OmniEarth Team Announces $250M Small-sat Imagery Venture

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SAN FRANCISCO — Draper Laboratory, Dynetics and Harris Corp. are joining forces with startup OmniEarth LLC to build, launch and operate a constellation of 18 small satellites to provide global, high-resolution Earth imagery on a daily basis. The team is seeking additional partners, investors and customers for the business venture, which is expected to carry a price tag of roughly $250 million, said Lars Dyrud, OmniEarth president and chief executive.

“We are committed to obtaining scientific quality multispectral imagery everywhere, everyday and making that available to customers on a subscription basis,” said Dyrud, who also leads Draper’s Earth and Space Sciences Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In addition to imagery, OmniEarth plans to offer change-detection products and analytics to commercial, research and government organizations. Potential applications include agriculture, oil and natural gas exploration and production, mapping and geospatial services, emergency response, national security and mobile device support. “Because OmniEarth will always have the most current data, it is natural fit for information products and services via mobile platforms,” Dyrud said.

OmniEarth is one of many startups setting their sights on the growing market for high-resolution Earth imagery, including San Francisco-based Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California. OmniEarth executives say their niche will be to offer scientific-grade multispectral data of the entire planet on a daily basis. In contrast, Skybox plans to gather high-resolution video and still imagery of areas of interest to its customers. Planet Labs is seeking to fly 100 cubesats to gather imagery of the vast majority of Earth’s surface but the firm’s spacecraft do not include a multispectral sensor.

Draper will be responsible for OmniEarth specifications and systems engineering. Dynetics, an OmniEarth investor and partner, has completed initial design of the satellites, which can accommodate 110-kilogram payloads in an area of approximately one-half a cubic meter, said Mike Graves, Dynetics space vehicles technology manager.

Dynetics plans to build OmniEarth spacecraft in its Huntsville, Alabama, Solutions Complex, a 200-square-meter facility that includes a production line for small satellites. 

“Our goal is to build these first 18 satellites and keep building satellites in this payload class,” said Steve Cook, Dynetics corporate development director. “We think this is an opportunity to produce the Model T of small satellites with a lot of capacity and capability at a very low price point.” 

Harris Corp. will be responsible for marketing space on each OmniEarth satellite for hosted payloads weighing as much as 80 kilograms and for payload integration. OmniEarth is still finalizing its per-kilogram pricing for a turnkey hosted payload service that includes launch and ground support. 

“This is a unique opportunity for hosted payloads to operate in a low Earth orbit constellation,” said Janet Nickloy, vice president of strategy and business development for national programs for Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Government Communication Systems. “Given the orbit, it would be ideal for remote sensing or weather missions.”

Harris is performing a similar role in marketing hosted payload space for the Iridium Next communications constellation. “We are looking forward to leveraging that knowledge base to bring this opportunity to the community and to help OmniEarth succeed,” Nickloy said. 

In designing the OmniEarth spacecraft, Dynetics drew on its experience developing NASA’s Fast, Affordable Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSat), a spacecraft launched in 2010 through the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program from a secondary payload adapter on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, the United Launch Alliance-supplied Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets the U.S. government uses to send large satellites into orbit.

Like FASTSat, OmniEarth satellites have been designed for launch from EELV secondary payload adapters. That design will enable the company to send into orbit as many as five spacecraft at a time from various rockets including Space Exploration Technology Corp.’s Falcon 9, Cook said.

A unique feature of the OmniEarth satellites will be their data storage and downlink capability. OmniEarth spacecraft will feature a communications downlink of more than 1.2 gigabytes per second and the ability to store 1 terabyte of data onboard, Graves said.

“It will be the first satellite in its class to support missions with this much data,” Graves said. “We will be collecting huge volumes of data to support continuous imaging as well as hosted payload operations.”

Until now, this type of data storage and downlink capability was not available for satellites of this size. It is only in the last couple of years that technology has advanced to the point where the space-based and ground-based segments could handle the volume of data produced by this type of constellation: an estimated 60 petabytes of scientific quality Earth observation data annually, Dyrud said. 

OmniEarth satellites also are designed with a high-performance propulsion system. “The constellation has critical positioning requirements to produce analytics grade data for people interested in change detection,” Graves said. “The propulsion system allows us to space these satellites very precisely throughout the orbit and maintain that position during a seven- to 10-year mission.” 

The idea for OmniEarth grew out of GEOScan, a project proposed in 2011 by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Draper Laboratory, L-1 Standards and Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory to equip Iridium Next mobile communications satellites with sensors to gather data on Earth’s atmosphere, climate, oceans, gravity and space weather. While seeking partners and investors for GEOScan, Dyrud and Jonathan Fentzke, who were Applied Physics Laboratory research scientists at the time, learned of widespread commercial demand for the type of Earth imagery that could be obtained by spacecraft in sun-synchronous low Earth orbit with sensors designed to capture high-resolution multispectral data. 

In 2012, Dyrud and Fentzke established InSpace Inc., a business incubator focused on products and services supported by mobile and space-based sensors. OmniEarth is backed by InSpace Inc. and Fieldstone Partners, the Houston-based financial advisory and investment firm that helped Iridium Communications finance its Aireon LLC spinoff, a joint venture backed by Iridium Communications and Canada’s air navigation authority Nav Canada to provide commercial aircraft with air traffic management data from payloads onboard Iridium Next satellites.