Pete Klupar, the former engineering director at the NASA Ames Research Center, often took his government-issued Blackberry from his pocket and asked his staff why spacecraft were so expensive and why they featured outdated technology. “My smartphone is better than your spacecraft,” Klupar would taunt.

Initially, Ames physicists Chris Boshuizen and Will Marshall paid little attention to those comments. Eventually, it dawned on them, however, that Klupar might be onto something. Perhaps smartphone technology could produce dramatically cheaper, more capable spacecraft. 

That was the thinking behind PhoneSat, a NASA project devised by Boshuizen and Marshall that packed commercial smartphones and extra batteries into three cubesats launched April 21, 2013, on Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket. By the time those phones proved their ability to function in orbit, Boshuizen, Marshall and a third NASA physicist, Robbie Schingler, had left the space agency to found Planet Labs, a private company based in San Francisco that carries forward the idea of using advanced, commercially available technology in spacecraft.

Planet Labs sent its Dove-1 cubesat into orbit on the same Antares flight that carried PhoneSat. Planet Labs’ Dove-2 cubesat was launched two days earlier on a Soyuz-2.1a rocket. On Nov. 21, Planet Labs sent aloft Dove-3 and Dove-4 on a Dnepr rocket.

Each of those missions was designed to pave the way for the company’s primary initiative. Planet Labs is preparing to establish the world’s largest Earth observation constellation with 28 cubesats designed to provide frequent, high-resolution global imagery. The cubesats destined for that constellation, known as Flock-1, arrived at the international space station Jan. 12 onboard Orbital’s Cygnus cargo mission. Flock-1 is scheduled to remain in storage until astronauts have time to launch the constellation through the space station’s Japanese module. 

Boshuizen, who holds a doctorate from the University of Sydney, spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner. 

What’s important about PhoneSat?

In terms of bang for the buck, you really can’t beat it. It shows that if you’ve been told, “Space is hard and space is expensive and space is the domain of governments,” it’s not really true. That’s exciting in terms of all the ways it might inspire people to do space stuff. 

How did PhoneSat lead to Planet Labs?

A phone only has one USB port. So it’s not like you can connect a lot of things to a phone very easily. The sweet spot for Planet Labs is finding technologies that are off the shelf and commercially available and assembling them into a satellite that is, from an engineering point of view, philosophically like a phone.

What made you leave NASA and start this venture?

Will and I had been trying for 10 years to find out why space was broken. When Will and I met in 2001, we should have had an orbiting Hilton and we didn’t. So we were frustrated. We explored budgetary avenues. We looked at policy. We looked at law. While we were at NASA, we looked at how to bootstrap technology. 

We built the lunar lander concept that became NASA Ames’ Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission and PhoneSat. We had a formula we thought we could replicate. We also understood our industry. So the opportunity to take technology for low-cost spacecraft and apply it in an industry that had very high infrastructure costs and barriers to entry seemed like the perfect disruptive opportunity. 

What’s unique about Planet Labs technology?

The density of capability. People previously assumed that cubesats were a bit of a toy and to do anything serious you needed to build a 100-kilogram or 1,000-kilogram spacecraft. So we told our team to fit the capability of a 100-kilogram satellite into a cubesat. We ultimately produced the densest, most capable satellite per unit volume ever built. It’s interesting how much stuff we manage to fit in the box. We are now on our ninth design revision and there’s still space in the box for more stuff.

What do you add with each revision?

It’s just like a phone. The original iPhone didn’t have GPS or 3G. It had a low-resolution touch screen. The newest one is half the weight, half the thickness with significantly more processing capability and extra battery life. We are using a common technological basis as smartphones and tablet computers in terms of growth in capacity. When new versions of our hardware come out, we get the upgrade for free. By anchoring ourselves in commercial supply chains instead of space-qualified legacy components, we can upgrade very, very quickly. 

Is Dove-2 still in orbit?

Yes. Dove-2 was version four of our spacecraft concept. We are now on version nine. We don’t really use it very much. It has about one-twentieth the downlink capacity of Dove-3. 

What’s your plan for Flock-1?

The satellites will be stowed for a period of time. NASA has made a commitment to get our satellites out of the hatch in a period of one to six months. They are aiming toward the short end, but you never know. 

Space station operates in a fairly low orbit. Will it limit the lifespan of your satellites?

Without an on-board propulsion system, their life will be fairly limited. Our [business] model is based on our ability to mass-produce satellites. Instead of building a more sophisticated satellite with a 10-year lifetime, we chose to build a much simpler spacecraft with a design life of a couple of years and replenish the constellation. 

One huge benefit of that approach is that by the time generation nine is reaching the end of life, we might be ready to fly generation 10 or 11. We think our per-unit cost is going to be significantly lower with the replenishment model than it would be with an expensive spacecraft in a high orbit. 

How often will you publish imagery?

We want to create a high-quality, quarterly base map. The satellites will fly over each location a little more frequently, but we are going to take the best images without clouds and with the best lighting and put them into a high-quality mosaic, which we’ll release every quarter. 

Will you release that publicly?

We have partners and customers who have signed up to get access to that data. They will get it first. We don’t have the strategy for more broad engagement yet. 

What comes after Flock-1?

We are working on enhancements to the spacecraft. The most obvious thing to do is top off the constellation with a new generation as spacecraft get near the end of their life. We can launch more to the space station, push them out in the original orbit and replenish the capacity with fresher, more agile, more capable spacecraft. If I were to guess, I would say that would be our obvious next move.

What else is unique about Planet Labs?

Engineers have fully functional satellites on their desks, which is a level of access to the technology that people in most companies don’t have. Also, we probably have built more spacecraft than we have employees. 

How many spacecraft have you built?

We’ve probably built about 60 full and partial satellites.  

How many employees?

About 40.

What sparked your interest in space?

My mum said as far as she can remember, I was interested in space. It never left me. I’ve spent every spare minute of my life trying to get there.

Is that why you came to America?

Yes. Absolutely. There’s no better place to meet like-minded, passionate individuals. Silicon Valley has lots of people who want to change the world in some special way. It also has a unique clustering of people who want to do space stuff. For me that’s extremely appealing.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...