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NorthStar SSA and Earth intelligence constellation gets key government approval

COLORADO SPRINGS — Canada’s government has conditionally approved startup NorthStar Earth & Space’s plan to deploy 52 commercial imaging satellites to keep tabs on what’s happening in orbit and down below. 

NorthStar announced Aug. 24 that it secured “approval in principle” from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), a key step in the Canadian spectrum application process.

It puts the startup on track for getting a formal license ahead of launching the first satellites in this constellation in early 2023, as long as it continues to meet standard eligibility requirements.

The ISED authorized the use of all the spectrum NorthStar requested in Ka-band and X-band, which the company said gives it the bandwidth to deliver millions of information-rich images from multiple types of sensors.

NorthStar said the government nod confirms its Canadian spectrum application fully complies with radio regulations under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The startup completed its ITU filing earlier this summer.

There are two parts to the initial 52-strong constellation that NorthStar is planning in low Earth orbit. The constellation comprises 12 Skylark space situational awareness satellites, with optical sensors directed to near-Earth space for tracking other satellites across multiple orbits, and 40 follow-on spacecraft with infrared and hyperspectral sensors for monitoring Earth.

NorthStar is initially focusing on Skylark segment and has tapped Thales Alenia Space to build the first three satellites for a launch in the first quarter of 2023. 

A NorthStar official said it will devise a development plan “in the coming months” for the remaining 49 satellites in the constellation.

Under the current baseline plan, the Skylark part of the network will reach 12 satellites by 2025. It aims to launch the first hyperspectral satellites for Earth observation a couple of years later.

“There is some overlap in the development schedule, but the deployment will be serial, with the 40 satellite constellation coming after all the Skylark launches,” the Northstar official said.

Regulators are treating the 52 satellites as a single constellation, given they share similar missions to observe visible spectrum and transmit data over common radio frequencies.

That means NorthStar must meet a series of milestones for the whole non-geostationary constellation to maintain regulatory compliance. 

Milestones include having an executed final contract for building all the satellites within four years, and their launch contracts in place within five years. 

One-third of the constellation has to be operating within six years and all 52 satellites have to be operating within nine years.

NorthStar said July 22 that it has secured Canadian government funding for a prototype Earth-observation monitoring system to combat climate change.

The project will use an airborne hyperspectral sensor system to monitor sensitive marine and coastal environments, in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard.

The Canadian government is investing 1.5 million Canadian dollars ($1.2 million) into the project, which is worth a total 2.7 million Canadian dollars and comprises a complex exchange of in-kind services.

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