BlackSky Global Commercial Imaging Constellation
BlackSky Global (BSG) of Seattle, WA, USA, a startup company founded in 2013, plans to launch a constellation of 60 Earth observation satellites to enable revisit times of a few hours or less. The company has already raised capital to fully fund its first six spacecraft, which are planned for launch in 2016 and will pave the way for the rest of the fleet (with initial operating capability in 2017). BlackSky Global is a new "satellite imaging as a service" provider aimed at commercializing access to high-performance satellite imagery. BlackSky is an independent company owned by Seattle's Spaceflight Industries, which specializes in launching small satellites as secondary payloads.
The first two satellites, Pathfinder 1 and Pathfinder 2, are in the process of final testing and checkout. They will precede the rest of the constellation as experimental satellites. After the first two satellites, BlackSky Global plans to launch the four additional funded satellites, which would start generating revenue by the end of 2016. 1) 2) 3)
By 2019, BlackSky Global aims to have its full constellation in orbit, providing 1meter resolution color imagery of the planet to a myriad of different customers. The satellites would be able to provide video as well at a speed of one frame per second, and the company is also planning to offer premium services. BlackSky Global has satellite imagery providers and data analytics companies as customers today, and uses a pay-per-picture business model for service from its satellites.
BlackSky Global's satellites are designed for a three-year mission life at a fairly low altitude of 450 km. The spacecraft will include propulsion systems to reach this service life at such an orbit. The satellites are designed with pre-planned obsolescence in mind, as the lifespan of each spacecraft offers enough time to provide services and then rapidly refresh with new technology.
In June 2015, BlackSky Global revealed its content partnership with commercial imagery intelligence provider AllSource Analysis of Longmont, CO. BlackSky will provide high-resolution, rapid-revisit, cost-effective satellite imaging data to AllSource for incorporation into its multisource analytics capabilities and product development. The partnership will support a variety of analyses across multiple industries such as agriculture, forestry, civil government, non-governmental organizations, defense, finance, engineering, energy and others. Governments and organizations can leverage the combined imagery and analytics capabilities to monitor the worldwide economy, environment and trends to gain valuable business insights and intelligence. 4)
In May 2016, BlackSky announced that it has established an official partnership with UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research). UNITAR, created in 1965, is an autonomous body within the United Nations that was formed to develop capacities to enhance global decision-making and support country-level action for shaping a better future. "With BlackSky's constellation, we not only have access to more information, but we also have access to it much faster than ever before," said Nikhil Seth, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and Executive Director of UNITAR. 5)
Figure 1: Artist's rendition of the BlackSky Constellation (image credit: BlackSky Global, Ref. 3)
The BlackSky-1 pathfinder microsatellite was built by Spaceflight Industries (Spaceflight) of Seattle, WA, USA. The objective of BlackSky-1 Pathfinder mission is to validate the imaging system and data processing chain.
According to BlackSky, the spacecraft of the constellation will be launched into orbits of about 450 km to achieve high-resolution imagery of 1 m GSD (Ground Sample Distance). The microsatellites have a mass of about 44 kg, they will be equipped with a propulsion system to stay in orbit for about 3 years.
A spacecraft description will be provided when the information becomes available.
Figure 2: Photo of the BlackSky-1 pathfinder microsatellite (image credit: Spaceflight Industries)
Launch: The BlackSky-1 pathfinder microsatellite was launched as a secondary payload on Sept. 26, 2016 (03:42:00 UTC) on the PSLV-C35 vehicle of ISRO. The launch site was SDSC (Satish Dhawan Space Center) on the east coast of India. The primary payload on this flight was SCATSat-1(Scatterometer Satellite-1) of ISRO. 6) 7) 8)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit of SCATSat-1, altitude = 720 km, inclination = 98.1º, LTAN = 9:20 hours.
All secondary payloads were deployed into an orbit of 670 km altitude.
This was ISRO's first multi-orbit mission. It was the longest ever PSLV flight which lasted for more than 2 hours 15 minutes. According to ISRO, PSLV-C35 successfully placed all satellites into their respective orbits.
Figure 3: SCATSat-1 spacecraft integrated with PSLV-C35 with two halves of the heat shield seen (image credit: ISRO)
The secondary payloads (7 co-passengers) on this flight were:
• Pratham, a student-built nanosatellite (~10 kg) of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay, India to study the ionosphere.
