Capella X-SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) Constellation
The Palo Alto California-based commercial startup company Capella Space, founded in 2016 by Payam Banazadeh and William Woods, is in the process of developing a constellation of X-SAR microsatellites to provide global coverage. The Capella constellation will consist of 36 microsatellites, each one will operate at an altitude of around 500 km in an approximately 90-minute polar orbit, providing average imaging revisit times of less than one hour. The radars will be single-polarization X-band systems, capable of operating over a 500 MHz bandwidth in stripmap and spotlight imaging modes. 1)
This year, Capella Space will launch two sub-50 kg satellites as the prelude to a constellation of 36 that will provide hourly revisit time. This constellation will enable delivery of products to meet specific user demands anywhere in the world.
The constellation will be launched in 2019 with the initial deployment of 6 satellites in two orbital planes. The average imaging revisit time will be between 3 and 6 hours, and the maximum revisit time will be 6 hours. Hourly maximum revisit times will be achieved when the full constellation of 36 satellites is deployed in 2021 (Figure 1).
Each Capella satellite has a three-year design life. By launching 12 satellites per year, the constellation will maintain its imaging capability indefinitely. With the ability to continually update and refresh the satellite technology, Capella will be able implement improvements to the constellation and radar performance quarterly. The system specifications for the first satellites are listed in Table 2.
Table 1: Capella constellation timeline and capability
Sensor complement (X-SAR)
Capella SAR satellites will operate at X-band with a bandwidth of up to 500 MHz. Ground resolution and swath width vary with look angle (Figure 2), but users will be able to select a combination of transmit bandwidth and PRF to meet their imaging requirements. The first Capella radars will operate with a single polarization. Improvement in radar system performance, such as polarimetric measurements, are planned for future generations of Capella satellites.
Figure 2: Ground range resolution plotted as a function of transmit bandwidth and look angle (image credit: Capella Space)
Radar Imaging Modes
The Capella satellites will be capable of imaging in several modes, including staring and sliding spotlight, traditional stripmap, and multi-swath stripmap. These modes are described below. Note that for most modes, the user can select the image size, and is able to trade resolution for imaging quality.
Spotlight: Capella satellites will be capable of staring-spotlight imaging, in which the beam is focused on a single point on the Earth throughout the acquisition. In this mode, azimuth resolution is limited by the duration of antenna beam on the target. US regulations control the resolution at which Capella can sell imagery. As a result, Capella can only offer single-look complex spotlight data for resolutions greater than 0.5 m, but is able to offer amplitude-only multi-looked spotlight images for resolutions between 0.3 m and 0.5 m. These multi-looked images will be acquired using a dwell time that results in a finer azimuth resolution than 0.3 m. The raw SAR data will be processed to full resolution, and then pixels in the amplitude-only image will be averaged (multi-looked) to produce high-resolution, speckle-free imagery that Capella is legally permitted to sell.
Multi-looking reduces speckle and increases detectability of objects in a SAR image. However, with many SAR systems, multi-looking comes at the cost of coarser azimuth resolution. Because Capella spacecraft can stare at a point on the ground for tens of seconds, Capella can provide multi-looked images constructed from tens of looks at very high final resolution, e.g., 0.3 m.
An example of the improvement in image quality achieved through multi-looked staring-spotlight has been simulated using airborne circular data. Simulated Capella multi-looked staring spotlight images are shown in Figure 3 (rows 2 through 5). Simulated single-look staring-spotlight acquisition images are shown in Figure 3 (row 1). The scene contains a road, cars in a parking lot, and several corner reflectors. NESZ values of typical large SAR systems such as TerraSAR-X are chosen to simulate the non-Capella radar simulated images. The simulations highlight contrast recovered in a SAR image by multi-looked staring-spotlight data processing, even when the NESZ is relatively poor (right-most column, rows 3, 4, and 5 in Figure 3. For example, the road emerges clearly in the 10-, 20-, and 30-look Capella images, but is hard to distinguish in the non-Capella radar single-look image despite that system having a lower NESZ. Note that in each column, multi-looking does not degrade resolution.
Capella satellites will also be able to acquire multiple staring spotlight images adjacent to each other. Each acquisition will have a shorter dwell time than the maximum dwell time possible with a single-spot staring spotlight acquisition, so either the resolution of each spot will be degraded as the number of spots increases, or the number of looks available for multi-looking will decrease as the number of spots increases. This mode is useful for extending the width (swath) of an area being imaged. For imaging a larger area in the along-track direction, i.e., increasing the length of a spotlight acquisition, sliding spotlight (see below) is more efficient. Maximum image sizes for 0.3 m and 1 m azimuth resolutions and associated number of looks for staring spotlight and multi-spot spotlight are shown in Table 3.
Sliding Spotlight: Sliding spotlight is a combination of stripmap and spotlight imaging modes. The beam slew rate is set so that it does not track a single point on the earth surface as in spotlight mode, but dwells on points for longer than that in stripmap mode. This mode is an approach to achieving a higher resolution pseudo-stripmap mode. Sliding spotlight scene sizes and best possible azimuth resolutions are shown in Table 4. For azimuth resolutions less than 0.3 m, pixels will be multi-looked and imagery provided as amplitude only data. For a sliding spot acquisition that results in an azimuth resolution of greater than 0.5 m, single-look complex data will be available (as with staring spotlight).
Figure 3: Simulated results for a typical large SAR (row 1) and Capella SAR (rows 2 through 5) showing the tradeoff between multi-looking, ground-range resolution, and NESZ for a spotlight image acquisition. Multi-looked staring spotlight acquisitions with Capella SAR recover contrast in the image without degrading resolution (image credit: Capella Space)
Stripmap and Multi-swath Stripmap: This mode is a standard synthetic aperture radar stripmap imaging mode. The swath is limited by a combination of the look angle, the radar beamwidth, and the PRF (Pulse Repetition Frequency) selected for the acquisition. The PRF is selected to either provide maximum swath with reduced azimuth ambiguity sidelobe ratio performance, or reduced swath with better azimuth ambiguity sidelobe ratio performance. The minimum slant range resolution is 0.3 m.
Capella satellites will capture a single wide-swath SAR image in a single horizon-to-horizon pass by collecting multiple sequential stripmap swaths adjacent in the range direction. The number of sequential stripmap swaths is limited by the length of the final wide-swath image and spacecraft slewing times. Stripmap and multi-swath stripmap image sizes are listed in Table 5.
With six satellites in two planes, repeat-pass (repeat-track) interferometric measurements are possible according to timeseries 0 in Table 6 (i.e., collections at hours 0, 54, 120, 174, ...). In addition, a different timeseries of repeat-pass interferometric collections made at a different look angle, but of the same area on the ground, is possible 12 hours later, i.e., at timeseries 1 in Table 6 (hours 12, 66, 132, 186, ...). Notice that the timeseries sequence repeats after 10 time-series, or 120 hours (5 days), i.e., time-series 10 in Table 6 is timeseries 0 at 120 hours. A single timeseries is suitable for observing processes that change over time scales of five or more days.
Capella Space is preparing for its first launch on a SpaceX rocket this fall, an important milestone in the company’s plan to build a constellation of the world’s smallest commercial radar satellites. The Capella microsatellites have a mass of < 40 kg, which means four will fit on a single Rocket Lab Electron rocket, said Payam Banazadeh, Capella co-founder and chief executive. 2) 3)
In orbit, Capella plans to unfurl antennas made of a flexible material the company declined to specify. Once deployed, the antennas will span 8 m2, Banazadeh said during a recent tour of the firm’s San Francisco headquarters.
Figure 4: Capella graphic showing the size of its SAR satellites (image credit: Capella Space)
• June 17, 2021: Radar satellite imagery startup Capella Space on June 14 received a $3 million research contract in support of the SDA (Space Development Agency’s) National Defense Space Architecture. 4)
- Capella Space was selected through a “broad agency announcement” issued by the space agency in January seeking proposals on a wide range of technologies for “National Defense Space Architecture Systems, Technologies, and Emerging Capabilities.” The award was posted on the federal contracts website SAM.GOV.
- Based in San Francisco, Capella Space is building a constellation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites that can see through clouds and darkness.
- “We are delighted for the opportunity to work with the Space Development Agency,” Capella’s founder and CEO Payam Bazanadeh said in a statement to SpaceNews. “As the first and only American SAR company, this further expands our existing partnership with the U.S. government.”
- The SDA is building a network of satellites in low Earth orbit for U.S. military communications and missile defense. It is developing a Transport Layer of data-relay satellites and a Tracking Layer of sensor satellites to detect and track missiles. The agency last year ordered 20 transport satellites from Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems; and eight tracking satellites from L3Harris and SpaceX.
