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Jun 1, 2022

People and News

Umbra SAR Commercial Microsatellite Constellation

 

In January 2021, Earth observation startup Umbra raised $32 million in an investment round led by the family office venture fund of Passport Capital founder John Burbank with participation from existing Umbra investors including CrossCut Ventures, Starbridge Ventures, Hemisphere Ventures and PonValley. 1)

Umbra, based in Santa Barbara, California and previously known as Umbra Lab, is preparing to launch its first microsatellite this year to provide Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery with a resolution of better than 25 centimeters.

"Umbra has agreements to deliver data to the United States government and commercial geospatial intelligence firms," according to a Jan. 31 news release. Umbra has not announced contract awards. However, AFWERX, the Air Force organization focused on spurring innovation, lists Umbra as a Small Business Innovation Research awardee.

Figure 1: Umbra CEO David Langan inspects an Umbra satellite antenna (image credit: Umbra)
Figure 1: Umbra CEO David Langan inspects an Umbra satellite antenna (image credit: Umbra)

Umbra was established in 2015 based on a contract awarded by a U.S. prime aerospace and defense company that Umbra declines to name.

Because of that early backing from a prime contractor, Umbra had "an advantage with the United States government and primes, ultimately allowing us to win important contracts critical to future space architectures," Umbra CEO David Langan said in a statement.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) awarded Umbra a license in 2018 to sell 25 cm resolution imagery commercially from a satellite constellation in 515 km circular sun synchronous orbit.

Umbra announced Jan. 9 that it was granted a patent for an antenna designed to stow compactly for launch and expand in orbit with a series of ribs attached to a central hub covered in a flexible reflective material.

Many companies are building SAR microsatellites to provide imagery and data during the day, at night and through clouds.

Umbra seeks to reduce the cost of SAR data by bringing prices in line with those of electro-optical imagery.

"When we embarked on the commercial business it was clear – Umbra needed to invent something new to create value for our customers," Umbra Co-Founder Gabe Dominocielo said in a statement. "Our proprietary technology improves satellite performance, data quality and can collect many areas of interest in high resolution, which allows us to offer lower prices."

Umbra plans to offer customers free satellite tasking and direct satellite access.

Umbra is building multiple satellites and preparing to expand its 45-person staff. The company has posted job openings in engineering, product, software, operations and marketing in its Santa Barbara and Austin, Texas facilities.

 

Launches of Umbra satellites (in revers order)

• Umbra launched its Umbra-03 microsatellite on 25 May 2022 (at 18:35 UTC) with the SpaceX Transporter-5 Rideshare mission on a Falcon-9 vehicle from SLC-40 Cape Canaveral, FL with 59 small satellites aboard. 2)

- Among the satellites that Transporter-5 deployed into sun-synchronous orbit, rideshare aggregator Exolaunch accounted for 21 satellites, including satellites for ICEYE, Satellogic and Spire. Smallsat manufacturer Terran Orbital flew satellites for several customers, such as Fleet, GeoOptics and NASA.

- Other companies that had satellites on Transporter-5 are HawkEye 360, which flew another cluster of three radio-frequency intelligence satellites; GHGSat, which launched three satellites to monitor greenhouse gas emissions; and Umbra, which launched a synthetic aperture radar imaging satellite.

• Umbra launched its Umbra-02 microsatellite on 13 January 2022 (at 15:25 UTC) with the SpaceX Rideshare mission on a Falcon-9 vehicle from SLC-40 Cape Canaveral, FL with 105 small satellites aboard. 3)

- Onboard this mission is a plethora of small satellite payloads, most notably from Planet Inc. The Earth observation company has scheduled 44 SuperDoves satellites to launch as a part of their SkySat Constellation.

- Kepler Communication is also launching six of its communication satellites as it aims to deliver networks all over the globe using small satellites in orbit.

- Launching as well are payloads from Capella Space and Umbra Space, whose payloads are integrated and managed by Seattle-based launch integration company, Spaceflight Inc.

• Umbra launched the first commercial microsatellite of its planned constellation on the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare mission on 30 June 2021 (at 19:31 UTC) on the Spaceflight SXRS-5 mission, providing launch integration for the flight. The Umbra SAR-2001 radar-imaging microsatellite rode into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. 4)

- Umbra, a next-generation intelligence company, launched the first commercial microsatellite of its planned constellation on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission. The Umbra SAR-2001 radar-imaging microsatellite rode into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

 

 


 

Development status

• January 20, 2022: The NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) has selected Umbra for the first Focus Area—Commercial Radar—under the agency's new Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for Strategic Commercial Enhancements effort. Focused on commercial imagery and data, this initiative is specifically designed for the NRO to evaluate, leverage, and integrate new and emerging commercial phenomenologies like radar and radio frequency remote sensing. 5)

- "Supporting U.S. national security has always been core to Umbra's mission and we are thrilled to be included in the NRO's continued pivot towards a hybrid overhead architecture. We deeply believe that American companies in the commercial ISR space will make a very meaningful contribution to the U.S.' ability to thrive." said Jason Mallare, Vice President of Government Programs.

