Monday, June 22, 2015

Is UrtheCast Becoming Canada's "Other" Space Program?

          By Chuck Black

Three announcements, each made by Vancouver based UrtheCast within the last week, are obvious reminders that even moderately sized Canadian corporations are quite capable of funding substantial space based activities by raising money on the commercial market.

As outlined in the June 17th, 2015 UrtheCast press release, "London, Boston, Barcelona: The World’s First Full-Color HD Videos Of Earth From Space," this 34 second video of Westminster Pier and Parliament Square in London, England, along with two other videos, were taken using equipment installed by UrtheCast on the ISS in January 2014. The three videos ranged in length from 34 to 47 seconds, and covered areas of up to 1.19 x 0.67 miles (1.92 x 1.08 kms). Image c/o UrtheCast.

Last Wednesday, UrtheCast released a series of full-color HD videos of various locations on Earth, filmed from the International Space Station (ISS) at roughly one-meter resolution.

As outlined in the June 17th, 2015 Space News article, "UrtheCast Releases High-Definition Video From Space Station Camera," the videos were released to demonstrate that the company’s high-resolution camera has overcome technical problems and is ready to enter commercial service.

The videos are an obvious coup for the plucky start-up which, as last outlined in the January 28th 2014 post, "UrtheCast Cameras Reinstalled on ISS," started out without Canadian Space Agency (CSA) or Industry Canada funding and needed to overcome substantial challenges to get to where it is today.

But the company was just getting started.

As outlined in the October 12th, 2012 Earth Imaging Journal article, "Discover the Benefits of Radar Imaging," the last two decades have witnessed unprecedented growth in the satellite-based Earth observation industry. Although the market is still "strongly biased toward electro-optically derived imagery, a rising tide of acceptance and usage of satellite-derived synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data has occurred during the last few years." Graphic c/o EI Journal.

Only two days later, as announced in the June 19th, 2015 press release, "UrtheCast Announces World’s First Commercial SAR And Optical 16-Satellite Constellation," the company announced an audacious plan to "build, launch and operate the world’s first fully-integrated, multispectral optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) commercial constellation of Earth observation satellites."

According to the press release:
The constellation is expected to comprise a minimum of 16 satellites (8 optical and 8 SAR) flying in two orbital planes, with each plane consisting of four satellite pairs, equally-spaced around the orbit plane.  Each pair of satellites will consist of a dual-mode, high-resolution optical satellite (video and pushbroom) and a dual-band high-resolution SAR satellite (X-band and L-band) flying in tandem.
Even better, the project seemed to be at least partially funded:
UrtheCast has entered into Memoranda of Understanding (“MOU’s”) with multiple customers and partners, including an MOU from a confidential customer, to provide US$195 million of funding for the constellation during the build phase of the program (expected to be 2016-2020).
The press release also listed partnerships with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), an independent British company within the Airbus Defence & Space group and the privately held but Spanish based ElecnorDeimos, which operates the Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 Earth imaging satellites.

All of which leads logically to the third announcement.

Spanish promotional literature for the Deimos-1 Earth imaging satellite. As outlined on Gunther's Space Page, the satellite was constructed by SSTL, based on the SSTL-100 satellite bus. Graphic c/o ASD

As outlined in the most recent UrtheCast press release, this one dated June 22nd, 2015 and titled, "UrtheCast To Acquire Deimos Satellites And Earth Imaging Operations," the company will now be acquiring the Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 Earth imaging satellites along with the Deimos global archive of Earth imagery ElecnorDeimos.

The Spanish company is no longer really a partner, since it's essentially been swallowed whole to provide UrtheCast with a doubling of its Earth imaging capacity. According to the June 22nd, 2015 Bloomburg article, "UrtheCast Acquires Deimos to Double its Space-Imaging Capability," UrtheCast has agreed to pay 74.2Mln euros ($103.13Mln CDN) to close the deal.

According to this newest announcement:
The combination of UrtheCast and Deimos is expected to allow UrtheCast to accelerate its own strategy — achieved through the use of Deimos’ imagery archive on UrtheCast’s web platform, distributing fresh imagery through UrtheCast’s established distribution channels, customers and web platform, leveraging each company’s established relationships and building upon each other’s infrastructure.
What this really means is that UrtheCast has entered a large market with huge growth potential and commercial funders are lining up for the chance to make a killing. All without the assistance of the traditional Canadian go to people for space projects.

UrtheCast began in 2010 with five employees, growing to 65 in both Canada and the US. After an initial investment of $500,000 CDN, the company went on to raise over $77 million in funding after going public via a reverse takeover of publicly-traded Longford Energy Inc in June 2013. As outlined in the April 12th, 2015 post, "2015 is Shaping Up to be a Good Year for UrtheCast," the company has even reported its first quarterly profit.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next year. 

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