- The initial 28 satellites — known as Tranche 0 — will be launched in late 2022. The next procurement of 150 satellites — or Tranche 1 — will launch in late 2024. This will expand the coverage and “provide some real persistence over a given region,” Tournear said.
- The specifics of the Tranche 1 procurement — such as what sensors and capabilities these satellites will have — are still being hashed out, Tournear said. SDA officials on March 31 are scheduled to meet with military leaders “to essentially decide what the minimum viable product is for Tranche 1,” he said.
- SDA’s primary goal is to provide satellite-based services to military organizations and deployed forces as soon as possible. In that vein, it plans to buy satellite buses and payloads that vendors are already producing rather than develop satellites on spec.
- Vendors will be asked to submit fixed-price bids for the Tranche 1 satellites. Tournear said SDA’s contracting approach seeks to take advantage of economies of scale as vendors will charge less per satellite if they get a large order. Tournear said the content of the bids will determine how many vendors will be selected.
- Tournear noted that the average price for the 20 transport satellites in Tranche 0 was $14.1 million apiece. He expects the unit price to be even lower in Tranche 1. The SDA asked potential vendors for projected pricing, he said. “When we go into production mode of hundreds of satellites [it will be] significantly less than $14.1 million average price.”
- “What’s driving this is the commoditization of these components and the commoditization of the way we’re doing business,” Tournear said. “What SDA is trying to do is create a market where we want to have the cadence on the order of one satellite a week. And we’re going to be launching several times a year.”
- Tournear said SDA wants the industry to invest in technologies for SDA programs with the incentive that there will be frequent procurements. The agency does not want to be in a “vendor lock” situation where it’s dependent on one or two suppliers. Satellites from all vendors have to be interoperable and be able to exchange data through laser or radio communications links.
• March 5, 2020: Space technology company Rocket Lab has signed a deal to launch a dedicated mission for Capella Space, an aerospace and information services company providing Earth observation data on demand. Together, Capella Space and Rocket Lab will launch the first ever synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite that delivers commercial data into a mid-inclination orbit to optimize hotspot monitoring of key regions in the world. 5)
- Launching later this year, the mission will loft the first satellite of Capella Space’s Whitney constellation on an Electron launch vehicle from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. By positioning the satellite to a 45 degree inclination, Capella Space will maximize coverage over important areas such as the Middle East, Korea, Japan, South East Asia, Africa and the U.S. This launch paves the way for reliable and persistent imagery of anywhere on the globe, day or night, and in any weather conditions. Capella’s space-based radar can detect sub-0.5 meter changes on the surface of the Earth, providing insights and data that can be used for security, agricultural and infrastructure monitoring, as well as disaster response and recovery.
- Capella Space will be the primary payload on the Electron launch vehicle, enabling Capella to select a specific orbit and launch timeline to meet its customer needs in terms of coverage, revisit and image quality.
• September 3, 2019: Capella Space is partnering with SpaceNet®, a nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating open source, artificial intelligence (AI) applied research for geospatial applications. 6)
- Capella joins the collaborative SpaceNet partnership alongside In-Q-Tel’s (IQT) CosmiQ Works, Maxar Technologies, Intel AI and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Capella’s addition to the partnership presents an exciting opportunity to expand SpaceNet’s existing geospatial open source research to a new data type, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Opening access to this data will help broaden the use of high-quality SAR in a variety of geospatial analytic applications.
- There is tremendous potential in applying machine learning to SAR data for a range of applications, from natural disaster response to monitoring global supply chain activity, but the industry still faces significant barriers to adoption. Developers and data scientists lack open data and software tools. Capella seeks to help overcome these obstacles through its partnership with SpaceNet and the development of a new SAR user community.
- The Capella User Community will broaden the adoption of high-resolution SAR data to solve a range of global issues. Data scientists and software engineers will have access to free and open Capella data along with tools and techniques to work more easily with SAR data. The company invites academics, non-government organizations (NGOs), governments, and companies to join Capella’s User Community — access this direct link for additional information...
- Ryan Lewis, the SVP at IQT and General Manager of SpaceNet, said that SAR promises substantial value for a wide variety of geospatial applications because, unlike satellite imagery, it is not limited by weather or lighting conditions. Furthermore, SAR phase data can offer additional insights into a particular location such as land subsidence. Capella’s contribution of an open-source, high-resolution SAR data set is an important next step for SpaceNet and the company is excited to see how participants use this data for machine learning models in an upcoming challenge.
• January 21, 2020: Capella Space, an information services company providing Earth observation data on demand, today unveiled its evolved satellite design to enable on-demand observations of anywhere on Earth. Informed by extensive customer feedback and findings from the launch of Denali, Capella's testbed satellite, the re-engineered design features a suite of technological innovations to deliver timely, flexible and frequent sub-0.5 meter very high quality images to the market. The enhanced technology package will deliver the most advanced offering for small satellite SAR imagery on the market. 7)
"Our customers have spoken: today's industry standard of waiting eight hours to receive data is woefully outdated. They want access to imagery that is reliable, timely and, most importantly, high-quality," said Christian Lenz, vice president of engineering at Capella Space. "The innovations packed into our small satellite make Capella the first and only SAR provider to provide real-time tasking and capture of sub-0.5 m very high-quality imagery anywhere on Earth at any time. This is a game-changer for a variety of industries — from monitoring military threats to assessing crop yields in agriculture to coordinating disaster response."
Figure 5: Artist impression of Capella SAR satellite (background image courtesy NASA), image credit: Capella)
The satellite evolution is a direct result of customer feedback, extensive on-orbit testing with Capella's first testbed satellite Denali, as well as ground-based testing. Enhancements include:
- Advanced design delivering high contrast, low-noise, sub-0.5 meter imagery: A 3.5 meter deployed mesh-based reflector antenna combined with a high power RADAR enable key performance improvements including quality advances.
- Extended duty cycle: A deployed 400 W solar array increases on-orbit duty cycle to 10 minutes per orbit.
- Continuous imaging over long distance: Advanced thermal management systems allow continuous imaging of up to 4000 km long strip images.
- Highly agile platform: Enabled by large reaction wheels, the new satellite quickly adjusts pointing to collect images from diverse targets.
- Staring spotlight image mode: New mode further enhances image quality with the ability to collect the highest commercially available multi-look data.
- Enhanced data downlink rate: A high average data rate downlink of 1.2 Gbit/s supports the massive image collection rate and extended duty cycle, providing more data per orbit than any other commercial SAR system in its class.
- Real-time tasking: A highly secure encrypted two-way link with Inmarsat through an exclusive partnership with Addvalue provides real time tasking capability for the entire Capella constellation.
The new satellite design cemented major deals with multiple divisions of the U.S. government, including a contract with the United States Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The technological enhancements will be embedded in Capella's next six commercial satellites, named the "Whitney" constellation, starting with the launch of Sequoia slated for March of 2020. The Sequoia satellite is currently completing system level tests and will arrive at the launch site in early March.
Capella is also licensed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for its 36 small satellite constellation, along with approval to sell the highest resolution legally allowed SAR commercial imagery to customers globally.
• December 16, 2019: Space-based radar imagery provider Capella Space will launch seven satellites and start commercial operations in 2020, the company announced Dec. 16. 8)
- The San Francisco-based startup deployed one small synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite in December 2018 to test the service. The next seven it plans to launch in 2020 are a new design, Payam Banazadeh, CEO and founder of Capella Space, told SpaceNews.
- The first satellite, to be named Sequoia, will launch from Cape Canaveral in March into a polar sun-synchronous orbit on a SpaceX rocket. The next three satellites are booked on an Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) flight scheduled for June to a polar sun-synchronous orbit. These would be the first batch of a constellation to be named Whitney.
- The next batch of three are being booked to go up late 2020. “We hope to finalize booking in the next few months,” said Banazadeh.
- Sequoia and Whitney are identical satellites but get different names because they are built in separate production cycles, he said. “We plan to launch between six and 12 satellites per year.” The goal is to have 36 satellites on orbit by 2023.
- Banazadeh said details of the new satellite design will be unveiled in January. Based on market research and tests with the prototype satellite, the company decided it needed larger spacecraft to accommodate a bigger sensor aperture that can provide high-resolution sub-0.5 meter imagery.
- Higher resolution imagery is especially important to government and military customers the company is pursuing in addition to commercial business. Capella has contracts with the U.S. Air Force and recently won a study contract from the National Reconnaissance Office.
- The new microsatellite design, at under 100 kg, is larger than the original 40 kg design. “It is still small but deploys to something really big in space,” said Banazadeh. “Over the last 12 months looking at the competition and talking to customers we realized we really want to dominate the very high resolution market. To meet that demand, we need a large aperture so we changed the size.”
