LONDON ― A British-built satellite set to be used by the Ministry of Defence to test whether constellations of small spacecraft can provide tactical intelligence has been successfully launched on an Indian-built rocket.
The technology demonstrator satellite, called Carbonite-2, has been successfully placed into low-Earth orbit after it and a communications spacecraft were launched onboard the PSLV rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.
Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, the Airbus-owned company that developed and built the spacecraft, announced the launch earlier Friday but made no mention of the military interest in the spacecraft.
It said in a statement that initial systems checks on Carbonite-2 had been successful.
SSTL did not return calls from Defense News.
Carbonite-2 is primarily aimed at demonstrating a commercial Earth observation capability, but the MoD is also investing more than £4 million (U.S. $5 million) in the program trialing the capabilities of the system to provide reconnaissance video and still imagery.
The MoD is refusing to confirm it has a stake in the Carbonite-2 program but does admit it has a deal with a commercial satellite provider, who it won’t name.
In November when Defense News reported the existence of the deal, an MoD spokesman said: “We have entered into an agreement with a commercial satellite provider for a capability demonstrator program.
“The program will play a crucial role in shaping our vision for a future constellation of small satellites, comprising a diverse range of sensors and ground stations, and offers the U.K. the opportunity to lead the development of that program.”
The British are not known to have invested in this kind of space program ever since a joint venture with the then-British National Space Centre saw an SSTL-built demonstrator satellite called TopSat launched in 2005.
The MoD is expected to start receiving test data from the satellite in the next few weeks.
The sensors employed on Carbonite-2 would enable the military to film moving objects such as vehicles, aircraft and ships in ultrahigh definition, color video, as well as undertake rapid tasking of satellites and provide fast data download within minutes of acquisition.
The 100-kilogram satellite will demonstrate a low-cost video-from-orbit solution using a commercial off-the-shelf telescope and high-definition video. The imaging system is designed to deliver 1-meter resolution images and color video clips with a swath width of 5 kilometers.
The first demonstrator spacecraft, Carbonite-1, was launched in 2015.
Although the MoD has a significant interest in the program, the principle reason for launching the pre-production prototype is to support a deal announced last November between SSTL and British commercial imagery provider Earth-i.
The current spacecraft will supply Earth-i with data for proving tasking, downlinking and image processing ahead of the launch of a constellation of five Carbonite-series satellites starting early 2019.
Earth-i said in a statement that the introduction of the new technology will give it the first European constellation able to provide video and still imagery.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.