- Umbra was founded on the belief that by providing easy access to the highest quality commercial satellite data available, we can become an indispensable tool for the growing number of organizations monitoring the Earth, making data-driven decisions about land use, and solving other global issues.

- Umbra delivers on this mission by building cutting-edge hardware and software products for our analytics customers which solve complex business and security challenges for the United States and its allies.

- Umbra's satellites are equipped with a powerful Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) payload, capable of seeing at night and through dense clouds to generate the highest-resolution radar images ever sold on the commercial market. Umbra is excited to participate in this effort and hopes to make meaningful contributions to U.S. national security objectives.

• July 16, 2021: Umbra has been awarded a $950,000,000 ceiling indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract for the maturation, demonstration, and proliferation of capability across platforms and domains, leveraging open systems design, modern software, and algorithm development to enable Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). 6)

- This contract is part of a multi-award, multi-level security effort to provide development and operation of systems as a unified force across all domains — air, land, sea, space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum — in an open architecture family of systems that enables capabilities via multiple integrated platforms.

- This contract is part of a multi-award, multi-level security effort to provide development and operation of systems as a unified force across all domains — air, land, sea, space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum — in an open architecture family of systems that enables capabilities via multiple integrated platforms.

- Umbra was awarded the contract alongside industry leaders including Boeing (NYSE: BA), L3Harris Technologies (NYSE: LHX), Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT), Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), Palantir (NYSE: PLTR), and Raytheon Technologies (NYSE: RTX) who were previously awarded their own IDIQ contracts. Umbra was the only radar satellite provider announced in the most recent cohort.

- An Umbra satellite is equipped with a powerful Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) payload, capable of seeing at night and through dense clouds to generate the highest-resolution radar images ever sold on the commercial market. Umbra is excited to participate in this multi-domain systems integration effort and hopes to make meaningful contributions to U.S. national security objectives.

• July 09, 2021: Umbra, a next-generation intelligence company, launched the first commercial microsatellite of its planned constellation on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission. The Umbra SAR-2001 radar-imaging microsatellite rode into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. 7)

- Until now, access to high-resolution satellite imagery has been a privilege reserved for only the largest military powers. Soon, however, researchers, businesses, and US government partners will have timely access to the highest-quality Earth observation data available for the lowest prices on the market, via Umbra's seamless direct tasking platform.

- "Today represents the culmination of a years-long dream," said Gabe Dominocielo, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Umbra. "We're giving our customers the tools and data they need to solve critical problems and to help make the world a better place. Researchers, businesses, and defense agencies will have the full power of next-gen satellite imagery at their fingertips. I am grateful to all of the incredible Umbra employees who made this possible, and we are all looking forward to launching our next groups of satellites to complete our constellation."

- Now in space, the Umbra's patented antenna will expand from its dorm fridge-sized launch configuration into a parabolic dish larger than an SUV. Its industry-leading 1,200MHz bandwidth and powerful Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology is capable of seeing at night and through dense clouds to generate the highest resolution radar images ever sold on the commercial market.

- Umbra will soon begin to onboard customers to Canopy, which is its self-service tasking platform. Using Canopy, Umbra customers will no longer have to negotiate complex pricing and contractual arrangements with imagery providers, but will be able to directly task satellites to generate high-quality satellite images anywhere in the world.

- Umbra's constellation will be able to identify and monitor surface-level changes globally, and can be used for a variety of important efforts, including remote wildlife habitat protection, pollution and plastic waste tracking, oil spill detection, military intelligence gathering, live flooding estimation during storms, and more.

- Umbra's mission is to provide reliable and affordable day-night, all-weather geospatial intelligence on demand. Umbra is continuing to expand their 55-person plus team, with new job openings in engineering, product, software, operations, and marketing in both our Austin and Santa Barbara offices. For more information on openings, please visit our careers page.

• March 12, 2021: Radar satellite startup Umbra plans to capture imagery with a resolution as high as 15 centimeters per pixel thanks to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license. 8)

- The FCC granted Umbra, a Santa Barbara, California, startup preparing to launch its first X-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) microsatellite this year, an experimental license in February to operate high-bandwidth SAR using the 1,200 MHz band centered on 9.8 GHz and low-bandwidth SAR with the 600 MHz band centered on 9.6 GHz.

- Gabe Dominocielo, Umbra co-founder and president, referred to the FCC license as "hitting the regulatory jackpot."

- "Bandwidth is the limiting factor in determining slant range resolution, and ultimately ground plane resolution in the cross-track direction," Dominocielo said by email. "Improvement in resolution is proportional to the amount of bandwidth available for use by the sensor."

- The company plans to provide customers with inexpensive SAR data rather than geospatial analytics. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration granted Umbra a license in 2018 to offer 25-centimeter resolution from satellites in 515-kilometer sun synchronous orbit.