- During the past year the company built the ground infrastructure and developed a process from when a customer puts in an imagery request to when the data gets downlinked into an Amazon Web Services (AWS) ground station and cloud service. “That process is fully automated,” said Banazadeh.
- The advantage of radar is that it can see through clouds. Customers want to see how patterns are changing but the higher resolution is important as well, he said. “We will be able to detect any object bigger than a half meter, and identify any object larger than 1.5 meters in any dimension.”
- A half-meter SAR image resolution of an airport, for example, would be able to discriminate the types of aircraft on the ground. A picture of a combat zone would show vehicles and identify if they are military or civilian.
- “That’s where the sub half-meter becomes very useful,” said Banazadeh. “Customers want to understand change and what is changing.”
- Capella expects to have an edge over competitors because it designed the new satellites to consume less power so they can image for 10 minutes per orbit, he noted.
- Radar in general even for bigger satellites consumes a lot of power. While optical imagery satellites are always imaging, radar satellites are only sent to take pictures of a specific area because they have limited power on board. “You have to know where you want to look at,” said Banazadeh. Capella predicts that 10 minutes of imaging per orbit will give it a competitive advantage over other small satellite services that can only image for two minutes per orbit, he said. “That limits how many locations they can look at and how they manage orders.”
- The company is promising customers that once it begins commercial operations it will be able to deliver SAR data in less than 30 minutes from the time of collection, a much faster turnaround than the industry average of eight to 12 hours, according to Banazadeh.
- To help shorten the cycle, Capella signed an agreement with Inmarsat to provide a communications terminal to go on every satellite. “We can access our satellites through the Inmarsat network in real time all the time,” he said. When a request comes in, it is immediately uploaded to a specific satellite. The time it takes for the satellite to reach the target will come down as more satellites are deployed, said Banazadeh.
- The 30 minute turnaround begins once the data is collected and beamed to the Amazon Ground Station. “The data gets into the cloud in 25 minutes, and we make it accessible to customers,” he said.
- Banazadeh said this is important to customers that use radar imagery precisely because they’re in a hurry and can’t wait for the clouds to go away. “Having to wait eight to 12 hours defeats the purpose.”
- Capella says it has funding to complete a seven satellite constellation launch in 2020, with backing from investors DCVC (Data Collective) and Spark Capital.
• September 26, 2018: Capella Space, an aerospace and information services company providing on-demand Earth observation data via advanced space radar,announced $19 million Series B funding led by Spark Capital and DCVC (Data Collective) and joined by Mark VC and Harmony Partners among other investors. This will finance the first operational launches of the company's cloud-penetrating, radar-powered small satellites, designed to deliver high-quality imaging anywhere and under any condition, day or night. In an unprecedented engineering feat, Capella's satellite, the size of a backpack on launch, combines an origami-like antenna that unfolds to almost 100 square feet with radically efficient electronics that together deliver effectively the same image quality as radar satellites the size of a school bus. The first Capella test satellite launch is scheduled for November 2018 ahead of next year's first operational launches of a planned 36-satellite constellation that will deliver reliable images from anywhere on the planet in under an hour. 9)
- "Major industries and governments are starved for timely satellite data, and even more so for data with the unique signal and intelligence advantage Capella's synthetic aperture radar tech can provide. Commodity trading, urban development, critical infrastructure, shipping and security: businesses across the board realize that milliseconds matter in today's global economy, and a steady stream of reliable, easily accessible Earth information just does not exist," said Matt Ocko of DCVC. "Capella is solving that problem for a broad range of customers, from typical players like the Department of Defense, and also for blue-chip companies and NGOs that need to understand risks to our collective future."
• In March 2018, NOAA awarded Capella a license to send two X-band SAR satellites into polar orbits between 450 to 600 km with an inclination of ~97.5º.
• Since it was founded in 2016, Capella has raised more than $15 million in private investment, including $12 million raised in 2017 through its Series A investment round led by Nabeel Hyatt of Spark Capital. Capella is currently raising Series B funding.
Figure 6: Artist's rendition of the deployed Capella microsatellite. The spacecraft is using an origami-like antenna that unfolds to 8 m2 (image credit: Capella Space) 10)
Launch 1: The Capella-1 demonstration spacecraft (nicknamed Denali), a microsatellite of 37 kg, was launched on the SSO-A rideshare mission on 3 December 2018 (18:34:05 GMT) on a SpaceX Falcon-9 Block 5 vehicle from VAFB (Vandenberg Air Force Base) in California. 11) 12) 13)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous circular orbit with an altitude of 575 km, inclination of ~98º, LTDN (Local Time of Descending Node) of 10:30 hours.
• SpaceX statement: On Monday, December 3rd at 10:34 a.m. PST (18:34 GMT), SpaceX successfully launched Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express to a low Earth orbit from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Carrying 64 payloads, this mission represented the largest single rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date. A series of six deployments occurred approximately 13 to 43 minutes after liftoff, after which Spaceflight began to command its own deployment sequences. Spaceflight’s deployments are expected to occur over a period of six hours. 14)
- This mission also served as the first time SpaceX launched the same booster a third time. Falcon 9’s first stage for the Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission previously supported the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 mission in May 2018 and the Merah Putih mission in August 2018. Following stage separation, SpaceX landed Falcon 9’s first stage on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship, which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean.
• Capella Space information on 3 December 2018: Capella Space, an aerospace and information services company providing Earth observation data on demand, today announced the launch of its first small synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite. The satellite, named "Denali" after the tallest mountain in the U.S., will allow Capella to fine-tune their technology and operations as they progress toward reliably delivering hourly information and imagery in any condition anywhere on Earth. This launch marks a pivotal moment for American innovation, as Capella is the first and only U.S. company to develop and launch a radar satellite for commercial markets. 15)
List of payloads on the Spaceflight SSO-A rideshare mission
The layout of the list follows the alphabetical order of missions as presented on the Wikipedia page ”2018 in spaceflight” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_in_spaceflight#November — as well as with the help of Gunter Krebs's short descriptions at https://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/skysat-3.htm
This mission enabled 34 organizations from 17 different countries to place spacecraft on orbit. It’s also special because it was completely dedicated to smallsats. Spaceflight launched 15 microsatellite and 49 CubeSats from government and commercial entities including universities, startups, and even a middle school. The payloads vary from technology demonstrations and imaging satellites to educational research endeavors.
• AISTechSat-2, a 6U CubeSat for Earth observation of AISTech (Access to Intelligent Space Technologies), Barcelona, Spain.
• Al Farabi-2, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstration mission of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Kazakhstan.
• Astrocast-0.1, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstration mission of Astrocast, Switzerland, dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT)
• Audacy-0, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstration mission of Audacy, Mountain View, CA, built by Clyde Space.
• BlackSky-2, a microsatellite (55 kg) of BlackSky Global (Seattle, WA) which will provide 1 m resolution imagery with improved geolocation accuracy.
• BRIO, a 3U CubeSat of SpaceQuest Ltd. of Fairfax, VA to test a novel communications protocol that uses SDR (Software Defined Radio).
• Capella-1, a microsatellite (37 kg) of Capella Space, San Francisco, CA featuring a X-band SAR (Synthetic Aperture) payload.
• Centauri-1, a 3U CubeSat of Fleet Space Technologies, Adelaide, South Australia. Demonstration of IoT technologies.
• CSIM-FD (Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor-Flight Demonstration), a 6U CubeSat of LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) at the University of Boulder, CO, USA. The goal is to measure solar spectral irradiance to understand how solar variability impacts the Earth’s climate and to validate climate model sensitivity to spectrally varying solar forcing.
• Eaglet-1, the first 3U CubeSat (5 kg) of OHB Italia SpA for Earth Observation.
• Elysium Star-2, a 1U CubeSat of Elysium Space providing space burial services.
• ESEO (European Student Earth Orbiter) sponsored by ESA, a microsatellite of ~40 kg with 6 instruments aboard.
• Eu:CROPIS (Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-Food Production in Space), a minisatellite (230 kg) of DLR, Germany. The objective is to study food production in space in support of future long-duration manned space missions (life sciences). The main payloads are two greenhouses, each maintained as a pressurized closed loop system, simulating the environmental conditions of the Moon or of Mars.
• eXCITe (eXperiment for Cellular Integration Technology), a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) mission to demonstrate the 'satlets' technology. Satlets are a new low-cost, modular satellite architecture that can scale almost infinitely. Satlets are small modules that incorporate multiple essential satellite functions and share data, power and thermal management capabilities. Satlets physically aggregate in different combinations that would provide capabilities to accomplish diverse missions.Built by NovaWurks, eXCITE has a mass of 155 kg. eXCITE also carries the See Me (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements), a prototype microsatellite (~22 kg) built by Raytheon for DARPA to obtain on-demand satellite imagery in a timely and persistent manner for pre-mission planning.
