HEAD Aerospace sells imagery from 18 civil Earth observation satellites, launched one of its own in November 2017 and plans to have in orbit a constellation of 24 of those 45kg Skywalker spacecraft by 2022. None of those features are so unusual in Earth observation, but what makes Beijing-based China HEAD Aerospace Technology stand out are two key facts – it is Chinese, and it is 100% privately owned; owned, indeed, by its management and employees.
On hand in the start-up zone at Toulouse Space Week to meet prospective clients was Kammy Brun, who manages HEAD’s new Paris office. Brun tells Geoconomy that HEAD acts as a commercial arm of China’s government-owned constellations, including the four Superview satellites, which offer daily revisit at 50cm resolution. Its business model, then, exploits the fact that government agencies aren’t interested in images of territory beyond their domestic remit. So, that makes it HEAD’s task to act as a commercial “bridge” between the Chinese and especially EU space markets – it has subsidiaries in France, which opened earlier this year, and the Netherlands, which dates to 2016.
The Europe connection is particularly important, she says. As a private company establishing its own wholly-owned constellation – not a national programme – HEAD is not obliged to buy in China, but US ITAR restrictions have it looking to Europe for partners. The fourth-generation Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship tracking and IoT payload flying on its first Skywalker satellite was procured in Europe, she says. The spacecraft were jointly designed and developed by China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation’s Shanghai Aerospace Technology Research Institute.
Future Skywalkers could also host optical or multi-spectral EO payloads. Unit one – “HEAD-1” – is flying in an 808km Sun-synchronous orbit – ideal for EO missions.
HEAD’s goal, says Brun, is to find a European partner to collaborate on future projects for data products or other innovations.
The next satellite to enter HEAD’s data pool will be China’s Gao Fen-5, launched in May and carrying payloads for high-resolution land observation and atmospheric chemistry.