Planet Labs Buying BlackBridge and its RapidEye Constellation

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WASHINGTON — Planet Labs, seeking to accelerate its growth in the Earth observation market, announced July 15 that it is acquiring BlackBridge and its RapidEye constellation of satellites.

Planet Labs, headquartered in San Francisco, said it will acquire Berlin-based BlackBridge and its core assets, including the five-satellite RapidEye system of medium-resolution imaging satellites launched in 2008. The companies declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

In an interview, Planet Labs Chief Executive Will Marshall said that the acquisition was a strategic effort by the company to expand by tapping into the business partnerships BlackBridge has, as well as the company’s large archive of imagery.

“Our mission is imaging the entire world every day and providing universal access to that, and this accelerates that mission” Marshall said. “We think of it as a strategic and bold move to expand quickly into global markets as well as give us an archive of data.”

Ryan Johnson, chief executive of BlackBridge, said he discussed a deal Planet Labs after carrying out a series of studies for a proposed next-generation RapidEye system. “We talked to many vendors, and there wasn’t anything really special about anything we had seen,” he said.

While BlackBridge operates five small satellites built by Canada’s MDA Corp., each weighing 150 kilograms, Planet Labs has been developing a constellation of imaging satellites based on the cubesat form factor, weighing only a few kilograms each. Planet Labs has adopted an approach it calls “agile aerospace” where it rapidly develops new generations of these spacecraft in-house, incorporating new technologies at a faster rate than conventional satellite developers.

That agile aerospace approach, Johnson said, was a key factor in the decision to sell to Planet Labs. “We hadn’t seen anything like that in the market,” he said. “We think that provides a long-term competitive advantage for this combined entity in the future, and that’s the piece separates it from just about everything else in the market.”

BlackBridge will continue to operate separately from Planet Labs in the near term, although Marshall said he anticipates the two companies will more closely integrate their operations over time. The imagery sets from their separate spacecraft are similar in resolution and spectral bands, he said, except that the RapidEye satellites also collect data in the “red edge” band that is useful for agricultural applications.

Johnson said that the merged company will continue to operate the RapidEye satellites, which are in good health. “They’ll continue their full mission capability past 2021,” he said. “I believe they’ll last even longer.”

Planet Labs will also continue the development of its cubesat-class spacecraft, despite some launch setbacks. Eight Planet Labs spacecraft were on the Dragon spacecraft destroyed in the June 28 Falcon 9 launch failure. That came after 26 of the company’s satellites, on a Cygnus spacecraft, were destroyed in an Antares launch failure.

“I feel like we’ve been a little bit unlucky,” Marshall said. He added, though, that the company had 14 other satellites, delivered to the International Space Station on other cargo missions, that were being deployed there starting July 13. An additional 14 satellites will go to the station on a Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle cargo mission to launch in August.

While most of Planet Labs’ satellites have been launched from the ISS, the company eventually plans to deploy a fleet of spacecraft in more traditional sun-synchronous orbits. Marshall said the company has satellites manifested to fly to that orbit on five upcoming launches, most of which he said will take place in early 2016.

The acquisition comes as a number of other ventures announce plans for their own constellations of Earth imaging satellites. On June 16, Seattle-based BlackSky Global announced plans for a 60-satellite system, with the first launches planned for later this year. Three days later, Vancouver-based UrtheCast, which operates cameras on the ISS, said it will develop a constellation of 16 satellites to provide optical and radar imagery by the end of the decade.

Marshall said he was not concerned about the emergence of new competitors, and believed there was room in the market for many companies. “They cover different things, they have different applications, and they’re very complementary and mutually reinforcing,” he said. “I don’t see one as detracting from the other.”

He added that demand for satellite imagery remains strong. “Every customer we go to wants more and more imagery,” he said. “The market, in my mind, says there’s a dearth of supply.”