TAMPA, Fla. — Canada’s NorthStar Earth and Space has signed a multi-launch deal with Rocket Lab after Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy shattered plans to start deploying its space situational awareness (SSA) satellites this summer.
Rocket Lab is contracted to launch the venture’s first four satellites this fall on an Electron rocket, NorthStar announced June 22. Spire Global is providing the satellites, each the size of 16 cubesats.
NorthStar had planned to launch three satellites in its initial batch with Virgin Orbit, before the air-launch company fell into bankruptcy in April.
Using larger capacity on Electron to deploy more satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO) gives its SSA system greater coverage from the outset for early adopters, said NorthStar chief operating officer David Saint-Germain.
“We were able to change a negative into a positive,” said Saint-Germain, who joined the company shortly before Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
“It’s really a testament to the maturity of the industry that we were able to turn around so quickly to find another launcher,” he added, “I mean, this would have been impossible just a few years ago.”
He said the agreement with Rocket Lab includes another two missions of four satellites that could start launching as early as next year.
At least 12 satellites are needed to provide full commercial services from an SSA platform designed to track objects as small as five centimeters in LEO and 40 centimeters in geostationary orbit.
NorthStar’s agreement with Spire includes options for up to 30 satellites, which would enable the SSA platform to track these objects more frequently.
While the tracking frequency depends on the type of object and orbit, Saint-Germain said ultimately a LEO object could enter the field of view of its full fleet of space cameras multiple times per hour.
“If there’s a collision happening in space and that generates a plume of debris, and you’re not tracking that debris often enough, you could end up hitting other [satellites] without having the time to move them,” he said.
“So it’s really important to get that time down so that you have precision of tracking, and you can enter tactical mode — you can actually trigger behaviors that you can’t do if you’re seeing the object only once per day.”
He said the company is exploring inter-satellite links and onboard processing capabilities to reduce the time it takes to relay tracking information back to customers on the ground.
According to Saint-Germain, NorthStar’s optical satellites would be capable of capturing all objects going through their field of view simultaneously, contrary to ground telescopes tracking one object at a time.
The SSA system is also designed to improve the tracking of unknown objects in near-Earth orbits.
“When you’re doing things from the ground, it’s very hard to detect unknown objects because you have to know what you’re looking for in order to track it,” he said.
“When you’re in space, it just crosses your field of view. So whatever is up there that we don’t know about, we’re going to see it and accumulate data on it in a way that’s never been done before.”
NorthStar has yet to disclose the mix of commercial and government customers it says have signed up for a partial SSA service that would use its first four satellites.
The venture announced it had secured $35 million in funding for its plans in early January. The emerging space-based SSA market has also recently seen funding deals for startups including Vyoma, Digantara, and Scout Space.
Meanwhile, multiple aerospace companies have agreed to snap up Virgin Orbit’s assets out of bankruptcy, including Rocket Lab, which is buying the company’s main production facility in Long Beach, California.
Saint-Germain said Rocket Lab is slated to deploy NorthStar’s initial batch of satellites from its launch site in New Zealand.