Hera Systems Enters Crowded Smallsat Imaging Field


HOUSTON — A California company announced plans Nov. 19 to develop a constellation of small remote sensing satellites, entering a field that has become increasingly crowded in the last year.

Hera Systems of San Jose, California, is planning to launch nine cubesat-class spacecraft in late 2016 that will be able to provide images at resolutions of up to one meter over several spectral bands, as well as video. That initial constellation could grow in time to up to 48 satellites, allowing the company to take images of the same location several times a day.

Hera Systems recently closed an initial Series A funding round that Bobby Machinski, chief executive of the company, said in a Nov. 17 interview was worth several million dollars. That money is being used to build up the company’s team and refine the design of the spacecraft, which passed a preliminary design review in late October.

The funding round was led by Firsthand Technology Venture Fund of San Jose, a venture capital firm that has investments in a variety of technology companies. A filing the fund made with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Nov. 9 listed, among its holdings, preferred stock in Hera Systems valued at $2 million.

Machinski said Hera Systems is already working on a larger Series B funding round, which he estimates will be worth $45 million to $53 million. That round will be used to complete development and launch of the initial nine-satellite constellation, and could close as soon as January.

The company’s original plans two years ago called for spacecraft weighing 50 to 60 kilograms. “We looked at that and said, ‘We have to do better,’” Machinski said. “We wanted to try and get this into a small form factor because launch becomes more of a bottleneck the larger the spacecraft is.”

Hera Systems’s current design is based on a 12-unit cubesat, approximately 24 by 24 by 36 centimeters in size. That is an emerging standard size for larger cubesat-class spacecraft, and allows the use of standardized deployers that can be flown as secondary payloads on launches. He said the company will launch its satellites as secondary payloads in October and November 2016 but  did not provide details on any specific launch arrangements.

Fitting a camera system capable of taking meter-class images and video in that small form factor involves the use of some proprietary technology. “We do have some ‘secret sauce’ for that,” Machinski said. “We’ve figured out a really unique and robust way of capturing that imagery in such a small form factor.”

Hera Systems is the latest entrant into what has become a crowded field of companies planning constellations of small Earth imaging satellites. Planet Labs has launched dozens of three-unit cubesats to provide medium-resolution imagery, and plans to launch up to 250 more in 2016 alone. Skybox Imaging, acquired by Google in 2014, has two small satellites in orbit and plans to launch a constellation of 12 more by early 2017. Aquila Space, BlackSky Global and UrtheCast are among other companies that have announced plans to deploy remote sensing constellations in the next several years.

Machinski said growing demand for imagery, particularly that which updated on a daily or even hourly basis, could support his company and many others. “We think that the market is very, very strong,” he said. “We think it supports a lot of growth in what we’re all doing.”

What sets Hera Systems apart, he argued, was the feature set of his company’s satellites and their low cost. “We’re jam-packing in as many features as we can,” he said. “The reduction in cost of developing the satellite constellation is something we can pass on in pricing to the customer.”

Machinski said the company is focusing on government customers, both in the U.S. and other nations, as well as businesses in some markets, like agriculture. He did not name any specific customers, but did confirm they have had discussions with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which released a new commercial imagery strategy in October that supports working with companies developing smallsat imaging constellations.

In addition to funding the completion of the company’s initial satellite constellation, the upcoming Series B round will support initial work on a second-generation satellite. That will be a larger spacecraft, weighing between 150 and 300 kilograms, with advanced capabilities Machinski declined to disclose.

Machinski said that while the company’s schedule appears aggressive, the firm has been working on the system for a couple of years. “We’ve kept quiet until we were 100-percent sure” their system could work, he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t be ready for launch next year.”