LONDON — The Kingdom of Morocco on Nov. 7 joined the club of nations with their own space-based intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems with the successful launch of the 50-centimeter-resolution Mohammed VI-A satellite.
Built by Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defense and Space, Mohammed VI-A is the first of two identical spacecraft produced under a 2014 contract with a total value of around $500 million, according to industry estimates.
Weighing some 1,100 kilograms, the satellite was separated from Europe’s Vega rocket after three burns of Vega’s Avum upper stage into a 600-kilometer polar low Earth orbit. It will take several days to determine whether all its systems are functioning as designed.
The launch brought Vega’s record to 11 successes out of 11 launch attempts, and the third mission of 2017. Vega prime contractor Avio said the vehicle had six missions in backlog and was on scheduled to make a first launch of the upgraded Vega-C in 2019.
The Mohammed VI project, long an open secret, was signed initially in 2013 after three years of negotiations. From the start, the program was designed to be similar to the United Arab Emirates’ two FalconEye satellites, scheduled for launch on Vega in 2019; and to France’s civil/military Pleiades satellites, already in orbit.
The Pleiades spacecraft are capable of generating resampled images with a 50-centimeter resolution, meaning they can detect objects of that diameter or larger.
Speaking after the launch, Karim Tajmouati, head of Morocco’s delegation attending the event at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America, stressed the satellite’s civil potential and steered clear of any mention of reconnaissance.
Land surveys, mapping, disaster monitoring, agricultural assessment — these are the purposes to which the Mohammed VI spacecraft will be put, he said.
Three years of negotiations and four years of construction is a long time, but Thales Alenia Space Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle, speaking after the launch, said his company had promised Morocco a late-2017 launch and delivered on it.
Galle said his company would validate the satellite’s in-orbit performance before turning it over to Moroccan authorities and hoped to “develop new [satellites] that will place the Kingdom of Morocco on the map of major space players.”
Mathilde Roger Germain, Airbus senior vice president for Earth observation, navigation and science, said Mohammed VI-A is the sixth Airbus Astrobus platform orbited in five years, and the seventh Earth observation system sold to export customers.