Planet unveils tasking and API for expanding SkySat fleet

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SAN FRANCISCO – Planet unveiled a cloud-based dashboard and API June 9 to allow customers to task the firm’s growing SkySat constellation.

It was the latest step in Planet’s campaign to enhance its SkySat product line. Over the last six months, the company has lowered the altitude of 15 SkySats in orbit to improve resolution and purchased rides for six additional SkySats on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to expand the constellation and improve revisit rates.

All the changes are designed to give government and commercial customers easy access to high-resolution imagery of locations at different times throughout the day and “a better sense of activity on the ground,” Jim Thomason, Planet vice president of imagery products, told SpaceNews.

Planet created “a new user interface that allows customers to task SkySat imagery in an efficient, automated way” because customers expressed a desire to have simpler and faster workflows,” the company said in a June 9 blog post. “Instead of spending precious time going back and forth with a human [representative], with the tasking dashboard and API, customers can autonomously submit, modify and cancel SkySat imagery requests. This enables visibility into the end-to-end experience, from order to fulfillment, so expectations can be managed with analysts and teams.”

Planet is well-known for capturing daily global imagery of Earth’s landmass with its Dove cubesat constellation. Many of Planet’s recent announcements have focused on the SkySat constellation the San Francisco company acquired in 2017 from Google.

SkySats were designed to offer 72-centimeter-per-pixel imagery. In response to demand for higher resolution, Planet lowered SkySat altitudes instead of redesigning satellites.

By lowering SkySats from an altitude of 500 kilometers to 450 kilometers, Planet improved the resolution of orthorectified imagery from 80 centimeters to 50 centimeters per pixel.

“This improvement enables customers to get a more precise view of changing conditions on the ground and adds more granular context to decision-making,” Planet said in the blog. “This is particularly important for commercial and government mapping use cases, where seeing smaller features like road surface markings are key.”

Mike Safyan, Planet vice president of launch, said the unconventional decision to lower SkySats stemmed from “a casual conversation during a meeting.” After the meeting, Planet engineers evaluated the impact on satellite lifetimes, propellant budgets and whether the move could be made without interrupting customer service.

“We don’t fully throw the aerospace textbook out the window, but we question a lot of accepted norms and practices to see if there are ways we can push the limits,” Safyan told SpaceNews.

Planet is preparing to expand the SkySat constellation with three SkySats scheduled to launch in June on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket alongside Starlink broadband satellites. Three additional SkySats are slated to share the ride to orbit with Starlink satellites about a month later. The six new SkySats are destined for mid-inclination orbits of 53 degrees.

With 21 SkySats in sun-synchronous and mid-inclination orbits, Planet expects to offer customers an average of seven daily opportunities to view locations on the ground and as many as 12 chances to obtain imagery of sites near 53 degrees latitude, according to the June 9 blog.

The June SkySat launch comes about six months after Planet and SpaceX signed the launch contract. Safyan attributes the speed to the fact that Planet has flown with SpaceX before, sending two SkySats on a dedicated rideshare mission in 2018.

“By dovetailing with their launch schedule, we readied the satellites, built a new rocket interface, designed a new commissioning schedule (due to the low orbit insertion of these unique launches) and delivered them for launch, all within six months,” according to the June 9 blog.