More than 100 payloads have been put into orbit over the past couple of weeks, including 64 satellites riding a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and 31 satellites that were launched by an Indian PSLV rocket.
Some of those satellites are already beaming back pictures of our planet. For example, Planet has shared images from both of the SkySat high-resolution imaging satellites that served as the lead payloads for Seattle-based Spaceflight’s dedicated rideshare launch on the Falcon 9. That mission, known as the SmallSat Express or SSO-A, lifted off on Dec. 3 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
One of the pictures features the Beijing South Railway Station, a futuristic-looking, clamshell-like terminal that serves as the Chinese capital’s stopping point for high-speed trains from Tianjin and Shanghai. The other image focuses on the Capibaribe River running through the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife. (The historic Cinco Pontas Fort can be seen at upper left.)
Planet also had three smaller Dove satellites launched on Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission. Sixteen more Doves were delivered to low Earth orbit by the Indian PSLV rocket that was launched less than a week earlier, on Nov. 28.
Finland-based ICEYE, meanwhile, is releasing an image in a completely different wavelength, acquired by its ICEYE-X2 synthetic aperture radar satellite. The black-and-white radar image, captured on Dec. 7, shows a nighttime view of the mountainous terrain between the Aralar and Aizkorri-Aratz national parks in Spain.
Unlike visible-light imagery, radar views can show what’s happening on the ground when it’s dark out, or when clouds cover the landscape. A close look at the image reveals several interconnected communities nestled among the Basque Mountains.
ICEYE-X2 went into orbit on the SmallSat Express, following up on ICEYE-X1’s launch from India early this year. The company plans to have up to eight more synthetic aperture radar satellites launched by the end of 2019.
Some of the satellite operators who have had their payloads launched in the past couple of weeks are still gearing up to share their first images. Those operators include Spaceflight’s sister company, BlackSky, which had its Global-1 Earth observation satellite launched on the Indian PSLV, and its Global-2 satellite launched on the SpaceX Falcon 9.
“We’ll be issuing imagery from the Globals in the new year,” said Jodi Sorensen, vice president of marketing and communications for Spaceflight Industries, the parent company for BlackSky as well as Spaceflight. “Everything’s healthy and we’re taking images, but we have weeks of work ahead of us yet before sharing those.”
The world is also waiting to hear more about what may be the SmallSat Express’ most controversial payload — Orbital Reflector, a deployable sculpture created by artist Trevor Paglen as part of a project backed by the Nevada Museum of Art.
Orbital Reflector is designed to unfurl a long, self-inflating tail of titanium-coated polyethylene material that would reflect sunlight from orbit. If the shiny tail is deployed the way Paglen intends, it would show up as an “artificial star” in evening or morning skies.
Like Rocket Lab’s short-lived Humanity Star satellite, which was launched early this year, Orbital Reflector is meant to encourage Earthlings to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder. And like Humanity Star, Paglen’s project has drawn criticism from folks who are upset at the prospect of seeing one more human-made distraction in the heavens.
The day after Orbital Reflector’s launch on the SmallSat Express, Paglen tweeted that contact with the satellite had been established, and that it was “alive and well.” Eventually, skywatchers should be able to track Paglen’s space sculpture on the Orbital Reflector website or using the Star Walk 2 mobile app — but a notice on the website says it’s still too soon.
“Due to the large number of satellites aboard #SSOA, the satellite tracking information is taking longer than we originally intended,” the notice reads.
Trouble tracking a work of art? Now that’s a problem Michelangelo never had to deal with.