• PISAT, a student-built nanosatellite (5.3 kg) of PES University in Bengaluru, India. PISAT is a joint initiative of PES University and five other colleges. 9)
• BlackSky Pathfinder-1, a high-resolution (1 m) imaging microsatellite (~44 kg) of BlackSky Global. BlackSky Global is a commercial company of Seattle, WA, USA. The goal of BlackSky Global is to build a constellation of 60 satellites by 2019.
• AlSat-1N, AlSat-1B and AlSat-2B of ASAL (Algerian Space Agency), Algiers, Algeria. The three satellites were manufactured at SSTL partnership with Algerian engineers, ALSAT-1B is a 103 kg microsatellite based on the SSTL-100 bus. It carries an Earth imaging payload with panchromatic and multispectral cameras. AlSat-2B (117 kg) carries the NAOMI (New AstroSat Optical Modular Instrument). AlSat-1N (AlSat-Nano) is a 3U CubeSat which carries a technology demonstration payload as part of a partnership between ASAL and the UKSA (UK Space Agency).
• CanX-7, a nanosatellite (3U CubeSat, 8 kg) of UTIAS/SFL (University of Toronto's Institute of Aerospace Studies/Space Flight Laboratory), Canada.
• March 6, 2018: BlackSky, the geospatial intelligence service of Spaceflight Industries, today announced the first of its next generation of small Earth observation satellites is complete, qualified, and awaiting launch. This spacecraft, called Global-1, is the first of four smallsats that are scheduled to launch in in the next year on both US and foreign launch vehicles. 10)
- The Global series of spacecraft builds on the success of BlackSky's initial technology demonstration spacecraft, called Pathfinder, which was launched in September 2016. The Global spacecraft provides 1-meter resolution and features improved image quality, geolocation accuracy, and on-orbit lifetime. The spacecraft is complemented by an enhanced ground system to minimize the latency between image tasking and receipt.
- "The Global satellites are an important step forward for the satellite industry," said Nick Merski, vice president of space operations at Spaceflight Industries. "We are continuing to advance the boundaries of what can be achieved in terms of price point, capability and form factor, and these improvements ultimately help to make space more accessible for a broader set of business applications."
- BlackSky's Global smallsats will join the virtual constellation of commercial imaging satellites accessible through the BlackSky geospatial platform. Within the platform, users can access BlackSky Spectra's on-demand imagery service to search, purchase, task, and download visual imagery and multi-spectral data from a global collection network. They can also subscribe to BlackSky Events, the platform's global event monitoring service that fuses news, social media, industry data services, and physical sensor networks to provide early warning and insights on risks, threats, and opportunities that can impact their business. The platform is currently in use by several large government and commercial organizations to actively monitor global assets.
• September 15, 2017: The Space Alliance, formed by Thales Alenia Space (Thales 67%, Leonardo 33%) and Telespazio (Leonardo 67%, Thales 33%), today signed a partnership with the US-based company Spaceflight Industries of Seattle, WA, which includes the following elements: 11)
- A minority investment in Spaceflight Industries, which through its BlackSky business, has developed a geospatial platform and plans to build and operate a constellation of 60 small high-resolution observation satellites featuring very short revisit times;
- The creation of an industrial Joint Venture in the United States between Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries specialized in the production of small satellites;
- The implementation of a Joint Cooperation and Marketing Agreement between Telespazio and BlackSky enhancing their respective product and analytics portfolios on the market.
"This partnership reflects the ‘new space' transformation strategy being implemented by Thales Alenia Space, with the ultimate aim of becoming a major manufacturer of small observation satellites constellations featuring short revisit times, both in Europe and the United States," said Jean-Loic Galle, President and Chief Executive Officer of Thales Alenia Space.
