A Rocket Lab Electron booster blasted off from Virginia’s Eastern Shore on Thursday evening, boosting a pair of commercial radar imaging satellites into orbit that are capable of “seeing” through clouds, in daylight or darkness, to monitor the planet below.
Making Rocket Lab’s 34th flight, the Electron’s nine Rutherford first-stage engines thundered to life at 6:38 p.m. EDT, smoothly pushing the 59-foot-tall rocket away from launch complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, flight test facility.
Climbing away to the southeast over the Atlantic Ocean, the Electron raced past the speed of sound one minute after liftoff, rapidly accelerating out of the thick lower atmosphere and disappearing from view.
The single engine powering the rocket’s second stage took over two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, propelling the craft to an initial parking orbit. A “kick” stage carrying the two Capella Space radar satellites then fired nearly an hour after launch to put the vehicle in the planned deploy orbit.
A few minutes later, the two Capella satellites were released to fly on their own.
San Francisco-based Capella Space was founded in 2016 to provide commercial Earth imagery to government agencies and the private sector using small satellites carrying synthetic aperture radar systems capable of imaging the planet below in daylight or darkness, regardless of cloud cover.
NASA used similar technology to map the surface of cloud-shrouded Venus in the 1990s and radar imaging is routinely used by military spy satellites. But Capella Space says it’s the first company to utilize the technology with commercial remote sensing spacecraft.
Including an initial prototype, the company has now launched 10 radar satellites to provide around-the-clock Earth observation. Applications include verifying damage claims for the insurance industry, monitoring natural disaster damage, intelligence gathering and detection of illegal maritime activities.
“Capella’s innovative small satellite design and rapid manufacturing-to-launch deployment gives our constellation (the ability) to effectively monitor the entire globe,” the company says, “and give decision-makers the information they need on the Earth.”
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