Skybox Imaging’s Hopes High as Launch of First Satellites Draws Near

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Skybox Imaging executives gathered Oct. 9 in the company’s parking lot here to see the startup imagery provider’s first satellite boxed up for its journey to the Yasny launch site in Russia, where it is scheduled to lift off Nov. 21 on a Russian Dnepr rocket.

The executives clearly were pleased to reach that milestone more than five years after the firm’s founders originally set their sights on sending a robotic spacecraft to the Moon to compete for the multimillion-dollar Google Lunar X Prize. The financial crisis quickly squelched those dreams and persuaded the crew of four Stanford University graduate students to look for new markets that could benefit from emerging space and information technologies.

“We talked to folks who used satellite-based data,” said Dan Berkenstock, Skybox executive vice president and chief product officer. “What we came across was a hunger to move commercial Earth observation and remote sensing beyond mapping to subscription analytics and data streams.”

With its first satellites, SkySat-1 and SkySat-2, which is scheduled to launch in February from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket, Skybox plans to offer customers timely access to high-resolution satellite imagery, video and data drawn from that imagery. Recent news that the Soyuz launch, which previously was anticipated in December, has slipped to February did not concern Skybox officials, who said they are pleased that the company’s first two launches are not scheduled to occur in quick succession.

Skybox officials declined to offer a timeline for launching additional satellites to populate their planned 24-spacecraft constellation. Market demand will help to determine that schedule, Berkenstock said.

Skybox’s satellites weigh approximately 100 kilograms and are slightly larger than the miniature refrigerators often found in college dormitory rooms. Although the satellites dwarf the 1-kilogram cubesats many of the firm’s executives, including founders Berkenstock and Julian Mann, worked on in the Stanford laboratory — their professor at Stanford, Bob Twiggs, helped to invent the tiny spacecraft — the cubesat approach is readily apparent at Skybox headquarters. The Skybox design team created satellites capable of gathering 1-meter resolution imagery while eschewing costly features that would raise the price of each satellite.

Berkenstock declined to specify the price of Skybox’s satellites but said the entire constellation is likely to cost less than the large, state-of-the-art, high-resolution imaging satellites currently being built by aerospace industry giants.

Even the Skybox machine shop seems more like a cubesat laboratory than a facility used to build multimillion-dollar spacecraft. Many of the machine tools used to construct SkySat-1 and SkySat-2 were bought at fire sale prices when the nearby Numi automotive plant closed in 2010.

Whenever possible, Skybox engineers draw on commercially available hardware and software. “We found best, most credible, highest performance subcomponents available, including oscillators and web technologies,” Berkenstock said. “We designed all the circuit boards based on commercial off-the-shelf components.”

To obtain high-resolution imagery, however, Skybox designed and patented its own two-dimensional staring sensor. That innovation prompted company engineers to develop a unique camera to gather data from the sensor, processors to encode the data and correct for deficiencies, and radios capable of sending the data to ground stations for processing.

In another cost-saving measure, Skybox satellites are designed to push much of the image processing traditionally done onboard Earth observing satellites to the ground. That approach was adopted to reduce their size, weight and launch cost. “We use software on the ground to reconstruct the image and come out with a very high-quality final product,” Berkenstock said.

In fact, while much media attention has been focused on Skybox’s plan to launch a constellation of microsatellites, company officials stress that data are at the heart of their business. The satellites simply enable the firm to provide a Web-accessible data platform, said Ching-Yu Hu, Skybox founder and director of marketing and customer relations.

Skybox is drawing on the talents of software engineers who previously worked for many of its Silicon Valley neighbors to devise innovative ways to manage satellite operations and process imagery. Mission control software, for example, is designed for ease of use; Skybox engineers will be able to keep tabs on satellite telemetry from their home computers, said John Fenwick, Skybox founder and vice president for flight programs.

Instead of targeting specific markets for imagery, Berkenstock said, Skybox will allow customers to create their own algorithms and discover their own applications. They may use the imagery, for example, to keep tabs on mines, factories, ports and retail outlets. “We are building a platform here that can operate sensors and can analyze and aggregate the data they gather to answer a broader set of questions,” Berkenstock said.

One customer who publicly announced plans in May to work with Skybox was Japan Space Imaging of Tokyo, which has signed up for the SkyNode service. Through that service, customers obtain direct access to the satellite for tasking and data download. Other customers may opt to purchase high-resolution imagery and full-motion video featuring 30 frames per second, or sign up to gain access to a specific stream of data.

Skybox officials said the market they are helping to create is likely to grow far too large for any single firm to serve. Instead it will take the combined efforts of industry leaders including DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and Europe’s Astrium Services to address the “thousands or millions of applications” for Earth imagery. “This business is bigger than any one company,” Berkenstock said. “This is commercial remote sensing 2.0.”