Everything You Need to Know about Pathfinder

Nick Merski is the Constellation Program Manager for BlackSky, working to launch the planned 60-satellite constellation. The first two microsats, Pathfinder 1 and 2, will be launched into sun synchronous orbits, with the first launch later this month. They’ll pave the way for the full constellation that will deliver high resolution satellite imaging at an affordable price for BlackSky’s customers. Nick answers some of the common questions we get on Pathfinder below.

Q: What are Pathfinder 1 and 2?
A: The Pathfinders are our architecture proof-of-concept demo satellites. They illustrate that BlackSky can accomplish everything that is required to support satellite imaging. That includes the ability to task, collect, exploit and distribute images for a customer quickly, efficiently and affordably.

Q: What is the market need that BlackSky will be filling?
A: There are obviously other satellite imaging companies out there, but all have a niche. Some have excellent, high resolution photos, but they are expensive and cumbersome or slow to access. There are others that have better access and prices, but the quality is not good enough for many commercial uses. BlackSky is going to fill the large void in the middle, providing fast (think 90 minutes), affordable images (think $90) that can be used for a limitless list of purposes. Before, it might not be practical to order multiple images in one day to review activity at a port or shipping facility, or to track humanitarian relief efforts over a few days. We’re making that a fast reality.

Q: When and where will the Pathfinders be launched?
A: The first will be launched on a PSLV rocket out of India in September, and the second one will be on a SpaceX Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in later in the fall.

Q: How are you preparing for launch from a test perspective?
A: It takes a number of systems to make the BlackSky architecture work. The satellites, ground stations, and mission control software all have to work together reliably. This is a big effort that requires a significant amount of detailed tests for individual systems, as well as thorough tests with all of the systems working in a “flight like” way to ensure everything works together as intended. We have been testing each element individually for a long time. Over the last several months as we have completed the development for individual systems, our test focus has shifted to integrated test scenarios that involve the satellites and all of our ground hardware and software. These tests give us the confidence that we are ready to launch and operate in space.

Q: What’s the most suspenseful moment you’ll be anticipating at launch?
A: Pathfinder is a secondary payload on the PSLV rocket, so this means we’ll finish our launch processing fairly early in the process and have a little waiting time before it goes up. Launch is awesome to watch. However, it’s when our work begins. For us, the big moment we’re waiting for is the first acquisition of signal which we hope to have within the first few hours. We’ll know a lot about that satellite when it first comes over horizon.

Q: How will you be monitoring Pathfinder on orbit?
A: Our operations team will be manning our ops center to establish initial communications and assess the health of the vehicle. They will be monitoring the systems 24 hours a day until all of our testing is complete. As we progress, we will migrate to a highly automated system for day-to-day operations, which will keep BlackSky running smoothly with minimal operations staff support.

Q: Tell us about the kind of resolution you expect from Pathfinder.
A: We are expecting to get 1 meter resolution images from the Pathfinder satellites. This means one pixel in the photo will equal approximately one square meter.

Q: How do the Pathfinder missions help us realize the BlackSky constellation?
A: We’re taking a crawl-walk-run approach. There is a lot to be learned from operating our architecture from space. That is the point of the Pathfinder mission – to evaluate our early architecture performance from space, gather lessons learned, and flow those lessons into future engineering expeditiously.

Q: What’s your favorite part of being the Constellation Program Manager?
A: My favorite part is the breadth of my role and the variety of levels of interaction. On any given day, I may be involved on design details of one system to far reaching strategic discussions about our product line. My job is to bridge those elements. As I see the system as a whole come together and function as intended, it is very satisfying!