• ExseedSat-1, a 1U CubeSat mission by the Indian company Exseed Space. The goal is to provide a multifunction UHF/VHF NBFM (Narrow Band Frequency Modulation) amateur communication satellite.
• FalconSat-6, a minisatellite (181 kg) of the USAFA (U.S. Air Force Academy) and sponsored by AFRL. FalconSat-6 hosts a suite of five payloads to address key AFSPC (Air Force Space Command) needs: SSA (Space Situational Awareness) and the need to mature pervasive technologies such as propulsion, solar arrays, and low power communications.
• Flock-3, three 3U CubeSats (5 kg each) of Planet Labs to provide Earth observation.
• Fox-1C, a radio amateur and technology research 1U CubeSat developed by AMSAT and hosting several university developed payloads.
• HawkEye, a formation-flying cluster of three microsatellites (13.4 kg each) of HawkEye 360, Herndon, VA, USA. The goal is to demonstrate high-precision RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) geolocation technology monitoring.
• Hiber-1 and-2, these are 6U CubeSats, a pathfinder mission of Hiber Global, Noordwijk, The Netherlands, for Hiber Global's planned (IoT) communications CubeSat constellation.
• ICE-Cap (Integrated Communications Extension Capability), a 3U CubeSat of the US Navy. The objectives are to demonstrate a cross-link from LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to MUOS (Mobile User Objective System) WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) in GEO (Geosynchronous Orbit). The objective is to send to users on secure networks.
• ICEYE-X2, a X-band SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) microsatellite (~ 80 kg) of Iceye Ltd, a commercial satellite startup company of Espoo, Finland.
• Irvine 02, a 1U CubeSat educational mission by the Irvine Public School Foundation, Irvine, CA. The Irvine CubeSat STEM Program (ICSP) is a multi-year endeavor that directly impacts over a hundred students from six high schools and two school districts.
• ITASAT-1 (Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica Satellite), a Brazilian 6U Cubesat (~8kg) built by the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA). A former rescoped microsatellite mission.
• JY1-Sat, a 1U CubeSat of Jordan developed by students of various universities. The satellite will carry a UHF/VHF amateur radio.
• KazSTSAT (Kazakh Science and Technology Satellite), a microsatellite (<100 kg) of Ghalam LLP, Astana, Kazakhstan. Developed by SSTL on a SSTL-50 platform including an SSTL EarthMapper payload designed for global commercial wide-area imaging with a resolution of 17.5 m on a swath of 250 km.
• KNACKSAT (KMUTNB Academic Challenge of Knowledge SATellite) of Thailand, a 1U technology demonstration CubeSat, the first entirely Thai-built satellite, developed by students of King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok (KMUTNB). Use of an amateur radio for communication.
• Landmapper-BC (Corvus BC 4), a 6U CubeSat (11 kg) of Astro Digital (formerly Aquila Space), Santa Clara, CA, USA. The satellite features a broad coverage multispectral (Red, Green, NIR) imaging system with a resolution of 22 m.
• MinXSS-2 (Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2), a 3U CubeSat(4 kg) of LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) at the University of Colorado at Boulder,CO, USA. The objective is to study the energy distribution of solar flare SXR (Soft X-ray) emissions and its impact on the Earth’s ITM (Ionosphere, Thermosphere, and Mesosphere) layers.MinXSS-2 is a copy of the MinXSS-1 but with some improvements. — MinXSS-1 was launched on 06 December 2015 onboard of Cygnus CRS-4 to the ISS, were it was deployed into orbit on 16 May 2016. It reentered Earth's atmosphere on 6 May 2017.
• NEXTSat-1, a multi-purpose microsatellite (~100 kg) of Korea designed and developed at SaTReC (Satellite Technology Research Center) of KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology). The goal is to conduct scientific missions such as star formation and space storm measurements and also technology demonstration in space. Instruments: ISSS (Instrument for the Study of Space Storms) developed at KAIST to detect plasma densities and particle fluxes of 10 MeV energy range near the Earth. NISS (NIR Imaging Spectrometer for Star formation history), developed at KASI (Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute).
• Orbital Reflector, a 3U CubeSat project (4 kg) of the Nevada Museum of Art and artist Trevor Paylon. The Orbital Reflector is a 30 m sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar. On deployment, the sculpture self-inflates like a balloon. Sunlight reflects onto the sculpture making it visible from Earth with the naked eye — like a slowly moving artificial star as bright as a star in the Big Dipper.
• ORS-7 (Operationally Responsive Space 7), two 6U CubeSats (-7A and -7B) of the USCG (US Coast Guard) in cooperation with DHS (Department of Homeland Security), the ORS (Operationally Responsive Space Office) of DoD, and NOAA. The objective is to detect transmissions from EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons), which are carried on board vessels to broadcast their position if in distress.
• PW-Sat 2 (Politechnika Warszawska Satellite 2), a 2U CubeSat of the Institute of Radioelectronics at the Warsaw University of Technology, Warsaw, Poland. The objective is to demonstrate a deorbitation system - a drag parachute opened behind the satellite - which allows faster removal of satellites from their orbit after it completes its mission.
• RAAF-M1 (Royal Australian Air Force-M1), an Australian 3U CubeSat (~4 kg) designed and built by UNSW (University of New South Wales) for the Australian Defence Force Academy, Royal Australian Air Force. RAAF-M1 is a technology demonstration featuring an AIS receiver, and ADS-B receiver, an SDR (Software Defined Radio).
• RANGE-A and -B (Ranging And Nanosatellite Guidance Experiment), two 1.5 CubeSats of Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology), Atlanta, GA, USA, flying in a leader-follower formation with the goal of improving the relative and absolute positioning capabilities of nanosatellites.
• ROSE-1, a 6U CubeSat of Phase Four Inc., El Segundo, CA, USA. ROSE-1 is an experimental spacecraft designed to provide an orbital test-bed for the Phase Four RFT (Radio Frequency Thruster), the first plasma propulsion system to fly on a nanosatellite.
• SeaHawk-1, a 3U CubeSats of UNCW (University of North Carolina, Wilmington), NC. The goal is to measure the ocean color in project SOCON (Sustained Ocean Observation from Nanosatellites). SeaHawk is considered a prototype for a larger constellation. The SOCON project is a collaboration between Clyde Space Ltd (spacecraft bus), the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cloudland Instruments, and NASA/GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center).
• See Me (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements), a prototype microsatellite (~22 kg) built by Raytheon for DARPA to obtain on-demand satellite imagery in a timely and persistent manner for pre-mission planning.
• SkySat-14 and -15. Planet Labs of San Francisco has 13 SkySats in orbit. The commercial EO satellites were built by Terra Bella of Mountain View, CA, which Planet Labs acquired from Google last year. At the time of the purchase, there were 7 SkySats in orbit. On 31 October 2017, Planet launched an additional six on a Minotaur-C rocket. The 100 kg SkySats are capable of sub-meter resolution – making them the most powerful in the constellation. Customers can request to have these high-resolution satellites target their locations of interest.
• SNUGLITE, a 2U CubeSat designed by the SNU (Seoul National University) for technology demonstrations and amateur radio communication.
• SpaceBEE, four picosatellites of Swarm Technologies (a US start-up), built to the 0.25U form factor to make up a 1U CubeSat.
• STPSat-5 is a science technology minisatellite of the US DoD STP (Space Test Program), managed by the SMC of the USAF. STPSat-5 will carry a total of five technological or scientific payloads to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) in order to further the DoD’s understanding of the space environment. The satellite was built by SNC (Sierra Nevada Corporation) on the modular SN-50 bus with a payload capacity of 50-100 kg and compatible with ESPA-class secondary launch adaptors.
• THEA, a 3U CubeSat built by SpaceQuest, Ltd. of Fairfax, VA to demonstrate a spectrum survey payload developed by Aurora Insight, Washington DC. The objective is to qualify Aurora’s payload, consisting of a proprietary spectrometer and components, and demonstrate the generation of relevant measurements of the spectral environment (UHF, VHF, S-band). The results of the experiment will inform future development of advanced instrumentation by Aurora and component development by SpaceQuest.
• VESTA is a 3U CubeSat developed at SSTL in Guildford, UK. VESTA is a technology demonstration mission that will test a new two-way VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) payload for the exactEarth advanced maritime satellite constellation. Honeywell Aerospace is providing the payload. VESTA is a flagship project of the National Space Technology Program, funded by the UK Space Agency and managed by the Center for EO Instrumentation and Space Technology (CEOI-ST).
• VisionCube-1, a 2U CubeSat designed by the Korea Aerospace University (KAU) to perform research on Transient Luminous Events in the upper atmosphere. The image processing payload consists of a multi-anode photon multiplier tube(MaPMT), a camera, and a real-time image processing engine built by using SoC (System-on-Chip) FPGA technologies.
