Rocket Lab inks deal to carry Japanese startup Synspective’s first satellite into orbit

The well-funded Japanese space startup Synspective has tapped launch provider Rocket Lab to take its first Earth observation satellite to orbit. Launch is planned for late 2020, and the company’s StriXα craft will be the sole payload.

Synspective was founded in 2018 and by mid-2019 had raised about $100 million, making it one of the most successful recent funding stories in the country. It’s going to need all that and more, though, to realize its ambition of a 25-satellite constellation regularly imaging the whole planet.

The number may seem small when compared to Planet and SpaceX, which will require hundreds or thousands of satellites to cover the Earth. That’s because Synspective’s craft are not making visual observations or providing internet access, but imaging the planet’s surface using what’s called synthetic aperture radar.

This difficult technique uses the motion of the satellite to essentially imitate a much larger antenna, letting it produce highly detailed imagery through cloud cover and other interference. It also can cover a much wider area than an optical camera or a radio antenna beaming data to dishes on the surface.

The satellites themselves are about 100 kilograms each and are smaller than existing SAR systems — an advantage that lets Synspective use a smaller launch vehicle like Rocket Lab’s Electron to put its birds in the air.

The launch isn’t scheduled yet, but as the sole customer, Synspective will have lots of latitude in choosing the time of launch and target orbit. “We are very pleased to work with Rocket Lab, a pioneer in rocket ventures,” said Synspective founder and CEO Motoyuki Arai in a press release. “We are also grateful for their flexibility in accepting our requests on the satellite’s orbit and launch period.”

At present the plan is only for “late 2020” and to launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, not its brand new one in the States. We’ll know more closer to launch time.