UK to fund replacement of surveillance satellite lost in Virgin Orbit crash

TAMPA, Fla. The UK is funding nearly half the cost of replacing the government-backed cubesat that British maritime surveillance firm Horizon Technologies lost in January’s final launch attempt by Virgin Orbits before it went bankrupt.

Horizon said in an Oct. 19 news release that Britain’s space agency has awarded the company a 1.2 million ($1.5 million) grant to help launch a spy satellite in mid-2024. The UK will use a replacement satellite to scan radio frequencies (RF) from ships trying to evade detection.

Using revenue from equipment for spy planes and drones to track satellite phones and radars, Horizon plans to provide the rest of the $2.8 million in funding needed for the Amber Phoenix satellite program to cover production, ground segment, launch and other costs.

AAC Clyde Space (ACS) is building the Amber Phoenix, the UK space agency announced separately, and no launch supplier has yet been signed up. Publicly listed ACS is headquartered in Sweden but builds smaller satellites in Scotland.

Horizons CEO John Becker said Amber Phoenix will have undisclosed improvements over the lost Amber IOD-3 (In-Orbit Demonstration) satellite, which was also provided by ACS.

Amber IOD-3, a 6U cube, like its successor, was part of a project led by the British government-backed non-profit Satellite Applications Catapult, which used Horizon as prime contractor.

Becker told SpaceNews Horizon spent more than £4 million on the technology needed for its first satellite, supported by a £600,000 grant from the UK government’s innovation agency.

Uninsured Amber IOD-3 was one of nine small satellites lost when Virgin Orbits Launcher One failed to reach a proper orbit on its first and only launch from British soil. Virgin Orbit went bankrupt three months later.

Bad start bet

Horizon originally planned to launch Amber IOD-3 on a SpaceX Cargo Dragon mission in 2021 for deployment from the International Space Station.

After missing out on this launch opportunity following pandemic-related production delays, Becker said Amber IOD-3 was moved to Virgin Orbit in part to support its first UK launch.

Amber IOD-3 was originally scheduled to launch with Virgin Orbit in July 2022, he added, but was delayed while the launcher sought permission to fly from the United Kingdom.

Without a grant from the UK Space Agency to partially fund a replacement satellite, Becker said Horizon would have had to shelve plans to expand its business into space.

Horizon ordered two other Amber surveillance satellites from ASC in 2021, which were originally scheduled to launch in 2022, but also suffered production delays.

According to Becker, only preliminary work has been done on these cubes, and the company expects to announce a deployment date once the Amber Phoenix launch supplier is in place.

Horizon envisions a constellation of more than 20 amber payloads in low Earth orbit, sufficient to provide global RF data with a 30-minute delay.

The UK Royal Navy’s Joint Maritime Security Center (JMSC) plans to use the constellation to combat piracy, smuggling and other illegal activities.

Becker said Horizon is looking to sell its space detection services to other governments and commercial customers.

He said the constellation will also include RF tracking pods integrated with partner Earth observation and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellations.

Sensors in these constellations can be tasked to collect more data on areas that the RF payload has identified as being of interest.

Horizon has a memorandum of understanding with a U.S.-based Earth observation company to add payloads to satellites launching next year, Becker added, and is preparing a deal with a separate SAR company.

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