OrbView-3 Gives Orbimage Life

By | June 30, 2003 | Feature

The successful June 26 launch of the OrbView-3 high-resolution imaging satellite could help the Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Imaging Corp. (Orbimage) turn around its financial fortunes.

The satellite imagery provider is expected to emerge from Chapter 11-bankrutpcy protection in the next two months without the burdensome debt that had forced a leadership change and triggered its financial restructuring. When the 304 kilogram (670 pound) OrbView-3 becomes operational, the remote sensing spacecraft will be a key source of revenue for the company.

OrbView-3, built and launched by Orbimage’s former parent company, Orbital Sciences Corp. [NYSE: ORB], will provide the kind of high-resolution imagery now coveted by the U.S. government from a circular orbit 470 kilometers (292 miles) above the Earth. OrbView-3 will be Orbimage’s first high-resolution satellite and the fourth high- resolution spacecraft operated commercially. Other companies operating high-resolution remote sensing satellites are Space Imaging, DigitalGlobe, and ImageSat (which has two).

The high-resolution digital imaging instrument aboard OrbView-3 will provide one-meter resolution panchromatic (black and white) and four-meter resolution multispectral (color) imagery. The imagery would be used for a wide-range of applications in the government and commercial markets.

Orbimage has established a global distribution network to capture, process and deliver basic satellite imagery, and now high-resolution, value-added products.

“The utility and value of high-resolution imagery has been proven over the last few years, particularly in support of our nation’s national security requirements,” said Matt O’Connell, CEO of Orbimage. “Orbimage has a long and proven track record in map production, satellite operations and related services. This heritage, combined with our contract backlog for OrbView-3, the increased demand for our products and services and completion of our financial restructuring, all position Orbimage to quickly achieve a leadership role in our industry.”

O’Connell termed the OrbView-3 launch on a Pegasus rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California the company’s “single most important milestone” since it entered bankruptcy protection. The Pegasus rocket is carried aloft attached to Orbital’s “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft to approximately 39,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, where it is released horizontally into a free fall for 5 seconds before its first stage motor ignites. Approximately 10 minutes after ignition, the satellite is separated from the rocket’s third stage and continues to its intended orbit.

Early data indicates that the satellite’s main systems are operating nominally, as expected. Within a few days of the launch, the satellite will be maneuvered into its final orbit.

“Once the check out is completed and imagery starts flowing, we will begin fulfilling the large backlog we have secured with our U.S. customers and international partners,” O’Connell said.

Orbimage, a global provider of Earth imagery products and services, has two other satellites in orbit – OrbView-1 atmospheric imaging satellite, launched in 1995, and the OrbView-2 ocean and land multispectral imaging satellite, deployed in 1997. Orbimage also operates the SeaStar Fisheries Information Service that provides fish-finding maps derived from OrbView-2 imagery.

In addition, Orbimage has agreed to be the exclusive U.S. distributor of remote sensing imagery from the Canadian RADARSAT-2 satellite that is to be launched next year.

The successful launch of OrbView-3 certainly gives Orbimage a “chance at life,” said Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with RSA Research, of Newport, R.I. “Without it, they had a very limited source of income with the old satellites that are up there.”

OrbView-3 is a “great addition” to Orbimage’s current portfolio of products and services, said Timothy J. Puckorius, the company’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing and sales.

“In addition to the markets we currently serve with data from OrbView-2 and our map production services in St. Louis, OrbView-3 will enable Orbimage to meet the growing national and international needs for detailed, accurate high-resolution images for a broad array of primary applications.”

Those applications include mapping, environmental monitoring, city planning, news gathering, agriculture, forestry and resource management.

Orbimage expects to file its final plan of reorganization within the next two weeks, company officials said. Court approval of the reorganization is not expected to pose a problem.

“It’s basically a formality and court scheduling matter,” said Puckorius. If everything goes smoothly, the company could emerge from bankruptcy protection within 30 to 60 days, he added.

The successful launch of OrbView-3 was a positive development not only for Orbimage but also for the remote sensing industry as a whole. The industry has been bitten by launch failures in recent years. Three remote sensing satellites have been lost due to launch mishaps and a fourth imagery satellite was destroyed during a launch failure.

Chuck Herring, director of communications at DigitalGlobe, said, “All the companies have had launch setbacks. It is nice now to start getting a strong track record of successful launches.”

In addition to the successful OrbView-3 launch, Orbimage should be aided by a new White House policy on commercial remote sensing that was revealed in May. The policy, replacing one established in 1994 during the Clinton administration, significantly relaxes restrictions on U.S. commercial remote sensing companies and promotes the purchase of imagery by the U.S. government. -Paul Dykewicz

(Matt O’Connell, Timothy Puckorius, Armand Mancini, Orbimage, 703/ 480-7527; Barron Beneski, Orbital Sciences, 703/406-5000; Gary Napier, Space Imaging, 303/254-2106; Paul Nisbet, RSA Research, 401/847-1103; Chuck Herring, DigitalGlobe, 303/682-3820)

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