Planet Labs Earns ITU’s Praise for Good Orbital Stewardship

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PRAGUE — With its motto of “launch early, launch often” and a stated preference for “testing [in orbit] over simulation” on the ground, Planet Labs might appear to be a poster child for global industry concerns about California startups hurling soon-to-be garbage into low Earth orbit.

That turns out not to be the case. San Francisco-based Planet Labs, while adopting a satellite production model fully in line with many small-satellite startups, was singled out for praise by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for the company’s regulatory rigor and its comportment in orbit.

Planet Labs began launching satellites in 2013 and before the latest “flock” released from the International Space Station in March had launched 99 satellites. As of March 1 only 20 of those were operational.

Twenty-six were lost in the October failure, at liftoff, of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket and its Cygnus cargo canister on the way to the International Space Station.

But even accounting for that exceptional event, Planet Labs placed into orbit 73 satellites in 23 months and watched all but 20 stop functioning.

Mike Safyan, Planet Labs’ director of launch and regulatory affairs, said the satellites are designed for a three-year operational life. Given their low orbit — he said for the satellites’ onboard cameras the best orbit is around 475 kilometers — they will fall into the atmosphere well before the 25-year guideline that has become a consensus goal in the industry.

Planet Labs' Dove 2 cubesat. Credit: Planet Labs
Planet Labs’ Dove 2 cubesat. Credit: Planet Labs

That is not true for all their satellites, however. The third and fourth Doves, launched together aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket in November 2013, were sent into a 700-kilometer orbit.

The company nonetheless presented to the ITU Symposium on Small Satellite Regulation here March 2-4 an analysis showing that the 5-kilogram satellites’ ballistic coefficient, a measure of their resistance to the residual oxygen in low Earth orbit, would bring them down about 25 years after retirement.

All the others, including 11 Dove satellites launched aboard a Dnepr in June 2014 to an altitude of 620 kilometers, will re-enter the atmosphere in less than half that time.

Safyan said the test-over-simulation has meant Planet Labs has completed 12 full satellite redesigns in the past three years. “We prefer testing in space rather than qualification on the ground,” he said — a statement that is unthinkable on the part of established satellite builders, especially in front of their insurance underwriters.

The Planet Labs satellites feature fold-out solar arrays that increase the surface area, which Safyan said gives them some ability, albeit limited, to perform collision avoidance maneuvers if necessary.

Planet Labs, which now has 100 employees, has raised $160 million from venture capital investors and plans to launch 100 or more satellites in the next 18 months, including those released from the ISS in early March.

With each camera taking a picture every second, Planet Labs will need 150 satellites in a single sun-synchronous orbit to image the entire Earth every day with a ground resolution of between 3 and 5 meters.

The company has 5-meter X- and S-band ground stations located in the United States, Britain, Germany, New Zealand and Australia.

Safyan said one of the benefits of the current small-satellite industry is its rapid reaction time. After the October failure of the Antares rocket, Planet Labs was able to book a flight with SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, with two satellites made ready within nine days between launch approval and delivery. They were launched Jan. 10.