TECHNOLOGY

Airbus satellite launch to make Europe a leader in space observation

Europe's Vega rocket blasts off from its launchpad in Kourou, at the European Space Centre in French Guiana, on April 28, 2021.
Europe's Vega rocket blasts off from its launchpad in Kourou, at the European Space Centre in French Guiana, on April 28, 2021. © AFP - JM GUILLON, HANDOUT CNES

Europe’s Vega rocket blasted off from French Guiana on Wednesday carrying a next-generation Earth-imaging satellite that owner Airbus says will be an industry “game-changer”.

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Pleiades Neo 3 is the first of a four-satellite constellation that, once complete, will offer the most advanced Earth observation service in Europe.

With a resolution of 30 centimetres, the satellites will be used for large-scale city mapping and crop/agriculture monitoring – while also enabling responses to critical situations, such as natural disasters, in real time.

Airbus has sunk 600 million euros into the Pleiades Neo network, which will allow Airbus to compete on equal terms with the world leader in space observation, the US company Maxar.

“It's a bit like when Airbus took on Boeing in the 1970s,” François Lombard, director of intelligence activities at Airbus Defence and Space, told French business magazine Challenges.

The three remaining Pleiades Neo satellites should join Neo 3 at an altitude of 620 kilometres by the end of 2022.

String of delays

Wednesday’s Vega rocket launch comes six months after French and Spanish satellites were lost when a technical error saw Vega plunge into the sea.

European launch provider Arianespace was able to successfully put six satellites into orbit this time round – with Norway’s Norsat-3 maritime surveillance satellite and four cubesats hitching a ride aboard Vega.  

A lightweight rocket, Vega is central to European ambitions to compete in the booming aerospace market.

Its latest flight made use of part of the Small Spacecraft Mission Service system, or SSMS, which can accommodate multiple satellites weighing less than 500 kilograms.

The system is the European Space Agency’s answer the growing need for “ride-sharing”, or allowing smaller satellites to piggyback on the main customer payload. 

The technology allows for multiple satellites to be put into different orbits with a single launch. 

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