Spaceflight has contracted with 64 spacecraft from 34 different organizations for the mission to a Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit. It includes 15 microsatellites and 49 CubeSats from both commercial and government entities, of which more than 25 are from international organizations from 17 countries, including United States, Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Finland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, UK, Germany, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Poland, Canada, Brazil, and India. 16)
Figure 7: This infographic released by Spaceflight illustrates the types of payloads booked on the SSO-A mission (image crdit: Spaceflight)
Statement from the Mission Manager of Spaceflight
Most will never know all that is necessary to plan a launch, and then add to that the challenge of managing and being responsible for the launch of 64 satellites, a record breaking event to be sure, but that's exactly what Spaceflight did. 17)
Spaceflight, the leading rideshare and mission management provider, today announced the success of its SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission, the largest single rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date. The company successfully launched 64 spacecraft to sun-synchronous low Earth orbit via a SpaceX Falcon 9 that launched today from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“This was an incredibly complex mission, and I’m extremely proud of what our talented team at Spaceflight has achieved,” said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight. “SSO-A is a major milestone for Spaceflight and the industry. We’ve always been committed to making space more accessible through rideshare. This mission enabled 34 organizations from 17 different countries to place spacecraft on orbit. It’s also special because it was completely dedicated to smallsats.”
Figure 8: Photo of the happy Spaceflight team after the launch of the SSO-A mission (image credit: Spaceflight)
Spaceflight launched 15 MicroSats and 49 CubeSats from government and commercial entities including universities, startups, and even a middle school. The payloads vary from technology demonstrations and imaging satellites to educational research endeavors.
One research payload includes the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s CubeSat, SeaHawk-1 carrying the HawkEye Ocean Color Imager. UNCW has been funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and NASA serves in an advisory capacity to ensure the maximum scientific utility of the science data. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and UNCW have created a partnership to expand accessibility to the data.
“We are thrilled to have SeaHawk-1 on orbit and to be part of such a historic launch superbly executed by Spaceflight,” said Professor John Morrison, SeaHawk’s co-project manager and lead principal investigator. “SeaHawk will make ocean observations at significantly higher spatial resolution and at much lower costs than standard satellite systems. Since the data collected will be publicly available, our hope is that it will benefit not only researchers, but policymakers and others to make informed decisions when addressing issues related to the environment.”
To accommodate the large number of payloads, Spaceflight built an integrated payload stack that was nearly 20 feet tall. Once the launch vehicle reached orbit, the upper and lower free flyers separated from the vehicle. The free flyers then successfully deployed all spacecraft, dispensing one payload every five minutes over five hours.
“This launch was an impressive undertaking and an important milestone for the smallsat industry as well as for many of the organizations involved,” said Payam Banazadeh, founder and CEO of Capella Space Corporation. “Capella’s first satellite is now on orbit and we are one step closer to our goal of providing timely, reliable, and frequent information using Synthetic Aperture Radar technology.”
With the success of SSO-A, Spaceflight has now launched more than 210 satellites since its founding in 2011. In addition, the company is contracted to launch nearly 100 satellites in 2019. Among the upcoming launches is Spaceflight’s next dedicated rideshare mission, which will occur in 2019 on a Rocket Lab Electron.
Launch 2: The Sequoia payload, a 107 kg SAR microsatellite of Capella Space second mission [Capella-2 (Sequoia)], was launched on 31 August 2020 (03:05 UTC) on a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle from New Zealand's Launch Complex 1 at Mahia. This was a dedicated mission for Capella Space Corporation of Palo Alto, California. Rocket Lab named the mission: 'I Can't Believe It's Not Optical.' 18)
Orbit: Near-circular orbit, altitude of 525 km, inclination of 45º.
Launch 3: The Capella-3 (Capella Whitney 1) and Capella-4 (Capella Whitney 2) microsatellites were launched on 24 January 2021 on the SpaceX first Rideshare mission called Transporter-1. SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (SLC-40) with 143 small satellites, a record number of spacecraft on a single mission, giving a boost to startup space companies and stressing the U.S. military’s tracking network charged with sorting out the locations of all objects in orbit. This SpaceX mission carried also 10 Starlink satellites into orbit. 19)
SSO orbit of Rideshare mission: SpaceX sent this mission with its 10 Starlink satellites into a polar SSO (Sun-Synchronous Orbit) with permission of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Altitude of 560 km and inclination of 97.6º.
Launch 4: On Saturday, May 15 at 22:56 UTC (6:56 p.m. EDT) a SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle launched a set of 52 Starlink satellites, the Capella-6 (Capella Whitney 4) SAR microsatellite, and a Tyvak-0310 nanosatellite (6U CubeSat) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 20)
Launch 5: The Capella-5 (Capella Whitney 3) SAR microsatellite with a mass of ~ 110 kg was launched as a passenger payload by a Falcon 9 Block 5 vehicle on 30 June 2021 at 3:31 p.m. EDT (19:31 UTC) on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission. The launch site was the Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. 21)
Deployment of the payload of 88 satellites started nearly 58 minutes after liftoff, once the upper stage performed a second burn of its engine to place it into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of nearly 550 km and an inclination of 97.5º. The satellites, from a variety of government and commercial customers, were released over half an hour.
Capella Space launched its Capella-5 microsatellite with a Maxwell electric thruster manufactured by propulsion startup Phase Four. 22) “The Maxwell systems in our satellites have been functioning nominally in the lab and in orbit, and Phase Four has provided great customer service all along the way,” Christian Lenz, Capella chief technology officer, said in a statement. “This has given us confidence to order additional engines. We look forward to continuing our partnership and look forward to future advances in Phase Four’s technology.”
Most passenger satellites of this mission are listed in the Transporter-2 file on the eoPortal.
Capella constellation mission status
• October 21, 2021: Capella Space is working with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Technical Center (SMDTC) to satisfy Army demand for Earth observation with rapid tasking and delivery of synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) data. 23)
Figure 9: Capella Space synthetic-aperture radar image of the Chinese National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, the site of opening ceremonies for the 2022 winter Olympics in China (image credit: Capella Space)
- Under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) announced Oct. 21, Capella and the U.S. Army Payload Development Lab will explore applications for SAR through simulation and testing.
- “SMDTC is looking forward to this partnership with the team at Capella Space,” Tom Webber, Army SMDTC director, said in a statement. “Capella is the first U.S. company to commercialize SAR and is uniquely positioned to provide mission-critical support to tactical users and advance the Army’s critical mission.”
- Capella has established relationships with many U.S. government agencies in the last year, including contracts with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Space Force, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon Space Development Agency. In-Q-Tel, the U.S. intelligence community’s nonprofit investment organization, also is supporting Capella.
- “Every day, the United States Armed Forces are tasked with keeping the peace and saving lives across multiple domains in a state of constant change,” Payam Banazadeh, Capella CEO and founder, said in a statement. “You need timely intelligence to drive the best possible outcomes.”
- Capella executives declined to comment on whether any funding was associated with the CRADA.
- “CRADAs are important because they serve as a vehicle for commercial entities to work closely with government customers in a secure environment and gain a deeper understanding of the challenges they’re facing,” Banazadeh told SpaceNews by email. CRADAs are “often the first step toward establishing an official contract with a government agency,” he added.
- Government agencies around the world are key customers for SAR, which can peer through clouds and capture imagery day and night. In addition to the imagery, SAR data can reveal the material properties of objects as well as provide information on moisture, elevation and small changes in the position of objects.
- “Multiple U.S. Department of Defense agencies have shown interest in using Capella’s SAR imagery for a variety of purposes, including national security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, infrastructure and transportation monitoring, and reliable monitoring for indications and warnings of potential natural and security threats,” according to the Capella news release.
- The commercial SAR market is growing.
- “The U.S. Government is still the largest customer of SAR data, but we are actively building a market for commercial applications that help companies and nongovernmental organizations make better economic decisions,” Banazadeh said.
- Capella is working to further expand the market through its Open Data Program. By sharing imagery and data with researchers, nonprofit organizations, application developers and disaster response organizations, Capella hopes to “changes the narrative that SAR is a rare commodity and something only accessible to governments with large budgets,” Banazadeh said. “SAR is more accessible now than it ever has been for the commercial sector. Capella Space is helping to educate and train nongovernment entities on how to integrate SAR data into their broader data strategies.”
• September 14, 2021: Capella Space announced plans Sept. 14 to share synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) data gathered by its satellite constellation with researchers, nonprofit organizations, application developers and disaster response organizations. 24)
Figure 10: Capella Space captured this synthetic-aperture radar image of South America's Pantanal tropical wetlands on April 14, 2021 (image credit: Capella Space)
- Capella launched its Open Data Program by providing 60 high-resolution SAR scenes of sites on every continent, showing agriculture and aquaculture, energy and natural resources, infrastructure, maritime, environmental, humanitarian disasters and natural disasters.