• December 14, 2016: Spaceflight Industries today announced the availability of its BlackSky global intelligence platform, as well as its EAP (Early Adopter Program) participants, and the diverse partner ecosystem fueling the platform. The highly scalable, cloud-based platform enables organizations to observe, analyze and act on global events as they happen. Unparalleled in the industry, the BlackSky platform integrates diverse sensors and data – including satellite imagery, social media and other data feeds – to reveal timely and relevant insights around specific topics or locations. 12)
Currently, the platform is in early adoption with a select group of customers, including the World Bank, RS Metrics, United Nations, and others. "Our business plan has always been to look at the planet in real time, in every spectrum, to solve real-world problems," said Jason Andrews, chief executive officer of Spaceflight Industries. "Today we are announcing significant progress on that journey. For the first time, organizations can fuse satellite imagery with a wide array of data services contextualized in time and space to better understand the most critical issues of our time."
The BlackSky platform offers two major capabilities:
1) Imagery: Customers can discover, purchase and download imagery via the BlackSky platform, which currently provides access to more than 10 high-resolution imaging spacecraft including those from 21AT's TripleSat constellation, SIIS's (SI Imaging Services) KOMPSAT, and UrtheCast's Deimos-2. The platform will incorporate data from BlackSky's 60-satellite constellation as it enters commercial operation in 2017. Additionally, customers can acquire real-time images by tasking partner satellite systems and soon the BlackSky constellation.
2) Insights: The platform fuses the satellite imagery with information from other sources including news outlets and social media to create curated data feeds by location (ex: port, pipeline, border) or theme (ex: geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, energy, or health/outbreak). Through machine learning, predictive algorithms and natural language processing techniques, the platform triangulates these relevant global events in time and space. Customers then receive customized results that are prioritized based on their preferences.
With this multi-source analysis, the platform can alert the customer of critical events related to their area of interest – enabling them to take immediate action. For example, an organization can opt to have BlackSky monitor its manufacturing facility and send an alert if a natural disaster or conflict is detected within 50 kilometers. With this information at their fingertips, the organization can make well-informed decisions about their global assets.
"We're excited to expand the community that can take advantage of having relevant and timely information readily available – whether they're monitoring illegal maritime activity, providing humanitarian relief, securing troops and borders, or tracking economic assets," added Rakesh Narasimhan, executive vice president at BlackSky. "Having the support of these high-caliber partners and customers at this early stage is very encouraging, and we intend to use their feedback to ensure the platform is poised to provide actionable and tangible value to our global society."
Key features of the BlackSky global intelligence platform include:
- Ease of use: BlackSky's easy-to-use web-based interface speeds and simplifies the viewing, purchasing and downloading of geospatial products. Users can securely log on, search the archive of images, task or request a new image (complete with "add to shopping cart" functionality), analyze and store data via the secure Web portal.
- Rapid revisit: Through its vast partner satellite systems, the platform provides access to the largest virtual commercial constellation with industry-leading revisit abilities. The deployment of the 60-satellite BlackSky satellite constellation will provide a rapid revisit rate with the ability to pass over key zones hourly, making images fresher to provide a more comprehensive story. In addition to the successful launch of BlackSky's Pathfinder-1 in September 2016, four more satellites are expected to launch in 2017, and the complete constellation will be on orbit by 2020.
- Affordability: BlackSky holds a unique market position as a product offering of Spaceflight Industries, which develops launch capabilities, innovative spacecraft, communications networks and cloud-based software services. By leveraging this vertical integration, BlackSky is able to pass the savings along to its customers.
• November 14, 2016: Following the launch, the Spaceflight Industries' operations team has conducted extensive spacecraft level testing and is currently in the process of working through payload calibration as well as transitioning to automated operations. Pathfinder-1 is presently operating in a 690 km circular orbit because it was launched as a rideshare spacecraft, while the future BlackSky constellation will operate at 450 km - providing 1 m resolution. 13) 14)
- The following first sample images of the BlackSky Pathfinder-1 spacecraft were presented by the BlackSky project on Nov. 14, 2016. Even at the present altitude of 690 km the project at Spaceflight Industries is pleased with the detail and performance. Each image spans an area measuring about 10 km x 3 km, with a resolution of ~2 m/pixel. 15)
- According to Jason Andrews of Spaceflight Industries: " We are still very early in our spacecraft mission and there is a lot more to learn and improve on from a performance standpoint. But to be clear, these pictures represent mission success."
