SAN FRANCISCO — Planet Labs is seeking to revolutionize the Earth imaging industry with a constellation of 28 nanosatellites designed to offer frequent, low-cost images of any point on the globe. By providing high-resolution imagery quickly and inexpensively, the company’s founders hope to expand dramatically the customer base for Earth imagery and the use of that information to address humanitarian, environmental and business concerns.
“We are motivated to make information about the changing planet available to all people, especially the people who need it the most,” said Robbie Schingler, co-founder of the company previously known as Cosmogia Inc. “The imagery could be used by anyone who cares about changes in land use over time.”
After fending off media queries for months, executives of the San Francisco-based startup revealed plans June 26 to launch in December a constellation of 28 cubesats designed to provide imagery with a resolution of 3 to 5 meters. The constellation, known as Flock-1, is scheduled to fly on the first of eight Orbital Sciences Corp. cargo transportation flights to the international space station as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program.
In 2012, Planet Labs raised $13 million in venture capital funding for its Earth imaging constellation from investment firms including Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Capricorn Investment Group, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Founders Fund’s FF Angel, Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective and First Round Capital, company officials said.
Planet Labs’ founders, Schingler, William Marshall and Chris Boshuizen, are physicists and entrepreneurs who previously worked for NASA. Schingler served as the chief of staff in NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist from June 2010 to October 2011. Marshall and Boshuizen worked in the NASA Ames Research Center’s small spacecraft office where they helped to create PhoneSat, a project designed to test whether commercial smartphone components could be used in place of traditional space-qualified hardware.
Unlike PhoneSat, Planet Labs develops its own technology. However, company engineers draw on recent breakthroughs in commercial communications and computing technology. “We are trying to leverage the billions of dollars companies have spent miniaturizing electronics to advance satellite systems,” Marshall said.
While much of the hardware Planet Labs plans to fly in its cubesat constellation does not have a lengthy spaceflight heritage, company executives said the constellation gains its resilience from its size. By design, it includes more satellites than necessary to provide global coverage.
The large size of Flock-1 also eliminates the need to task satellite cameras to obtain imagery of specific regions to satisfy customer demand. In the course of routine operations, Planet Labs will collect frequent imagery of latitudes within 52 degrees of the equator, an area that covers the vast majority the world’s population and agricultural regions. Company officials declined to specify how frequently they plan to publish updated imagery.
Planet Labs officials are quick to point out that in spite of the large number of spacecraft they plan to launch, they are taking pains to ensure their cubesats do not aggravate the problem of space debris. “We factored this into our design from the first day,” said Marshall, who conducted orbital debris research while working at NASA. “Our constellation flies very low and far away from congested areas in space. We have the ability to move to avoid a potential conjunction. And the satellites will disintegrate into the atmosphere in singles of years to avoid becoming space debris.”
Flock-1 satellites are scheduled to occupy a 400-kilometer, circular orbit at an inclination of 52 degrees relative to the equator. That location allows on-board cameras to obtain higher-resolution imagery and to transmit more data than would be possible if the miniature spacecraft operated in higher orbits, Schingler said.
Planet Labs currently has 33 full-time employees. The staff is comprised primarily of engineers who previously worked at NASA, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.,, United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., Schingler said.
Planet Labs in April launched its two first satellites, triple cubesats called Dove-1 and Dove-2, on technology demonstrations. Dove-2 launched April 19 on a Soyuz-2.1a rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It rode into orbit as a secondary payload on the Bion-M1 biological experiment satellite. On April 21, Bion-M1 deployed the Dove-2 cubesat.
Also on April 21, Dove-1 traveled on the maiden flight of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket. Planet Labs contracted for the launch of Dove-1 and Dove-2 with Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. Spaceflight integrated the payloads with Isipod cubesat deployers built by the Dutch firm Innovative Solutions in Space. Spaceflight worked with its partner Innovative Space Logistics BV of Delft, Netherlands, to launch Dove-2 on a Soyuz rocket, said Jason Andrews, Spaceflight president and chief executive.
Dove-1 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after a six-day mission due to the low orbit of the Antares test flight. In spite of its short duration, company officials were pleased with the technology demonstration, Schingler said. The satellites “obtained beautiful imagery with beautiful resolution straight out of the box,” Marshall added.
For example, Dove-1 obtained imagery of a forest in Portland, Ore., that was detailed enough to show the canopy of individual trees. When Planet Labs officials compared it with Google Earth imagery, they saw an area where logging had occurred.
Deforestation is one potential application for Planet Labs imagery. Customer interest will determine additional applications. The target audience extends far beyond “large companies and global information system experts” and includes individual Kenyan farmers trying to decide when to water or apply nutrients to their soil, Schingler said.
The image of Earth taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 known as the Blue Marble hangs in a prominent place in Planet Labs’ office. The company’s founders said the Earth imagery they intend to provide is designed to spur global action just as the Blue Marble image prompted greater global awareness. “By making regular imaging of the planet universally accessible, we will enable people to make better decisions,” Marshall said.
In addition to Flock-1, Planet Labs is preparing to launch two additional technology demonstration missions. In September 2012, the company obtained a license from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to operate commercial remote-sensing satellites Dove-3 and Dove-4. The two satellites, scheduled to launch later this year aboard a Russian-supplied Dnepr rocket, are designed to test technology and demonstration mission concepts.