- Customers for Capella’s Open Data Program will gain access to updated and historical imagery and data the Capella Console, San Francisco startup’s online platform.
- Through the initiative, Capella intends “to foster innovation and discover the next game-changing applications of SAR,” Jason Brown, Capella community enablement engineer, wrote in a Sept. 14 blog post.
- Capella data is “ideal for computer vision and machine learning research and development” because the company released 60 scenes representing a variety of geographies and potential use cases under data-licensing policies that permit adaptation and sharing with third parties, Brown said.
- San Francisco-based Capella has five satellites in orbit, receiving tasking orders from government and commercial customers. Capella offers imagery in three modes. Spotlight offers the highest resolution of 0.5 meters per pixel in a 5 km2 area. Sliding Spotlight provides scans a 5 km x 10 km area to capture imagery with a resolution of one meter per pixel. In Stripmap mode, Capella can obtain two-meter-resolution imagery of a 5 km x 20 km area.
- SAR data is particularly valuable for observing disaster zones at night or at times when clouds or smoke prevent satellites from gathering useful optical imagery.
- The first 60 scenes Capella released publicly include images of the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean Island St. Vincent, flooding in New South Wales Australia and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.
- Another commercial SAR constellation operator, Finland-based ICEYE, has noted high demand for SAR imagery following earthquakes, floods, fires, landslides, avalanches.
- Capella is inviting researchers and app developers to sign up to receive not only the images but the underlying data.
- “You’ll soon be analyzing the highest resolution commercial SAR data and including them in your own applications,” Brown said in the blog.
• June 17, 2021: Radar satellite imagery startup Capella Space on June 14 received a $3 million research contract in support of the Space Development Agency’s National Defense Space Architecture. 25)
- Capella Space was selected through a “broad agency announcement” issued by the space agency in January seeking proposals on a wide range of technologies for “National Defense Space Architecture Systems, Technologies, and Emerging Capabilities.” The award was posted on the federal contracts website SAM.GOV.
- Based in San Francisco, is building a constellation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites that can see through clouds and darkness.
- “We are delighted for the opportunity to work with the Space Development Agency,” Capella’s founder and CEO Payam Bazanadeh said in a statement to SpaceNews. “As the first and only American SAR company, this further expands our existing partnership with the U.S. government.”
- The SDA is building a network of satellites in low Earth orbit for U.S. military communications and missile defense. It is developing a Transport Layer of data-relay satellites and a Tracking Layer of sensor satellites to detect and track missiles.
- The agency in the broad area announcement (BAA) said it is interested in “novel remote sensing phenomenologies.” The agency is looking for “innovative distributed sensing concepts, novel sensing modalities, with applications to missile threat detection and tracking and surveillance of time critical targets.”
- The BAA asked companies for concepts and assessments of how their technologies could support the SDA’s space architecture.
- Capella Space last year won a DoD contract to provide airborne SAR data to the U.S. Navy. The company also has received contracts from the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office.
• May 28, 2021: We achieved another major milestone at Capella Space last week. On Friday, May 21, we released the first light image from the latest satellite we added to our SAR constellation, launched just 5 days earlier on the SpaceX Starlink 28 mission. To give a sense of why this is important, the SAR industry is used to imagery deliveries over the course of 5 days when the satellites are already launched and commissioned. In this same amount of time, we have launched, commissioned and collected imagery. 26)
- This satellite (Capella-6) joins our growing constellation, which offers the highest resolution SAR data commercially available on the market. In addition to quality, each additional satellite adds more capacity to our commercial constellation and more frequent revisit for our customers’ area of interest — providing even better and faster Earth observation data for our customers.
Figure 11: The Capella-6 satellite’s first light image captured the Erez Border Crossing between Israel and Gaza one hour before the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect. At 50 cm x 50 cm resolution, this image shows the Erez Border Crossing with rich details such as the terminal, security fence and road networks where humanitarian aid has begun to enter into the Gaza strip by truck. We are thrilled to provide additional capacity on our satellites so that our customers can rapidly access 24/7 all-weather data needed to make better economic, environmental and security decisions (image credit: Capella Space)
Figure 12: The Space Selfie. Our constellation captured this “selfie” of LC39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida where our newest SAR satellite spent its last moments on Earth (image credit: Capella Space)
Figure 13: Reflector Antenna Deployment. Engineers deployed the antenna over a series of ground contacts, tensioning the instrument to millimeter-level precision. In this image, you can see the final deployment of our mesh-based reflector antenna. It’s designed to deliver high-contrast, high-resolution and low-noise imagery (image credit: Capella Space)
• December 16, 2020: It has been a little over three months since the launch of our first operational satellite Capella-2 (formerly named Sequoia) and I can tell you that this has been the most exciting three months of our journey after founding Capella only four years ago. We made history with this launch as the first and only American commercial SAR company and we have a lot more history-making announcements coming soon — including this one. 27)
- Over the last few months, we have been sharing our 2-meter resolution Strip imagery and it looks fantastic. Most importantly our early adopters, customers, and partners have been providing incredibly positive feedback on our image quality.
- Today, I am excited to unveil yet another first for our industry. Capella is now the highest resolution commercial SAR provider in the world, capable of 50 cm x 50 cm resolution imaging.
Figure 14: Solar Farm, Tiangang Lake, China: Such imagery could be used to gauge the power output (image credit: Capella Space)
Figure 15: The metallic refining units and piping brightly reflect radar signals at ExxonMobil’s Singapore Chemical plant on Jurong Island. Very high resolution zoomed in views show the granular features of an oil tanker docked near floating roof storage tanks (image credit: Capella Space)
What are we unveiling today?
- We are unveiling the highest resolution commercial SAR imagery available in the market at 50 cm x 50 cm resolution in our new Spotlight or “Spot” imaging mode. Our Spot product is a specialized mode that allows for long exposures over an area of interest (AOI) and results in a beautiful and crystal-clear SAR imagery. This new 50 cm x 50 cm imagery is collected by dwelling our satellites over an AOI for a long period. Think of it as a long exposure on your digital camera when you are trying to collect more light into your sensor. Except we are doing a very long exposure looking at a single location on Earth while traveling at 7.5 km per second in space. Our satellites have been designed with the capability to dwell on a single location for as long as 60 seconds.
- Before Capella, other SAR providers could dwell on a single target for only a few seconds with their electronically steered antenna. The addition of more than an order of magnitude of exposure time in comparison to what is currently possible with other systems allows Capella satellites to provide incredibly sharp SAR imagery, which enables easier and more accurate image interpretation and analysis. Prior to Capella, the best resolution on the market was 1 m x 25 cm with non-square pixels which created its own challenges. These previous images were collected with limited bandwidth of 300 MHz where our imagery is collected with up to 500 MHz of bandwidth, with future satellite generations more than doubling that bandwidth at 1.2 GHz for even higher resolution.
Figure 16: Spotlight mode: This new mode is enabled by our unique satellite design that allows us to mechanically steer our sensor to dwell on a single target for a long duration. Spot mode is supported by the satellite’s extensive imaging capacity which allows us to take many of these long dwell collects throughout each of our orbits. We’ve been able to build such a unique system due to our vertical integration approach between our hardware and software – from our SAR payload, to the ground infrastructure, to the SAR processor, and the satellite hardware that goes with it all (image credit: Capella Space)
Figure 17: American Airlines retires its McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft and Airbus A300-600R jetliners at the Roswell Air Center in New Mexico. Capella’s highest resolution imaging mode shows the aircraft and their shadows reveal granular details such as the size of a cockpit, fuselage, wings and engines (image credit: Capella Space)
What does this mean to our customers?
- Most importantly this announcement is game-changing because of what it does for our customers. This new imaging mode means our customers can see more and do more with our imagery. Our Spot images are sharper and provide a new depth of insight from highly distinguishable features in each image. For our customers, every clue has the potential to save lives, and this new level of detail introduces hundreds of new clues in each image. While most analysts are accustomed to optical images, we have had customers ask us if our SAR images are actually black and white panchromatic images! We see this as a sign that high quality SAR is elevating the industry and will democratize this fascinating technology.
Figure 18: Capella’s new Spot imagery captures the Jiuquan Launch Center where China recently launched its new commercial CERES-1 rocket. The spaceport’s launch pad areas and vertical assembly area are clearly visible in the radar image and a zoomed in version shows a closeup of the launch pad (image credit: Capella Space)
Why does the world need high resolution SAR data now?
