Joe Rothenberg, the former engineering director for Terra Bella, the Earth-imaging company purchased by Google. Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Peter Wegner, Spaceflight Industries chief technology officer, is convinced the killer app for small satellites is imagery.

With its Blacksky Global constellation, Spaceflight intends to offer people the ability to order a high-resolution image of any spot on the planet delivered to their iPhones in less than 90 minutes for under $100, Wegner said.

“If you had a cabin in the woods and a big storm rolls through, would you buy a picture from me to see if the roof has collapsed?” Wegner asked March 7 during a Satellite 2017 panel. Eventually, people will be.

Joe Rothenberg isn’t sure people will. Rothenberg, the former engineering director for Terra Bella, the Earth-imaging company purchased by Google, said during a separate panel that the killer app might require more than imagery. Customers might want help drawing information from an image like the way Terra Bella used change-detection algorithms to measure the volume of oil tanks.

Those change-detection algorithms are necessary because it would be too expensive to hire people to analyze Earth imagery for commercial applications, Rothenberg told SpaceNews.

For commercial applications, companies will need to reduce costs in other areas as well. Launch costs need to continue to fall so companies can build constellations large enough to provide frequently updated imagery with a resolution of one meter or less, Rothenberg said.

The industry also needs investors who are patient enough for the commercial Earth-imagery market to develop. “The commercial investment community is used to five-year fund cycles,” Rothenberg said.

Those timelines can be difficult to achieve with space programs. Things change. Launches fail. Nevertheless, the team working on an Earth-imaging project needs to be supported to see the effort through, Rothenberg said.

“There are challenges to growing that market until people say, “This app is valuable, I’m willing to pay for it,” Rothenberg said.  “Enough people have to be willing to pay for it to sustain a company.”


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...