Porteous WSBW
Will Porteous of RRE Ventures said at the World Satellite Business Week conference in 2018 that the increasing amount of capital available for space companies has enabled investment he didn't think could have been financed a year ago. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

SAN FRANCISCO – A new study says companies can build, launch and operate constellations to gather global Earth imagery with a resolution of one meter for $300 million.

“You can build a state-of-the-art optical imaging capability with 12 satellites for $300 million,” said Will Porteous, general partner and chief operating officer for RRE Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm.

Porteous shared the results of an in-depth analysis of the Earth observation market performed by RRE Ventures and PJT Partners, a New York investment bank, Nov. 13 at the NewSpace Europe conference in Luxembourg. Porteous and James Murray, a partner in PJT Partners’ Strategic Advisory Group, also discussed the results with SpaceNews.

“For the long time, you had to be a technologically advanced sovereign entity to be in the optical imaging game,” Murray said. “Now, for the first time, you’re starting to see Moore’s law type economics applied to remote sensing.”

That’s happening because small satellites are becoming increasingly capable and they have more launch opportunities thanks to rideshare flights and small launch vehicles. In addition, companies are embracing open architectures that allow them to frequently update on-orbit software and hardware, Porteous said.

At the same time, demand for Earth imagery remains strong among customers, Porteous said.

“There are an awful lot of people who can’t get imagery they want on a timely basis,” Porteous said. “The revisit frequency of the major legacy assets is a big reason. There are not enough of them.”

The report concludes that satellite operators can take advantage of all these factors “to deliver improved margins, improved cash flow, and most importantly, do it without having to come back to the capital markets to fund the next generation of innovation,” Porteous said. “We’re ultimately building a better satellite company by shifting what was previously capital expenditure into things we can pay for out of operating cashflow and avoid endless equity and debt financing.”

Increased numbers of Earth observation satellites also will improve global monitoring, Murray said. People will be able to see economic and geopolitical activity as well as natural disasters and the day-to-day impact of climate change, he added.

Until recently, customers waited somewhere between a couple of days and a couple of weeks to get a specific image “depending on how much they were willing to pay,” Murray said. “We are going to a world where you can get an image delivered in a matter of hours.”

Porteous cautions anyone looking at the study to take into account the bias of its authors. Porteous is chairman of Spaceflight, the Seattle-based launch services company. RRE also invests in small satellite operator Spire Global, propulsion startup Accion and Ursa Space, a data analytics company.

PJT Partners, meanwhile, serves as an advisor to HawkEye 360, a firm operating satellites to pinpoint the origin of radio frequency signals.

“We are huge believers in the potential of small satellite architectures,” Porteous said. “We want that to be transparent to anybody seeing this research.”

The study drew heavily on Euroconsult data on satellite manufacturing, launch and ground segment costs.

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...