Smallsat company reveals Earth observation plans


An image of the Earth taken from Planet Labs’s Dove-2 satellite in April. The company announced plans Wednesday to launch a fleet of smallsats to provide global, frequent coverage of the Earth for commercial and humanitarian purposes. (credit: Planet Labs)

A smallsat company that had been operating in stealth mode formally announced its plans today to launch dozens of spacecraft to provide imagery of the Earth for both commercial and humanitarian purposes.

Planet Labs, based in San Francisco, announced today plans to launch what it calls “the world’s largest fleet of Earth imaging satellites to image the changing planet and provide open access to that information.” The company plans to deploy a fleet of 28 satellites as secondary payloads on a launch early next year that will provide global, frequent coverage of the Earth, offering images with resolutions of 3 to 5 meters

“Our big aim, our motivation, is to use satellites to help humanity,” co-founder Will Marshall said in an interview Tuesday. “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.”

The company decided to reveal their plans after the successful flight of two demonstration satellites, Dove-1 and Dove-2, in April. Dove-1 launched as a secondary payload on the inaugural Antares launch from Virginia on April 21, while Dove-2 launched two days earlier as a secondary on a Soyuz launch of the Bion M1 spacecraft from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Launching the two demonstration satellites almost simultaneously was not their intent, Robbie Schingler, another company co-founder, said in the interview, but was the result of launch delays. Nonetheless, they were able to contact both satellites on their first communications passes. “Both of them worked out of the box, straight away, beautifully,” Marshall said.

Those satellites, as well as the 28 planned for launch next year, are “3U” CubeSats, using the form factor of three 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSats to create a spacecraft 30 centimeters long. “We’ve stuffed an incredible amount of capability into them,” Marshall said. The two Dove satellites launched in April 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.

The fleet of satellites to be launched next year will operate in a relatively low orbit of only 450 kilometers. That is intentional, Schingler 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.

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 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.”

Until today, Planet Labs had been operating in stealth mode as Cosmogia, attracting little attention other than a report early this year that it had raised $10 million from Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. The company says it has raised an initial “Series A” round of $13.1 million, including DFJ as well as O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures (OATV), 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.

“As Planet Labs’ first outside investor, DFJ believes in their vision to change the world for the better, and we are delighted to help them execute on their unique vision to make the big data landscape of the planet more affordable and accessible,” Steve Jurvetson, managing director of DFJ, said in a company statement.

As for what’s after the planned launch of 28 satellites next year, “we have a lot of plans beyond that,” Marshall said, but declined to offer details. “We really need to enter into the market and listen to what people really care about, what they want, and respond accordingly,” said Schingler.

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