Falcon 9 RCM launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rises above the fog at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California June 12, carrying three Canadian SAR imaging satellites. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a trio of Canadian synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites June 12 that promise higher resolution imagery with shorter revisit times.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 10:17 a.m. Eastern. The launch took place on schedule and without any issues despite dense fog that prevented the rocket’s liftoff from being seen.

The Falcon 9’s first stage made a pinpoint landing nearly eight minutes after liftoff at the Landing Zone 4 next to the launch site. The launch was the second for that stage, which launched the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight called Demo-1 from Florida in March.

The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload, the three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), about an hour after liftoff. The three satellites were released from the upper stage over a span of seven and a half minutes.

WorldView-3 image of Falcon 9
The Falcon 9 seen on the pad the day before launch by Maxar’s WorldView-3 satellite. Credit: satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies
The Falcon 9 seen on the pad the day before launch by Maxar’s WorldView-3 satellite. Credit: satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies

MDA, the Canadian subsidiary of Maxar Technologies, built the three RCM satellites for the Canadian government. Each satellite weights 1,430 kilograms will be spaced evenly in the same 600-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. The satellites’ C-band radars will be able to produce SAR imagery with resolutions as sharp as three meters.

The development of the constellation, rather than a single satellite, is intended to increase revisit times. The system will be able to view 90 percent of the Earth’s surface every 24 hours, with enhanced coverage of Arctic regions. The satellites also carry Automated Identification System (AIS) sensors to identify and track ships.

The RCM satellites ensure continuity with Radarsat-2, launched in December 2007. That satellite remains in service but is far beyond its seven-year design life, hence the desire by the Canadian government to get RCM in orbit to avoid anydata gap.

The Canadian government expects to spend $1.2 billion Canadian ($900 million) on RCM, including the construction of the three satellites, their launch and operations over their projected seven-year lifetime. The government owns the full imaging capacity of the RCM constellation, unlike the Radarsat-2 mission where MDA Corp. sold imagery to the Canadian government and other customers.

Sylvain Laporte, president of the Canadian Space Agency, said in May that the decision to transfer ownership of the expected 250,000 images RCM will take annually to the Canadian government was not a poor reflection on Maxar, but a desire to try a new approach with the program.

“One of the primary reasons for the government owning the data is that we can then share it more freely,” Laporte said at a May 22 at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here. “When you buy commercial data, there could be contracting restrictions with how you share it, but now that we own the data we will see how beneficial that is.”

Laporte said the Canadian Space Agency has already started planning the next generation of Radarsat for when RCM reaches its planned end of life in 2026. How Radarsat data will be controlled could change again with that generation, he said.

“I’ve tasked them to be creative with respect to the business model,” Laporte said. “It doesn’t have to be a repeat of what we’ve done already. We could try something different, and who knows where that is going to take us.”

The launch was the seventh this year for SpaceX, including six Falcon 9 launches and one Falcon Heavy launch. The company’s next launch, of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program 2 mission on a Falcon Heavy, is scheduled for no earlier than June 24 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The remainder of SpaceX’s launches scheduled for this year will take place from Florida.

Caleb Henry contributed to this article.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...