WASHINGTON — After years of delays, Maxar Technologies is preparing for the first launch this summer of its next-generation imaging satellites WorldView Legion. 

“We’ve got everything we need at this point” to get the first pair of WorldView Legion high-resolution imaging satellites to orbit, the company’s president and CEO Daniel Jablonsky told SpaceNews April 20 at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

The Earth-observation satellites, equipped with Raytheon-made imaging payloads — are scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Maxar plans to send six WorldView Legions into sun-synchronous and mid-inclination orbits on three separate Falcon 9 rockets. 

The WorldView Legion constellation is years behind schedule due to hardware supplier problems and other setbacks, including delays in the delivery of the imaging instruments, production shutdowns during the covid pandemic and a shortage of Ukrainian Antonov cargo aircraft used to transport spacecraft from the factory to the launch site.

Jablonsky said the new technology in the Legion satellites also caused additional delays. “It’s a first of its kind, complicated space program,” he said. “It’s a very exquisite type of technology.”

As the launch date nears, he said, “it’s been more about finalizing all of the preflight checks, completing the flight software and getting all of our last testing before we go downrange and put them on a rocket.”

Two more Legions planned

Maxar meanwhile is preparing to finalize a deal to be acquired by the private-equity firm Advent International. The company’s shareholders approved the $6.4 billion acquisition April 19. 

The six-satellite Legion constellation is key to the future of the company’s Earth intelligence division which currently relies on three legacy WorldView and one GeoEye optical imaging satellites. 

Jablonsky said the company’s investors have agreed to move forward with the production of two additional WorldView Legion satellites due to the growing demand for imagery fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The seventh and eighth Legions will be “substantially along the same technology lines” as the six already built, but will have some upgrades, he said. “Even in the current class of satellites, we continue to make upgrades from the first two, and we’ll continue to do that where we see opportunities for improvement during the engineering cycle,” he said. 

In preparation for the development of the future Legion satellites, said Jablonsky, “we’ve already got long-lead time parts on order, especially the optics packages that take longer.”

“We are seeing a lot of demand,” he said. During last week’s Space Symposium, said Jablonsky, the first question from every customer was when the new satellites will be available.

Maxar is the U.S. government’s primary provider of commercial electro-optical imagery. The company last year won a $3.2 billion contract from the National Reconnaissance Office to supply imagery and mapping services over the next decade.

Maxar’s current Worldview and GeoEye high-resolution imaging satellites. Credit: Maxar Technologies

New types of remote sensing

Governments and commercial customers are increasingly relying on space-based data to make decisions, Jablonsky said. 

The war in Ukraine created an appetite not just for optical imagery but for other sensing phenomenologies such as synthetic aperture radar — to see through clouds — and radio-frequency mapping for the detection of electronic jammers. 

Maxar in recent months has moved to expand in both the SAR and RF markets. The company in February announced a deal with SAR startup Umbra to get dedicated access to the company’s radar imaging constellation. Maxar also acquired radio-frequency mapping startup Aurora Insight, a year after it made a strategic investment in the company.  

Jablonsky would not comment on any other planned acquisitions but said these recent efforts are indicators of Maxar’s business strategy with regard to Earth imaging. The company in recent years also added 3D imaging and machine-learning  technologies to its portfolio with the acquisitions of Vricon and Wovenware.

“As you’ve seen from my track record, we’ve had a heavy acquisition strategy, even during the turnaround phase of the company,” said Jablonsky. “Especially as we generate good returns on the business, that gives us an opportunity to invest back in the business, either technologies that we create inside or companies we might buy,” he added. “We never talk publicly about what they are, but we are always pleased to announce them once they occur.”

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...