Commercial Earth-imager rockets into space atop Delta

Posted: October 16, 2001

The Delta 2 rocket lifts off Thursday from Vandenberg's SLC-2W pad. Photo: Thom Baur/Boeing
Its name is QuickBird and it will take pictures of Earth's surface with unprecedented clarity for a commercial eye-in-the-sky imaging satellite.

The spacecraft was successfully launched into orbit Thursday by the workhorse Boeing Delta 2 rocket.

Liftoff occurred on time at precisely 1851:26 GMT (2:51:26 p.m. EDT; 11:51:26 a.m. PDT) on the date first penciled in back in early spring when DigitalGlobe, formerly EarthWatch, of Longmont, Colorado selected the highly reliable Delta to loft QuickBird.

As the countdown reached the final two seconds, the trademark belch of fire erupted from the base of the rocket as the liquid-fueled first stage main engine powered to life. As clocks struck zero, the three solid-propellant motors strapped to the vehicle were ignited and the 61-minute flight was under way.

The Delta darted off its oceanside launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base along California's Central Coast, about 140 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and quickly punched through a deck of low clouds.

Less than 11 minutes later the rocket's second stage and attached QuickBird payload arrived in a parking orbit where the duo coasted for 44 minutes. The second stage engine then was reignited for a quick 11-second burst to circularize the orbit.

The three spent solid rocket motors are jettisoned from the Delta 2 rocket less than two minutes after launch. Photo: Spaceflight Now/Boeing TV
QuickBird was deployed from the rocket to fly on its own about 60 minutes and 30 seconds after blastoff, marking the 44th straight successful launch of the Delta 2 dating back to 1997. Since Deltas began flying in 1960, this was the 272nd successful launch in 288 tries.

"Our customers worldwide have been anticipating this launch for quite some time and we are very pleased to announce a successful deployment of the world's highest resolution commercial imaging satellite, QuickBird," Herb Satterlee, president and CEO of DigitalGlobe, said in a post-launch statement.

When QuickBird becomes operational in early February, it will provide high-resolution black and white images of the planet showing detail as small as two feet (61 centimeters) across for selling on the commercial market.

That sharp focus is one-foot better than that currently offered by the rival Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite, giving what DigitalGlobe says is an advantage in the Earth-imaging business.

"It makes a huge difference to customers. It has had a much bigger impact than I ever expected. We've had every single customer without expectation come to us and say 'we are so excited about this,'" Satterlee told Spaceflight Now in an interview this week.

"We are clearly in a strong competitive advantage position over Ikonos at least for the next three or four years."

Satterlee believes it will be 2004 or 2005 before a satellite could be built and launched to match or exceed QuickBird's capabilities.

Built by Ball Aerospace, the 2,267-pound QuickBird spacecraft was originally designed to provide three-foot (one-meter) resolution from an orbit 373 miles (600 km) above the planet. But DigitalGlobe decided earlier this year to lower the target altitude to 280 miles (450 km) to improve the resolution.

The QuickBird spacecraft sits atop the Delta 2 rocket during the final days of pre-flight preparations. This view was taken before the second half of the rocket's nose cone was installed. Photo: DigitalGlobe
QuickBird's color imagery was improved from 13.2-foot to 8.05-foot resolution (4-meter to 2.44-meter) with the orbit change.

Users of QuickBird's image data will range from map makers, agricultural developers, urban planners, governments around the globe, scientists monitoring the environment and even private citizens wanting a photo of someplace special taken from space.

"QuickBird provides the commercial markets of the world easy and inexpensive access to the most refined representation of our planet ever assembled," Satterlee said. "We believe that the quality and resolution of our imagery and our commitment to our customers will demonstrate that DigitalGlobe is Clearly the Best."

Satterlee said in our pre-launch interview Tuesday that it was too soon to know whether DigitalGlobe would be awarded any sort of U.S. government contract buying up all the pictures of Afghanistan.

Earlier this week it was announced that all Ikonos imagery of Afghanistan would be sold exclusively to the U.S. government, thus effectively blocking terrorists or anyone else from purchasing pictures of the region in this time of war.

"Because we haven't launched yet, we really haven't gotten in discussions with them yet and certainly have not discussed shutter control other than the normal processes that we have had discussions with over the past three years," Satterlee said.

Artist's concept of QuickBird. Photo: DigitalGlobe
DigitalGlobe, which lost its first two satellites over the past four years because of a spacecraft power system malfunction in orbit and a launch failure, respectively, hopes to build a duplicate of QuickBird for launch in late 2004 or early 2005. Beyond that, the company isn't sure whether its next-generation spacecraft will offer even higher resolution or more of the same.

"Over the next year I think we will get some pretty good input from the marketplace on where the demand is and then we will look at strategically where we should go with our future systems," Satterlee said.

For Boeing, the Delta 2 team has one more launch scheduled this year -- the December 7 flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying NASA's TIMED atmospheric research satellite and the French/U.S. Jason-1 oceanography craft.

Now showing
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The mobile service tower is retracted from around the Boeing Delta 2 rocket at Space Launch Complex-2 West pad in the early morning hours before liftoff.
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The Boeing Delta 2 rocket blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying the QuickBird commercial Earth-imaging spacecraft.
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Extraordinary aerial video shows the Boeing Delta 2 rocket punching through the low cloud deck moments after liftoff and streaking downrange.
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This animation shows the QuickBird commercial Earth-imaging satellite in sun-synchronous orbit.
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See our full listing of video clips.

Flight Data File
Vehicle: Delta 2 (7320)
Payload: QuickBird
Launch date: Oct. 18, 2001
Launch window: 1851-1906 GMT (2:51-3:06 p.m. EDT)
Launch site: SLC-2W, Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
Satellite broadcast: Galaxy 11, Ku-band, Freq.: 11960 H

Pre-launch briefing
Launch preview - Our story giving a complete report on the upcoming launch.

Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

Delta 2 rocket - Overview of the Delta 2 7320-model rocket used to launch QuickBird.

QuickBird - A look at the spacecraft and its mission.

SLC-2W - The launch pad where Delta rocket fly from Vandenberg.

Delta directory - See our coverage of preview Delta rocket flights.