Monday, August 21, 2017

UrthCast "Customer Funds" $100Mln CDN OptiSAR Constellation Precursor Satellite

          By Brian Orlotti

Vancouver, BC-based UrtheCast Corp. has announced the signing of a contract “in excess of one hundred million Canadian dollars” with an undisclosed customer to build a single synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite which will act as a precursor to its currently planned sixteen satellite constellation of eight optical and eight dual-band X- and L-band Earth observation satellites.

From top left, a sample X-band SAR image with a sample L-band SAR image on the top right. From bottom left, a sample multi-spectral optical image with a sample fused image, combining the highlights of the first three images on the bottom right, and suggesting new patterns. While the Urthecast OptiSar Constellation is expected to serve as a platform for advancing the development of a host of new applications and services, its not the only player in this niche. Major competitors include Richmond BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (currently building the RADARSAT Constellation series of three SAR satellites for the Canadian government) along it's subsidiary, Colorado based DigitalGlobe (a commercial Earth imaging provider which owns the four satellite Worldview Constellation and has strong ties to the US military), plus Paris, France based Astrium (a division of Airbus Group) and San Francisco based Planet (which controls over a hundred small orbiting Earth imaging cubesat's now and plans to launch more). Images c/o UrtheCast.

But the new contract will also delay the roll-out of its integrated, multi-spectral optical and radar (OptiSAR) constellation by "at least a year," to around 2023. As outlined on the undated European Space Agency (ESA) EO Portal Directory webpage under the title, "the OptiSAR (Optical and SAR) Commercial Constellation of UrtheCast," the constellation was initially expected to be deployed over multiple launches in 2019 and 2020.

UrtheCast President and CEO Wade Larson stated during the August 14th, 2017 Urthecast Q2 2017 investor conference call that the company purchasing the SAR satellite was one of three that had already signed a memorandum of understanding to be clients of the OptiSAR constellation once it becomes operational.

The August 14th, 2017 UrtheCast press release, "UrtheCast Enters Into Binding Agreement Worth US$180 Million to Sell and Operate Two Satellites in the OptiSAR™ Constellation, quoted Larson as stating:
Building and delivering this accelerator SAR satellite will validate our technology, substantially reduce our financial, programmatic and operational risks, and get us into the business of selling SAR-XL data sooner than we were anticipating. 
Subject to final approvals, we’ll soon be customer-funded to build our first operational-class SAR mission.
This precursor mission will enable Urthecast to both demonstrate its OptiSAR technology to prospective clients as well as enable an additional revenue stream for the company prior to the constellation’s launch in 2023.

The company also plans to launch an eight-satellite constellation in 2020, called UrtheDaily, designed to capture daily, medium-quality optical imagery of the Earth's entire landmass (excluding Antarctica).

This is the third substantial announcement UrtheCast has made regarding the OptiSar constellation over the last year.

As outlined in the January 17th, 2017 UrtheCast press release, "UrtheCast Enters into Binding Agreement Worth US$180 Million to Sell and Operate Two Satellites in the OptiSAR™ Constellation," another client, also unnamed, agreed to pay $180Mln USD ($227Mln CDN) for the sale and shared operation of the first two satellites in the constellation earlier this year.

And, as reported in the March 15th, 2017 Via Satellite post, "UrtheCast Raises CA$17.6 Million to Support OptiSAR Constellation," the company has also received funding from the Canadian Innovation, Science and Economic Development's (ISED) Industrial Technologies Office as part of its Strategic Aerospace & Defense Initiative (SADI) program.

UrtheCast currently operates various Earth observation systems, including two satellites, Deimos-1 and Deimos-2, to produce imagery that is displayed on UrtheCast's cloud-based web platform and sold to various partners and customers.

Through its subsidiary Deimos Imaging, UrtheCast processes and distributes imagery and value-added products on behalf of the PanGeo Alliance, a global network of eight satellite operators with a combined fleet of 15 Earth Observation systems.

OptiSAR is intended to be the world’s first multispectral combined optical/SAR constellation of Earth Observation satellites. The constellation will consist of 16 spacecraft; 8 pairs of SAR and optical satellites working in tandem. Closely pairing both types of satellite will enable near-simultaneous acquisition of both radar and optical imagery. Each satellite pair will be capable of providing very high quality imagery at 1m resolution in X-band and 5m resolution in L-band as well as colour video at 30 fps.

The OptiSAR system will combine the best of both worlds; optical imagery taken during best weather conditions augmented by SAR’s greater detail, day-or-night flexibility and cloud-penetrating abilities. This fusion will result in far richer data-sets (the SAR data acting as metadata for the optical) that will enable more powerful analysis in fields as diverse as agricultural monitoring, disaster relief and urban planning.  

The contract covers delivery of the spacecraft (to be built by UK based Surrey Satellite Technology), key elements of the ground segment and post-launch maintenance and operational support. Urthecast and its client will enter into a separate contract to provide UrtheCast with the exclusive distribution rights to the client’s unused imaging capacity on a shared 50/50 net revenue basis outside the client’s own region.

Subject to government approvals, work on the satellite is anticipated to begin in early 2018 with a launch in late 2020.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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