A Rocket Lab Electron booster blasted off from Virginia’s Eastern Shore Thursday evening, lifting a pair of commercial radar imaging satellites into orbit capable of observing the planet below through clouds, in daylight or in darkness.
During the rocket lab’s 34th flight, the Electron’s nine Rutherford first-stage engines roared to life at 6:38 pm EDT, pushing the 59-foot-tall rocket smoothly away from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). Wallops Island, Virginia, flight test facility.
Ascending southeast over the Atlantic Ocean, the Electron exceeded the speed of sound a minute after liftoff, accelerated rapidly through the dense lower atmosphere, and disappeared from view.
The single engine of the rocket’s second stage takes two and a half minutes after liftoff, which moves the craft into an initial parking orbit. A “kick” stage carrying two Capella space radar satellites then fired about an hour after launch to place the vehicle in the planned deployment 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-covered Venus in the 1990s, and radar imaging is routinely used by military spy satellites. But Capella Space says it is the first company to use the technology with a commercial remote sensing spacecraft.
With an initial prototype, the company has now launched 10 radar satellites to monitor Earth around the clock. Applications include verifying damage claims for the insurance industry, monitoring damage from natural disasters, gathering intelligence and detecting illegal maritime activity.
“Capella’s innovative small satellite design and rapid production-to-launch deployment enable our constellation to effectively monitor the entire world,” the company says, “and give decision makers the information they need on Earth.”
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