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Dove-1 image
An image taken from Planet Labs’s Dove-1 satellite. The company plans to launch 28 similar satellites early next year to provide such images with frequent, global coverage for commercial and humanitarian applications. (credit: Planet Labs)

Smallsat constellations: the killer app?

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The last several years have seen a growing interest in small satellites, or smallsats: the smaller, the better, it seems sometimes. The CubeSat concept—a satellite 10 centimeters on a side, often combined like building blocks into larger spacecraft—has evolved from student projects at universities to projects by companies and government agencies (see “CubeSats get big”, The Space Review, September 10, 2012). Somewhat larger spacecraft, weighing from tens up to 100 kilograms or so, have also attracted development efforts by companies and organizations, particularly as advancing technologies enhance the capabilities of those spacecraft.

“Our big aim, our motivation, is to use satellites to help humanity,” Marshall said.

But what can these spacecraft really do? The early CubeSats often did little more than transmit a signal to let its builders know it made it into orbit: a “beepsat,” as they’ve sometimes been called. A sustainable smallsat industry, though, requires more than just beepsats or technology demonstrations. Is there a “killer app” for smallsats, a potentially large and lucrative market that stimulates demand for such spacecraft and helps pull the industry forward? Two companies, alike in some respects but different in others, are betting that the demand is for Earth observation, specifically, constellations of small satellites that can provide rapid turnaround of imagery of the Earth for commercial and humanitarian applications.

San Francisco-based Planet Labs announced its plans last week to launch a fleet of satellites to do just that. The 35-person company, which had been operating in stealth mode as Cosmogia until its formal public introduction on June 26, plans to launch a fleet of smallsats—28 in all, called “Doves”—as secondary payloads on a launch in early 2014. The company’s goal is to operate “the world’s largest fleet of Earth imaging satellites to image the changing planet and provide open access to that information.”

“Our big aim, our motivation, is to use satellites to help humanity,” co-founder Will Marshall said in an interview June 25. “By monitoring the Earth on a regular basis, we can do a lot to help various humanitarian causes, like deforestation in the Amazon or overfishing or help people improve agricultural yields in developing countries.”

Planet Labs made the announcement after the successful launch in April of its first two demonstration satellites, Dove-1 and Dove-2. Dove-1 launched as one of several small secondary payloads on the inaugural Antares launch from Virginia on April 21 (see “Antares rising”, The Space Review, April 22, 2013). Dove-2 launched two days earlier as a secondary payload on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur carrying the Bion-M1 research satellite. The timing of those launches was coincidental, company officials said, the result of launch delays.

Both Dove satellites were “3U” CubeSats, measuring roughly 30 by 10 by 10 centimeters. “We’ve stuffed an incredible amount of capability into them,” Marshall said. The two satellites used separate designs, one he called “high-risk” and the other “ultra-high-risk”; one of them was built just a few weeks before launch. However, both worked as planned. “Both of them worked out of the box, straight away, beautifully,” he said.

The operational satellites will be similar to Dove-1 and -2, capable of taking images with resolutions of three to five meters per pixel. That’s not as sharp as what’s available from current commercial remote sensing satellites, such as the fleet operated by DigitalGlobe that can provide images with resolutions better than 50 centimeters per pixel. However, those spacecraft can provide imagery far less frequently than what Planet Labs’s constellation promises to be capable of. That choice of resolution, though, is deliberate, company officials said: it’s good enough for the applications they’re targeting “but does not compromise individual privacy,” the company noted in a statement.

The fleet of satellites to be launched next year will operate in a relatively low orbit of only 450 kilometers. That is intentional, Robbie Schingler, another Planet Labs co-founder, said, both to provide the desired resolution as well as to avoid contributing to the problem of orbital debris. “These do fall out of the sky faster than the other guys,” he said, with a lifetime of perhaps two years. They added this allows them to also rapidly iterate and launch new, more capable spacecraft on a regular basis.

“We’re seeing unprecedented innovation in the space industry, starting with SpaceX lowering the cost of access, and now with Planet Labs revolutionizing the satellite segment,” Jurvetson said.