- When I started Capella almost four and a half years ago the goal was to build a new tool for humanitarian work and human progress globally. A tool that allows us to monitor our planet in all-weather and in all-light conditions and to do so reliably and transparently. My initial frustration was over the disappearance of the MH370 flight and our inability to locate it – despite decades of investment in Earth observation and tracking technologies. The conclusion was that we need to do better, better in Earth observation, better in tracking things, and better at understanding the planet we live on. Consequently, in order to understand our planet better we need to monitor it more reliably and more frequently.
- Looking at the global events of the last four years since we started this journey, I think this capability has never been more needed than today. One of the most recent events that could have used our capability were the millions of acres of the West Coast of the United States that were devastated by wildfires and completely blanketed a third of our country in hazardous opaque smoke. If we can’t see what’s happening around us, we can’t make good decisions. SAR allows us, our first responders, our policy makers, and the world to see. That is critical. - And today with our very high-resolution Spot mode we have brought a new perspective to the world, one that allows non-SAR users to visually utilize SAR imagery better than before.
Figure 19: The Aksum Airport was heavily damaged during the Ethiopian Tigray conflict. Capella’s very high-resolution Spot image identifies 23 trenches dug perpendicularly across the runway to prevent its usage. A closeup shows the trenches and debris highly contrasted against the dark tarmac (image credit: Capella Space)
How did we do this?
- I am particularly proud of the fact that Capella-2 (our first operational satellite) is an in-house creation built by a group of less than 100 engineers over the course of the last few years. We had to build our own satellite because no existing satellite could do what we wanted to do. Capella-2 is a revolutionary satellite that will forever change how we collect imagery from space and how we monitor our planet. This is a big win for our industry. It is the result of 4 years of ingenuity, hard work, creativity, and commitment to the cause. Through numerous iterations on this brand-new design, we launched a successful prototype satellite in 2018, ultimately leading to our highly capable operational satellite today.
- All of that has brought us a satellite that in many ways is challenging and disrupting the status-quo while building a new category. A 107 kg satellite that is small on the ground but humongous in space.
Figure 20: Artistic rendering of Capella-2 — Capella’s evolved design and first operational satellite launched in 2020 (image credit: Capella Space)
- With this design we are able to do more with less — literally. We can collect high quality and high-resolution imagery that was once only thought possible with satellites designed and built by governments and giant corporations, often taking ten or more years to develop, at costs well into the hundreds of millions.
- To get a sense of the complexities involved with our satellite and delivery system you have to look at what has gone into Capella-2, a 107kg microsatellite. When launched into orbit it is merely as large as a small washing machine. Once Capella-2 is deployed on orbit it transforms itself by deploying a boom the length of a minivan and unfurls a high gain antenna the size of a small bedroom. From a washing machine to a bedroom, this tiny but mighty satellite has more than 400 meters of cables and wiring connecting more than 100 individual boards and electronics, with complex software running in the background built with over 250,000 lines of C code, over 10,000 lines of Python code, and over 500,000 lines of FPGA code. The ground software that allows our team to interact with the satellite in space has over 850,000 lines of code and is deployed across 5 continents in remote places and giant data centers. The whole system is nothing short of remarkable.
How can Capella customers request and collect imagery?
- Easy! With all the complexities that have gone into the satellite, the customer experience is elegant, easy, and straight forward. We made our user experience as simple as our hardware is complex, creating a frictionless flow of data from space to inform timely decisions on Earth. We didn’t build a satellite company to sell satellites to masses, we built a satellite company to bring earth observation to masses. This is where our intuitive web application and API (Application Programming Interfac) with fully automated order-to-delivery system comes in. Both the Capella Console web application and Capella API make it easy for customers to search our image library catalog or request new acquisitions via on-demand self-serve constellation tasking. We made it so simple that all you have to do is login, define your area-of-interest, and search the existing catalog or submit a new acquisition tasking request. Once a new acquisition has been collected, automatically processed and delivered customers receive an alert so they can login and access the SAR imagery products in a timely manner. And it works — just like that!
- Speaking on behalf of the entire Capella team, Capella-2’s success has energized and inspired our team to work even harder to realize our plans to use this exciting technology to help understand life on Earth. We are moving fast and are excited about what is coming next, including many more satellites that are in various stages of production and will launch over the coming months.
• November 23, 2020: Fleet operator Inmarsat and communications technology firm Addvalue Innovation announced success Nov. 23 relaying data between Capella Space’s operations center on the ground and Capella’s Sequoia SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellite in low Earth orbit. 28)
- For years, London-based Inmarsat and Addvalue Innovation, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Addvalue Technologies Ltd., have worked together to establish a commercial Intersatellite Data Relay System (IDRS) to continuously link satellites in low Earth orbit with ground networks.
- Capella Space conducted the first commercial demonstration of the IDRS service Nov. 12 when it sent tasking orders to Sequoia through the Inmarsat-4 L-band constellation in geostationary orbit.
- “Capella Space becomes the first & only commercial SAR company in the world to use a GEO satellite for real time tasking,” Payam Banazadeh tweeted Nov. 23. “This means faster delivery times and more actionable information from space.”
- Radar imagery and data customers in government agencies and companies have complained of delays in transmitting Earth observation tasking orders, making SAR constellations a promising application for IDRS.
- “In-orbit connectivity represents an exciting new growth market for both Inmarsat and Addvalue,” Todd McDonell, Inmarsat Global Government president, said in a statement. “What is critical to LEO operators such as Capella Space is the ability to offer timely services their customers now expect in a connected world. Inmarsat’s L-band satellite network is uniquely placed to facilitate seamless real-time communications that are designed for mobility and can be administered globally.”
- Inmarsat and Addvalue also expect IDRS technology to be adopted by customers gathering climate data and performing disaster relief missions because it allows operators to send commands to satellites without waiting for them to pass over ground stations.
- “The new data link should reduce waiting times for such data transfers from several hours to a handful of minutes,” according to the Nov. 23 news release. “This can enhance life-saving efforts in a natural disaster or enable observers to spot issues and direct resources to tackle them before they develop or get out of hand.”
- Capella Space ordered six IDRS terminals in a contract announced at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress.
- “We’re proud to team-up with Inmarsat and Addvalue to deliver an entirely new level of efficiency and functionality to our customers,” Christian Lenz, Capella Space vice president of engineering, said in a statement. “This real-time connectivity will allow us to significantly reduce the time between customer tasking requests and when we collect the data on-orbit.”
Figure 21: Capella Space tweeted this Nov. 10 Sequoia synthetic aperture radar image of the embankments of the Sông Bac Liêu flowing just south of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (image credit: Capella Space)
- Inmarsat and Addvalue also are marketing IDRS terminals to satellite constellation operators.
- IDRS is the brainchild of Khai Pang Tan, Addvalue Technologies chief operating and technology officer. In 2012, he realized that the problem of communicating with satellites in low Earth orbit could be solved if operators could relay data through the Inmarsat-4 constellation of geosynchronous L-band communications satellites and Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network.
• July 10, 2020: SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) technology leverages a radar system installed on a moving platform to generate two-dimensional images of the surface of the Earth. SAR actively illuminates the ground and uses the motion of the radar antenna over a target region to provide finer spatial resolution than conventional radar. SAR technology offers many advantages that traditional EO sensors can’t provide. In fact, high resolution imagery is just one of many derived products that can be produced from SAR data processing. Here are a few of the advantages of using SAR for earth observation: 29)
Figure 22: Capella-1 image of Pittsburg, California (located in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area) – New York Point, Pittsburg Marina, Koch Carbon, Residential Neighborhood (image credit: Capella Space) 30)
24/7 reliable monitoring
- EO sensors typically depend on solar illumination, which means the information they can provide at night is very limited. The wavelengths captured by most EO systems also are not able to penetrate well through cloud or hazy atmosphere. Typically, EO sensors are launched into sun-synchronous orbits where they pass over targets at the same time in the morning to avoid cloud formation.
- Because SAR systems are self-illuminating and the wavelength used can penetrate clouds, fog, smog, darkness and smoke, they can be effectively used in a variety of polar or inclined orbits to increase the diversity of observation times. This orbit diversity and ability to see through any atmospheric conditions allows SAR to collect images at any time of day or night. It also ensures that users of SAR can reliably and consistently monitor their areas of interest.
- This ability is critical because our need for accurate Earth observation doesn’t stop when we go to sleep, or when the weather is not good. For example, if there is a hurricane and the streets in a city start to flood, there is a dire need to understand what is happening on the ground regardless of time of day or clouds. Disaster response crews still need to be able to identify which roads have flooded and where damage has occurred to accurately plan and execute their recovery efforts.
