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BlackSky Global satellites
An artist’s conception shows BlackSky’s Global satellites in orbit. (BlackSky Illustration)

Spaceflight Industries’ BlackSky geospatial intelligence service is taking the wraps off its first operational satellite, Global-1, which will blaze the trail for what’s expected to be a 60-satellite Earth observation constellation.

The Seattle-based venture plans to have four of the Global satellites launched within the next year, as rideshare payloads on rockets that could include SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Rocket Lab’s Electron or India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV.

BlackSky has said it aims to offer a service capable of providing on-demand satellite imagery in about 90 minutes for about $90 a picture.

“The Global satellites are an important step forward for the satellite industry,” Nick Merski, vice president of space operations at Spaceflight Industries, said today in a news release. “We are continuing to advance the boundaries of what can be achieved in terms of price point, capability and form factor, and these improvements ultimately help to make space more accessible for a broader set of business applications.”

BlackSky’s Global spacecraft builds on the experience gained from the venture’s prototype satellite, Pathfinder, which was launched on a PSLV rocket in 2016. Pathfinder sent down 2-meter-resolution imagery of the planet to demonstrate BlackSky’s imaging technology.

The Global satellite series is designed to provide 1-meter resolution with improved image quality, geolocation accuracy and extended on-orbit lifetime. There’ll also be an enhanced ground system to minimize the time lag between ordering an image and receiving it.

In addition to its own satellites, BlackSky’s Spectra geospatial platform draws upon data available from other commercial imaging satellites in a wide range of wavelengths. The BlackSky Events service knits imagery together with real-time data feeds to provide a fuller picture of what’s happening.

Such geospatial intelligence can guide the response to humanitarian crises such as the Syrian civil war, help emergency agencies cope with natural disasters such as hurricanes and typhoons, and potentially identify valuable natural resources.

BlackSky is developing a specialized version of its geospatial platform for the U.S. Air Force under the terms of a $16.4 million cost-plus contract. Spaceflight Industries also has forged a partnership with the Space Alliance, a French-Italian joint venture created by Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio, to accelerate the timeline for BlackSky’s Global constellation.

The current schedule calls for launching the first four Global satellites over the next 12 months. An additional 20 Global satellites would go in orbit by 2020, and generate revenue that will enable the production and launch of the full 60-satellite constellation.

Spaceflight Industries’ chairman and CEO, Jason Andrews, said unveiling Global-1 was “an important milestone for Spaceflight Industries and for our BlackSky geospatial information business.”

“Qualifying the Global generation of spacecraft paves the way for mass production and launch of our full constellation, as well as achieving our vision of deploying a high-revisit-rate constellation in the near future,” Andrews said.

Other ventures — including California-based Planet and Spire as well as Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources — are also targeting the Earth observation market. Spaceflight Industries’ launch logistics line of business has arranged rides to orbit for all three of those companies, as well as for BlackSky.

Privately held Spaceflight Industries started out as Andrews Space in 1999. Investors include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management, RRE Venture Capital and Razor’s Edge Ventures.

The company reported a $25 million Series B financing round in 2016, and a $150 million Series C round has been open since last October.

Update for 9:20 a.m. PT March 6: This report was updated to provide BlackSky’s current schedule for satellite deployment.

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