Figure 4: BlackSky Pathfinder-1 scene showing farms and industrial sites around Beijing, China (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
Figure 5: BlackSky Pathfinder-1 scene of mountains around Kandahar in Afghanistan (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
Figure 6: Desert mountain in China's Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
Figure 7: BlackSky Pathfinder-1 scene of Tokyo Suburbs, Tokyo, Japan (image credit: Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky)
• Sept. 27, 2016: BlackSky Global announced the successful launch of Pathfinder-1 and the subsequent first communication! 16)
Sensor complement (SpaceView 24™)
The spacecraft is equipped with a SV-24 (SpaceView 24™) imaging telescope, built by Harris Corporation, allowing it to image an area approximately 30 km2 at high resolution.
Harris SpaceView™ payloads provide high-resolution imagery in a small, lightweight form factor. With apertures ranging from 0.24 m to 0.7 m, SpaceView™ systems meet imaging and size, weight and power requirements for nanosats, microsats, and smallsats with high-resolution imaging ranging from 0.24 m – 1.1 m GSD (Ground Sample Distance). SpaceView™models 24, 36, and 42 are high-resolution payloads that even offer the potential to capitalize on standard ESPA(EELV Secondary Payload Adapter) APL envelope configurations. 17)
SpaceView 24™ imaging telescope parameters:
- Aperture: 24 cm diameter
- Payload mass: < 10 kg
- Resolution @500km (GSD): 0.9-1.1 m.
- Sensor capabilities: • Staring, • Motion, Imagery/ Video, • Low Light.
- Bands: Visible Pan / Color.
Figure 8: GSD (Ground Sample Distance) comparison for various SV (SpaceView) instrument configurations (image credit: Harris)
1) Caleb Henry, "BlackSky Global Details Plans for 60 Satellite Earth Observation Constellation," June 16, 2015, URL: http://www.satellitetoday.com/technology/2015/06/16
4) "AllSource and BlackSky Global Create Content Partnership," AllSource Analysis, June 23, 2015, URL: http://allsourceanalysis.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BlackSkyAllSource.pdf
5) "BlackSky inks US deal to enhance global decision-making," Space Daily, May 2, 2016, URL: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports
6) "PSLV-C35 / SCATSAT-1, ISRO, Sept. 26, 2016, URL:
7) "PSLV-C35 / SCATSAT-1 Brochure," ISRO, URL:
8) "Spaceflight Industries Celebrates Successful Launch of the BlackSky Pathfinder Satellite Aboard India's PSLV," BlackSky, 26 Sept. 2016, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2016/09/26
9) "PISAT nanosatellite ready for space launch in July 2016," PES News, April 20, 2016, URL: http://news.pes.edu/pisat-nanosatellite-ready-for-space-launch-in-july-2016/
10) "BlackSky Completes Its First Next-Generation Earth Imaging Smallsat, Readies for Launch and Commercial Availability," BlackSky News, 6 March 2018, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2018/03/06
11) "Thales Alenia Space, Telespazio and Spaceflight Industries Partner to Accelerate the BlackSky Geospatial Platform and High Revisit Rate Constellation," Spaceflight Industries Press Release, Sept. 15, 2017, URL: http://tinyurl.com/yasxwmvk
12) "Spaceflight Industries Unveils its BlackSky Platform for Observing the Planet," BlackSky, Dec. 14, 2016, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2016/12/14
13) "Spaceflight Industries Shares First Images from BlackSky Pathfinder Satellite, Claims Mission Success," BlackSky Press Release, Nov. 14, 2016, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2016/11/14
14) "Spaceflight's BlackSky Pathfinder-1 Satellite Has Its First 'Show And Tell' Photos," Satnews Daily, Nov. 15, 2016, URL: http://www.satnews.com/story.php?number=1358925533
15) Jason Andrews, "Hello beautiful! Our first pictures from Pathfinder-1 represent complete mission success," Spaceflight Industries, Nov. 14, 2016, URL: https://www.blacksky.com/2016/11/14
16) Hilary Meyerson, "Confirmed Communication from Pathfinder-1," BlackSky News, Sept. 27, 2016, URL: http://www.blacksky.com/2016/09/27/confirmed-communication-pathfinder-1/
17) "SpaceViewTM Small Satellite Imaging Solutions," Harris brochure, URL: https://www.harris.com/sites
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).