Precise, high-resolution imagery
- Over the years, scientists have experimented with different wavelengths for SAR. While there are different advantages to using different wavelengths, Utilizing X-band microwaves and large bandwidth makes it possible to achieve excellent ground range resolution. With the use of the synthetic aperture principle, it is also possible to achieve very high resolution in the azimuth direction. In other words, the imagery from X-band SAR satellites can be incredibly detailed and can detect and map small objects, like vehicles, with high accuracy. The high resolution of X-band SAR and excellent contrast achieved through a process called multi-looking can yield imagery that is uniquely suitable for object detection and recognition using computer vision and machine learning.
- SAR satellites and constellations are typically agile, with an ability to image from different directions and viewing angles. This flexibility can enable more frequent imaging of targets on the ground with fewer satellites. Although some current SAR satellites are using outdated systems that make it difficult for end-users to interact with them in real-time, newer, innovative SAR constellations will have the capacity to offer a very rapid system response time from tasking to imaging and delivery through automation, which means customers will receive data they request very quickly. Constellations can provide data particularly quickly when they take advantage of a dense global network of ground stations, powerful computing, and automated processes to minimize time-consuming human interactions.
Accurate elevation models
- SAR systems also provide a unique ability to accurately characterize topography and surface features in 3D. This can be accomplished through use of bistatic imaging with two satellites flying in formation, or an approach called radargrammetry to create three-dimensional images. Accurate elevation and surface models are useful for a number of industries. For example, detailed terrain and surface models can be used for analyzing line-of-sight for communication towers or for modeling water flow in watersheds. Frequently updated surface models can also be used to help autonomous vehicles navigate around flight path obstructions.
Reliable global change monitoring in 3D
- SAR sensors can detect changes on the surface of the earth over time through a variety of advanced techniques. Amplitude change detection looks for differences in the intensity of reflected radiation between images of different dates. Coherent change detection is unique to SAR and leverages the phase information of the returned signal to detect more subtle changes on the surface of the earth, like new tire tracks on a dirt road or emergence of a crop in a newly planted field. Combined with the 24/7 all-weather monitoring nature of SAR and frequent imaging, these change detection approaches ensure that new activity within an area of interest can be responded to rapidly.
- Deformation monitoring with Interferometry can reveal change in the vertical dimension and is sensitive to millimeter-scale change. A SAR satellite constellation can enable the potential to do these measurements daily (or even more frequently), with automated alert notifications when change happens in areas of importance that are being monitored. This allows customers to know the moment an essential piece of infrastructure starts to move. Even a small amount of subsidence or uplift can indicate risk to infrastructure. Accurate and frequent alerts are critical so city governments, factory owners, power plant operators and other key stakeholders can respond rapidly and reduce liability.
SAR constellations are key to enhancing Earth observation
- From 24/7 availability to high levels of precision and accuracy, SAR technology opens the door to new innovations and Earth observation applications. To learn more about SAR data, please check out our SAR 101 and SAR 201 blog posts. If you’d like to get hands-on experience with SAR data, please sign up to join our SAR Community and access open license Capella SAR data: capellaspace.com/community.
• July 9, 2020: Capella Space has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The CRADA gives Capella access to NGA researchers for deeper insight into problems and in return NGA gains access to Capella Space’s SAR data and analytics services and signifies NGA’s first research partnership with an American commercial small satellite SAR data company, in an effort to expand its research capabilities. 31)
- The CRADA with Capella Space is part of the NGA’s broader Commercial GEOINT Strategy, first released October 2015 and later updated in September 2018. The NGA Commercial GEOINT Strategy provides a vision and plan for continually increasing collaboration with commercial GEOINT companies in order to meet rising customer demands for more timely and persistent imagery, analytics, and contextual information. Capella will play a critical role in satisfying NGA’s mission to expand its production and publication of unclassified operations and intelligence.
- The CRADA further strengthens Capella Space’s already-trusted relationship with United States government agencies. This past May, Capella Space signed a contract with the Department of Defense to provide on-demand, high-resolution SAR data and analytics for the U.S. Navy.
- “We’re appreciative to NGA for its interest in our data and technology,” said Payam Banazadeh, CEO and founder of Capella Space. “We look forward to better understanding users’ problems and demands through this partnership and being able to jointly develop cutting edge solutions for our U.S. government customers. With our satellite launch on the near horizon, this is an optimal time to initiate a collaborative, data-sharing relationship.
• June 30, 2020: Capella Space, a provider of on-demand Earth observation data via synthetic aperture radar (SAR), is going all-in on AWS (Amazon Web Services). Capella runs its entire IT infrastructure on AWS to automate and scale its operations. AWS Ground Station makes it easy and cost-effective for Capella to command and control its constellation and receive its satellite data directly into AWS using a fully managed network of antenna systems located around the world. 32)
- Using AWS, Capella provides its customers with access to satellite data within minutes of its capture - far faster than traditional satellite data delivery services, which can take up to 24 hours - and at a lower cost. In addition, Capella leverages the breadth and depth of AWS services to process satellite data in real time as it is received, helping its customers in agriculture, infrastructure, defense, and disaster response immediately analyze and extract value from their data. Capella's SAR satellites also see through clouds and darkness to collect high-resolution imagery 24x7 in all weather conditions. The company uses AWS to manage the enormous amount of raw data that this persistent monitoring generates – an average of two to five terabytes per satellite per day – which Capella must prepare for analysis before it can be used by customers. Capella leverages AWS compute, storage, database, machine learning, and analytics services to process this data immediately upon downlink, helping its customers quickly gain insights for dynamic applications such as detecting illegal maritime activities and assessing the impact of natural disasters. In addition, Capella is developing a searchable archive of Earth observation data in the cloud, providing its customers with benchmark data so they can track subtle changes to the environment, discerning patterns over time to help them inform business and policy decisions.
- “Our customers rely on us to deliver precision satellite imagery quickly. Working with AWS and leveraging the global coverage provided by AWS Ground Station, we are redefining what is possible in the satellite industry and reducing the cost and time required for organizations to benefit from satellite data,” said Payam Banazadeh, CEO of Capella Space. “Combining Capella’s automated and real-time approach to collecting Earth observation data with AWS’s proven infrastructure and unparalleled portfolio of services helps our customers achieve timely insights that can save lives and protect the health of the planet. We look forward to continuing to grow and innovate on AWS to create new opportunities for our customers who depend upon space technologies.”
- “Capella Space leverages the breadth and depth of AWS services to provide its customers with on-demand access to data from space, as well as analytics to help them address some of the biggest challenges on Earth,” said Teresa Carlson, Vice President of Worldwide Public Sector at AWS. “Using AWS Ground Station, customers like Capella can connect the power of satellites with AWS’s reliable, global infrastructure and unmatched portfolio of services to automate and scale their operations on demand. By removing the need for organizations to build and maintain their own ground stations, AWS is putting the power of satellite data into the hands of more customers in order to derive insights that potentially can improve our understanding of space and life on Earth.”
• August 5, 2019: Capella Space, an information services company that provides Earth observation data on demand, today entered into an agreement with Addvalue, a one-stop digital, wireless and broadband communications technology products innovator, for use of its Inter-Satellite Data Relay System (IDRS™) via Inmarsat’s global L-band satellite communications network. The Inmarsat network provides satellite uplink and downlink services, which enable Capella to task any satellite in its constellation in any location in the world in real-time. Through its agreement with Addvalue, Capella will have a significant market lead as the only SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) provider with real-time tasking capability. This unique partnership will position Capella as the only SAR operator capable of real-time responsiveness.
• June 3, 2019: San Francisco-based Capella launched the first small U.S. radar satellite in December 2018. Capella has not published any imagery from that satellite, a technology demonstration called Denali. 33)
- Instead, the company has focused on developing the infrastructure it will need to operate a constellation, including automated satellite tasking, image processing and delivery, billing and customer service. Capella also is establishing its ground infrastructure to allow customers to downlink data directly or to rely on Amazon Web Services to delivery data through the Amazon cloud.
- “We are getting ready for primetime,” said Capella CEO Payam Banazadeh.
- Capella has raised more than $50 million to date. That money will carry the startup into 2020, when it plans to begin building its constellation of 36 synthetic aperture radar satellites to obtain imagery with a resolution of 50 cm and to revisit sites within the hour. Unlike electro optical satellites which require light, radar satellites capture imagery during the day, at night and through clouds.
- By the end of this year, Capella plans to launch Sequoia, its first operational satellite. “I want to wow people with Sequoia data,” Banazadeh said. “I want them to say, ‘I can’t believe that image came from a small satellite.’”
- Capella has been expanding its staff of about 60 full-time employees and 15 contractors. In April Joerg Hermann joined Capella. Hermann led efforts to create a commercial market for satellite radar data in Germany where he led Infoterra Ltd., a geospatial data supplier.
- Capella has been ordering components in bulk for its operational constellation. Capella has ordered 12 attitude control systems from Blue Canyon Technologies. Capella also is buying Maxwell radio frequency thrusters for in-space propulsion from Phase Four.
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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)