- With the new FCC license "better resolution will be available to some customers," Umbra said in a March 11 news release. "Umbra anticipates being the sole commercial provider of these high-resolution radar products in the United States and will be selling imagery commercially to customers based in the United States and to allies abroad."

- Dominocielo declined to say whether U.S. defense and intelligence agencies were the customers likely to obtain access to Umbra's highest-resolution imagery and data.

- Umbra seeks to gather high resolution SAR data to feed artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.

- "AI and machine learning algorithms are only as good as the data they are given," Dominocielo said. "High resolution SAR images intrinsically are more valuable. Superior data will enable analytics firms and governments to improve their AI and machine learning workflows."

- The Commerce Department revised regulations for commercial remote sensing satellite systems in 2020, streamlining the licensing process with the goal of making U.S. companies more competitive globally.

- The revised rules compare remote sensing systems with similar systems that are not subject to NOAA's jurisdiction, including those licensed by other nations. Anything with similar capabilities to what is already available is now subject to minimal regulation compared with systems that offer improved capabilities.

Figure 2: Umbra has a patent for an antenna designed to stow compactly for launch and expand in orbit with a series of ribs attached to a central hub. The SAR X-band antenna generates an industry-leading 1,200 MHz bandwidth and is covered in a flexible reflective material. The Umbra microsatellite packs a huge antenna into a small volume, with an overall spacecraft mass of ~65 kg (image credit: Umbra)
Figure 2: Umbra has a patent for an antenna designed to stow compactly for launch and expand in orbit with a series of ribs attached to a central hub. The SAR X-band antenna generates an industry-leading 1,200 MHz bandwidth and is covered in a flexible reflective material. The Umbra microsatellite packs a huge antenna into a small volume, with an overall spacecraft mass of ~65 kg (image credit: Umbra)

 

 


 

Technical Specifications of the SAR Constellation

Radar antenna size

> 10 m2

Radar bandwidth

1,200 MHz

Radar power

> 500 W peak power

Spacecraft launch mass

~70 kg

Launch volume

Sub-ESPA

Table 1: Satellite parameters 9)

Altitude

450 -600 km

Inclination

97.4º (polar orbit)

Nominal orbital height

560 km

Ground track repeat

2 weeks

Table 2: Initial orbital parameters

Polarization

HH or VV

Ground range

170 - 1100 km on either side of the flight path

Table 3: Collection capability

Squint angle

45º - 135º

Grazing angle

20º - 70º

Look direction

Left or right

Table 4: Look geometry

Region

Number of satellites on orbit

1

4

12

24

Arctic & antarctic regions

2 hrs

30 mins

15 mins

7.5 mins

Mid-latitude regions

7 hrs

1.5 hrs

30 mins

15 mins

Equatorial region

9 hrs

2 hrs

45 mins

22.5 mins

Coherent repeat

14 days

3.5 days

1.7 days

14 hrs

Table 5: Estimated revisit rate rates by region and type

Imaging modes

Spotlight: 4 x 4 km footprint (standard scene size)

Stripmap: 5-20 km x 50 km (swath x length)

Extended dwell: 4 x 4 km footprint; Ground plane resolution: 25 cm - 2 m

Scanning: Scan area: arbitrary polygon; Ground plane resolution: 10 m

 


1) Debra Werner, "Umbra raises $32 million for radar satellite constellation," SpaceNews, 31 January 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/umbra-raises-32-million/

2) Jeff Foust, "SpaceX launches Transporter-5 dedicated smallsat rideshare mission," SpaceNews, 26 May 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/spacex-launches-transporter-5-dedicated-smallsat-rideshare-mission/

3) Mihir Neal & Thomas Burghardt, "SpaceX launches Transporter-3 rideshare mission and lands booster at LZ-1," NASA Spaceflight.com, 13 January 2022, URL: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2022/01/spacex-transporter-3/#

4) "Umbra launches worlds most capable commercial radar-imaging satellite," Umbra News, June 25, 2021, URL: https://umbra.space/blog/umbra-launches-worlds-most-capable-commercial-radar-imaging-satellite

5) "NRO Selects Umbra for their Strategic Commercial Enhancements Effort," Umbra New, 20 January 2022, URL: https://umbra.space/blog/nro-selects-umbra-for-their-strategic-commercial-enhancements-effort

6) "Umbra Awarded $950M Ceiling IDIQ Contract Following SpaceX Launch," Umbra News, 16 July 2021, URL: https://umbra.space/blog/umbra-awarded-950m-idiq-contract-following-space-x-launch

7) "SpaceX Launches World's Most Capable Commercial Radar Satellite for Umbra," PRweb News Release, 9 July 2021, URL: https://www.prweb.com/releases/spacex_launches_worlds_most_capable_commercial_radar_satellite_for_umbra/prweb18058069.htm

8) Debra Werner, "Umbra advertises SAR imagery with 15-centimeter resolution," SpaceNews, 12 March 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/umbra-15-centimeters/

9) "Technical specification of Umbra," URL: https://umbra.space/sar-specs
 


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (eoportal@symbios.space).

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