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Soyuz Launches French Pleiades Imaging Satellite

First image from France's Pleiades 1B high-resolution imaging satellite. Credit: CNES satellite image

PARIS — The French Pleiades 1B high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite is scheduled to enter operations in March following its successful Dec. 1 launch aboard the European version of Russia’s Soyuz medium-lift rocket.

The French space agency, CNES, on Dec. 7 released Pleiades 1B’s first image, showing the city and bay of Lorient, in France’s Brittany region.

The launch, from the Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America, was the fourth Soyuz liftoff from the European spaceport and an illustration of the fact that European government satellites are more likely to launch on Soyuz than Europe’s own Ariane 5 ECA heavy-lift rocket.

The 970-kilogram Pleiades 1B will join its twin, Pleiades 1A, in a 694-kilometer polar orbit, where they will be spaced 180 degrees apart to offer users a minimum delay between the satellites’ being tasked and their delivery of images. Both are designed to operate for at least five years.

The two-satellite Pleiades system cost about 650 million euros ($850 million), most of it paid by CNES. But 50 high-priority images per day from Pleiades’ total output of 450 images are reserved for military use.

France has an agreement with Italy on sharing reconnaissance satellite imagery, with Italy’s contribution being its Cosmo-SkyMed constellation of four radar satellites. In addition, Belgium, Austria, Spain and Sweden have taken small ownership stakes in Pleiades and will have access to imagery as a result.

Astrium Geo-Information Services has been given exclusive rights to sell Pleiades imagery commercially. Astrium is financing on its own the development and launch of the Spot 6 and Spot 7 medium-resolution satellites, an investment of about 300 million euros. Spot 6 is in orbit, and Spot 7 is scheduled for launch in mid-2013 aboard India’s PSLV rocket.

Spot 6 and Spot 7 have 60-kilometer-diameter swath widths, like their larger predecessor, Spot 5. But the newer satellites have a sharper resolution of 2.2 meters when looking straight down, and 1.5 meters after the image is resampled.

The Pleiades satellites have a 70-centimeter resolution at nadir, and 50 centimeters after resampling. They are also capable of swiveling on their axes to extend their image-taking reach side to side, forward and back, depending on the area of customer interest.

The new Spot and Pleiades satellites will put Astrium Services in position to compete with its U.S. competitor — the expected combination of DigitalGlobe and GeoEye — in the very-high-resolution imagery market.

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