Europe’s Vega light launcher has scored its first U.S. customer with a contract to launch a tranche of small, high-resolution remote-sensing satellites under Google’s Skybox Imaging initiative.

European launch consortium Arianespace will manage the 2016 Skybox mission, which will fly as a co-share on the Vega rocket launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

Vega has already achieved four flawless flights for commercial and government customers since its debut in 2012. 

“This new contract with Skybox marks our first U.S. customer of the Vega and adds to Vega’s order book of nine small satellites to be launched in the coming three years,” Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel says.

Arianespace says a co-passenger for the mission will be announced soon.

Mountain View, California-based Skybox – which was purchased by Google in 2014 – already has two prototype remote-sensing satellites in orbit, with plans to launch another later this year on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Another 12 next-generation spacecraft are now under construction at manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, California.

Last year Skybox Imaging signed a contract with Orbital ATK to launch six of the SSL-built satellites on a commercial Minotaur rocket last this year. The status of that launch is unclear, and Orbital did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Joe Rothenberg, director of engineering and operations at Skybox, says finding affordable launches for small satellites flying as secondary payloads is one of Skybox’s biggest challenges.

“Flying as a secondary payload for a technology demonstration is problematic,” he said during a panel discussion March 16 at the Satellite 2015 show in Washington. “You’re given a launch date, told it will be ready, so you do your tech development, and then the launch slips two years. But you’d like to get your prototype up before you send the first block up that’s following it.”

He said the first four SSL spacecraft will launch in July 2016, followed by another tranche of six in September 2016, “and then the next two will probably be in early 2017.”

Despite Google’s recent $900 million investment in Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) that could afford opportunities for low-cost launch aboard the company’s Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket, “the risk is that to take advantage of it, we have to put a large number of our constellation on one launch vehicle, and not that I expect a problem, but it’s the risk in this business.”
He said the company has “schedule control” on the upcoming launches of four and six satellites in 2016, though it is unclear whether both tranches will launch on Vega vehicles. 

Rothenberg says with the full constellation of 24 satellites in orbit, the company aims to provide revisit coverage of any spot on Earth two or three times a day with resolution he says could be as low as 70 cm, depending on the constellation’s altitude. 

He said with seven satellites in orbit, Skybox can offer revisit time of one day starting in July.

“The next six will give us a repeat cycle of 20 hours, a little less,” Rothenberg said.