Satellogic selects China Great Wall to launch satellite constellation

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WASHINGTON — Satellogic, a company developing a constellation of Earth imaging satellites with hyperspectral capabilities, announced Jan. 15 that it will launch its fleet of spacecraft on Chinese rockets.

Buenos Aires-based Satellogic said that it plans to launch 90 of its remote sensing smallsats on as many as six Long March 6 rockets under a contract with China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC). Terms of the contract were not disclosed.

In an interview, Emiliano Kargieman, founder and chief executive of the company, said the first of the launches, carrying 13 satellites, is planned for September or October of this year. Additional launches will follow on a quarterly basis, although he said some of the Long March 6 launches could be replaced with larger Long March 2D vehicles depending on how quickly Satellogic can produce the satellites.

“It’s a turning point for the company and gets us into rollout mode,” he said of the launch contract. “We see this as a milestone agreement for us.”

The Long March 6 is a small liquid-fuel launch vehicle developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology. It is capable of placing a little more than 1,000 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit, but has flown only twice, most recently in November 2017.

Kargieman said Satellogic selected CGWIC based on its past relationship with the launch provider, who has launched several other satellites for Satellogic on multimanifested missions. “We have a very good working relationship,” he said. “I think the combination of the availability and cost of launch has been a winning proposition for us, along with the relationship that we have established.”

Satellogic satellite
An illustration of a Satellogic satellite, equipped with a high-resolution multispectral camera and hyperspectral imager. Credit: Satellogic

Satellogic builds its satellites in house, and the company is ramping up its production capability. Fifteen satellites, each weighing about 45 kilograms and measuring 100 by 50 by 50 centimeters, are under construction at a facility in Montevideo, Uruguay. “We need to increase the pace of manufacturing by the end of the year” to meet its current schedule, he said. “We are on a roadmap that takes us there.”

Each satellite carries two remote sensing payloads. The primary payload is a multispectral camera capable of producing imagery at a resolution of one meter. Once the full constellation is in orbit, Kargieman said the company will be able to provide imagery of the entire globe at that resolution, updated weekly.

“Weekly one-meter-resolution data of the planet is just something that is not available today,” he said. “We see one-meter-resolution weekly data really as the sweet spot to enable a very large number of new applications.”

Among the markets Satellogic is pursuing with its imagery are oil and gas, agriculture, environmental monitoring and cartography. “These four are today the verticals where we see more traction and more demand,” he said. “We do expect that, as we roll out the constellation, many other applications will be enabled.”

The satellites carry a second payload, a hyperspectral imager with a resolution of 30 meters. Hyperspectral imagery is still a new application with limited demand, though, Kargieman acknowledged.

“Hyperspectral continues to be experimental at this stage,” he said, although the company has found some promise combining the hyperspectral data with the one-meter imagery in its own data processing systems. “We expect as we collect more data at higher frequency over the planet we will learn to derive more value from it. But to a certain extent the workhorse of this constellation is the one-meter-resolution multispectral data.”

Satellogic raised a $27 million Series B round in June 2017, led by Chinese company Tencent. That funding is sufficient to operate the company through 2019, Kargieman said, but that Satellogic will need to raise additional funding to complete the constellation in 2020.

The company currently has 160 employees in several offices worldwide. Besides its headquarters and research and development facility in Buenos Aires and satellite manufacturing center in Uruguay, Satellogic has an office in Tel Aviv that handles software development and another in Barcelona that does data analytics. The company also has business development offices in the United States and China.

Running such a distributed company does have its challenges, he said, even in an era of ubiquitous connectivity. “But it does have a lot of advantages when we’re building a company that, by its nature, is building a global infrastructure,” he said.