And what applications are they targeting with such medium-resolution images? Planet Labs believes there will considerable demand for global, frequent imagery from these spacecraft from both humanitarian organizations as well as the commercial sector, particularly agriculture. Schingler said they have several contracts or other agreements in place with potential users, but declined to identify them at this time. “We are working with a select few people to get early access to information and understand the features and priorities around our product,” he said, “so once this data is available online, it immediately has use cases to the applications that we believe are going to be the most beneficial.”

Marshall, Schingler, and third co-founder Chris Boshuizen all formerly worked at NASA Ames, leaving the agency a year and a half ago to devote their time to Planet Labs. Ames has been a hotbed of smallsat work, including the three “PhoneSats” launched on the same Antares flight as Dove-1. However, Marshall said they’re using different technologies as PhoneSat, although maintaining the same philosophy of using commercial-off-the-shelf technology.

Planet Labs’s technology and business model has attracted something that most other space startups haven’t: money from venture capital (VC) firms. The company raised $13.1 million in its initial, or Series A, round from several such funds, including noted VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ). Steve Jurvetson, managing director at DFJ, has been one of the few VCs who has closely followed, and invested in, emerging commercial space firms, and was the first to fund Planet Labs.

“We’re seeing unprecedented innovation in the space industry, starting with SpaceX lowering the cost of access, and now with Planet Labs revolutionizing the satellite segment,” Jurvetson said in a statement. “Mapping the world with a radically different type of satellite has the potential to improve many terrestrial businesses with cloud services from above the clouds.”

Other Planet Labs investors include O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures, Capricorn Investment Management, Founders Fund Angel, Data Collective, First Round Capital, and Innovation Endeavors. That diverse group of investors was a deliberate choice, Schingler said. “When we set out to do this, we thought about who we wanted on our team, and what kind of influence and expertise we wanted,” he said. They focused on investors in three “buckets”: technology innovation in space, open data, and a focus on doing good. Their first three investors fell into each of those three buckets: DFJ; O’Reilly, and Capricorn, founded by former eBay president Jeff Skoll.

Planet Labs, though, isn’t the only company planning constellations of small satellites for remote sensing, nor the only one that has attracted significant interest from VCs. Down the 101 freeway from San Francisco, in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View—not far from the NASA Ames campus—lie the offices of Skybox Imaging, a company developing its own fleet of smallsats for Earth observations.

Skybox’s planned satellites—their initial SkySat-1 and -2 are slated for launch later this year on separate Russian vehicles—are designed to provide relatively high-resolution imagery, of on the order of one meter per pixel, plus the potential to provide video as well. The company plans to eventually launch a much larger constellation: six would provide daily images of virtually any place on the planet, with more offering the potential for multiple images of the same region per day.

“We think that, ultimately, we’re going to be able to grow the market,” Schingler said of potential competition with Skybox and other remote sensing companies.

In a Stanford University seminar earlier this year, Dan Berkenstock, a co-founder of Skybox (the four co-founders met as Stanford students, and developed the initial business plan for Skybox as part of a Stanford class on technology venture formation), said the company was looking at two distinct markets for their imagery and video: various environmental applications, including monitoring agriculture, forestry, and other natural resources; and asset tracking, where spacecraft images help customers monitor various facilities for changes.

“We’ll be marketing the world’s first high-resolution video from space that we hope will help people get a much better insight on a daily basis about how things are happening across our world,” Berkenstock said at the Stanford event.

Those plans have won Skybox a significant amount of VC funding. Last year, the company raised $70 million in a Series C round of financing, bringing the total raised by the company to $91 million. Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, and Norwest Venture Partners, VC firms who have a significant Silicon Valley presence, have all invested in the company.

So are these two companies, Planet Labs and Skybox, in competition with one another? Planet Labs’s Marshall doesn’t think so. “I think we’re very, very much complementary,” he said, adding that while the Dove satellites will provide lower resolution images, they will offer more frequent updates of that imagery from the overall larger fleet of satellites.

“We think that, ultimately, we’re going to be able to grow the market,” Schingler added. “More people are going to get access to this information, and then they’ll recognize the power of Earth observation imagery to help them make better decisions.”

If he’s correct, and either Planet Labs and/or Skybox Imaging can demonstrate the ability to provide frequent imagery on a cost-effective basis, it might be a step in the direction of the killer app the smallsat community has been seeking.