Maxar eager to launch new satellites amid soaring demand for imagery over Ukraine

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CEO Dan Jablonsky: The capacity crunch will be an issue 'until we get the Legions launched'

WASHINGTON – As Maxar Technologies’ satellites continue to collect images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the company is working with customers so it can allocate more capacity to meet U.S. government needs, said Maxar’s CEO Daniel Jablonsky.

With four satellites in orbit, “a lot of times we don’t have a lot of spare capacity,” Jablonsky said in an interview last week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

“But we made accommodations with some of our other customers to be able to surge capacity for the U.S. and allies,” he said. The company also gets about 200 requests a day for imagery from news media organizations. 

Maxar and other commercial imagery companies have been working with U.S. intelligence agencies and allied governments since before Russia’s invasion to track troop movements, and are also providing imagery in support of humanitarian aid efforts. 

Maxar’s primary customers – the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency – more than doubled purchases of commercial electro-optical imagery over Ukraine since the conflict started.

The capacity crunch will be an issue “until we get the Legions launched,” Jablonsky said. 

WorldView Legion is a constellation of six imagery satellites that is critical to the company’s future. Legion has suffered a number of schedule setbacks, including delays in the delivery of the imaging instruments and production shutdowns during the covid pandemic. Most recently, the launch of the first two satellites that had been projected for early summer could be pushed to the right again because of a shortage of Ukrainian Antonov cargo aircraft used to transport spacecraft from factory to launch site.

The first two satellites will be transported by truck from Maxar’s manufacturing plant in Northern California to SpaceX’s launch facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida. That could add a couple of extra weeks to the schedule, said Jablonsky. 

Maxar initially had booked two SpaceX launches for the Legion constellation: one for the first two satellites and the second for the other four. But it later decided to add a third, splitting the constellation in pairs to be launched in three-month intervals, said Jablonsky. 

“We wanted to make sure we can get the capacity up there as quickly as possible, but also reduce the risk from having four Legions on one launch vehicle,” he said. 

Once new satellites are in orbit, it can take anywhere from 45 to 90 days of testing and calibration before they are fully operational, he said. 

“This will be a little different for us because we’ll be commissioning the first of its kind spacecraft. So there’ll be more things that we want to check out and we’ll be doing two at the same time. And we’ve never done that before.”

Maxar’s current fleet includes WorldView-1 with 50-centimeter resolution; GeoEye-1 and WorldView-2 with 40-centimeter resolution and WorldView-3  that provides 30-centimeter imagery. The company in 2016 launched the 30-centimeter WorldView-4 but its instrument failed and the satellite was deorbited last year. 

The Legion satellites all provide 30-centimeter imagery. “We can get into the upper 20s if we fly them lower,” said Jablonsky. With a full constellation of six, “we will be doubling our area collection capacity every day. And tripling our 30-centimeter capacity.”

3D mapping of Ukraine

Since the war started, Maxar has also increased production of 3D maps of Ukrainian cities to help assess the damage from Russian attacks, Jablonsky said. 

Jablonsky showed SpaceNews an immersive 3D map of a Ukrainian town with before-and-after representations of the damage. “It almost feels like a fly-through with a drone,” he said. A video of the 3D maps shown at the Space Symposium has not yet been released publicly. 

Maxar uses its own satellite imagery archive, drone imagery and video sources and combines them with 3D technology to produce immersive environments that replicate the real world. 

This capability known as “precision 3D georegistration” has been used to make digital representations of parts of the world for U.S. Army training, for example. The 3D renderings of the terrain of the Earth also can be turned into a navigation system so autonomous cars can drive and aircraft can fly safely without GPS.

Jablonsky said the company has been delivering 3D maps of “areas in Ukraine that we thought were of importance.”

 “We have the imagery of the entire globe and the processes to do this with accuracy,” he said. “We found that it’s been really valuable for simulation, planning and assessments and also for helping people understand things  in a visual way.”

Maxar gained ownership of the 3D technology through the acquisition of Vricon in 2020. 

The company’s chief financial officer Biggs Porter said Maxar over the past year has invested an additional $30 million in 3D mapping technology.  “It’s a growth opportunity,” Biggs said March 17 at a J.P. Morgan investors conference.