to work around the Pléiades Neo 3 setback, which the company says has not affected its ability to meet customer commitments. 

The constellation currently covers one million square kilometers a day, according to Airbus Defence and Space head of intelligence François Lombard.

The final two satellites would enable Airbus to “double our capacity and be able to respond to our customers’ needs even faster,” he said in an Oct. 24 statement.

Antonov satellite lift

Antonov cargo aircraft are back in service for transporting spacecraft over long distances, albeit with limited availability for the space industry amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Airbus has started offering the BelugaST planes it uses to move aircraft parts between company sites to others needing outsized commercial freight transportation.

The company recently used a BelugaST to deliver the Hotbird 13F satellite it built for Eutelsat from France to its launch site in Florida.

However, the supply of BelugaST also remains low as Airbus gradually transitions to larger BelugaXL aircraft for its inter-site transportation needs.