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Orbital Sciences signs satellite launch deal with Skybox Imaging

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Feb 20 (Reuters) - Orbital Sciences Corp signed a contract to launch six small satellites for Skybox Imaging aboard a new commercial version of a rocket based on decommissioned missile components, the companies said on Thursday.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences intends to launch six of Skybox Imaging's planned 24-member satellite network in late 2015. The firm's first satellite, SkySat-1, was launched in November aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket.

The satellites, which are designed to take high-resolution imagery and video of Earth, will fly together aboard a Minotaur-C rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the companies said.

Previous Minotaur rockets incorporated decommissioned U.S. Peacekeeper and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile components. In exchange, Orbital Sciences could only sell Minotaur launch services to the U.S. government.

The commercial version will replace the government-provided missile motors with four solid fuel rocket motors built by ATK , Orbital Sciences spokesman Barry Beneski said.

The configuration is the same as what Orbital Sciences uses in its Taurus rocket and is similar to what is flown on the firm's Pegasus booster and two upper stages of the Minotaur 1, Beneski said.

"We mix and match a lot," Beneski said in an email.

"It is the Minotaur engineering and launch team that is developing, testing and will be launching the rocket," he added.

Orbital Sciences also is designing a dispenser that will be flown aboard Minotaur-C and used to put the satellites into 311-mile (500-km) high orbits. From that altitude, the satellites will be able to image objects less than 32 inches (80 cm) in diameter, Skybox Imaging said in a statement.

The privately-owned firm, based in Mountain View, Calif., is among a handful startups looking to build businesses selling Earth imagery and related information services. Last week, privately-owned Planet Labs, based in San Francisco, began using a commercially operated small satellite launcher aboard the International Space Station to deploy its 28-member network into orbit.

In December, a pair of spacewalking Russian cosmonauts installed two cameras owned by Vancouver-based UrtheCast outside the station, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. The company intends to provide a continuous, high-definition video stream of the planet, as well as digital pictures.

Skybox Imaging and Orbital Sciences did not release terms of the contract.