British investment firm Seraphim Space surveyed the Earth observation sector a few years ago, categorizing startups by sensor type.
Analysts determined that firms focused on electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar were advancing rapidly. Thermal imagery startups were not.
“Much to our surprise, it was the only sensor area that didn’t have any companies that had really progressed,” said Seraphim Space CEO Mark Boggett. “None of the companies had raised $10 million, let alone $100 million or $500 million like some of the other sensor areas.”
All that is changing. Startups focused on gathering thermal imagery via satellite are attracting investment, making acquisitions and winning contracts.
“It’s the next big thing in Earth observation,” said Anthony Baker, founder and CEO of Satellite Vu, a British Earth-observation startup. “No one has opened up the frontier on infrared.”
The new businesses focused on thermal imagery vary widely. What the founders share is the conviction that startups can provide the type of data only expensive government satellites supplied in the past.
Urgent Climate Action
Climate change is propelling much of the work. Venture capital firms are flocking to startups promising to track emissions or mitigate the impact of droughts, floods and forest fires.
“There’s an urgency to do something,” said Max Gulde, CEO and co-founder of German startup constellr. “Having a thermal picture of our planet at an actionable resolution and frequency is something which is missing in our understanding of climate change. Suddenly, there’s a push for that.”
Thermal imagery startups also are benefiting from recent declines in launch costs and technological advances.
“When I started founding the company, everyone was explaining to me
that the sensor we wanted to build was impossible,” said Thomas Grübler, CEO and co-founder of Munich-based OroraTech. “Now, it’s possible to shrink these big complex systems to smallsat and cubesat scale.”
What’s more, founders have identified government and commercial customers willing to pay for thermal imagery. Farmers are buying data that help them irrigate crops without wasting water. And fire departments are eager for access to satellite images that reduce the need for dangerous aerial flights over wildfires.
“It’s getting cheaper to build a specialist constellation that can perform certain tasks extremely well,” Gulde said. “Suddenly, you’re passing a threshold where people are willing to pay.”
The European Commission and the European Space Agency awarded contracts in June to constellr, OroraTech and Spanish startup Aistech Space.
The companies will supply thermal data to complement observations collected through the European Union Copernicus Earth-observation program.
When Albedo, a Colorado startup, was founded in 2020, the business plan focused on collecting 10-centimeter-resolution optical imagery from telescopes in very low Earth orbit. The founders soon realized they could obtain longwave infrared imagery from the same satellites without much additional cost.
“With the optical resolution, we can go from counting cars to identifying cars,” said Albedo founder and CEO Topher Haddad. “With thermal, you can see where a car probably just pulled out from a parking spot.”
Plus, the combination of optical and thermal imagery helps observers distinguish hot tubs from pools or trampolines, and backyard dwelling units from sheds.
Albedo has raised $58 million for refrigerator-size satellites scheduled to begin launching in 2025.
Work on Albedo’s infrared technology is being funded by the U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center under a $1.25 million contract. Under another $1.25 million contract, the Air Force is working with Albedo to look for ways to integrate Albedo imagery tasking with government systems.
Constellr is preparing to launch satellites in 2024 to gather thermal data for agricultural and environmental-monitoring applications.
Since the company was founded in 2020, constellr has raised about $14 million in venture capital and received an additional $14 million in grants.
Earlier this year, constellr acquired ScanWorld, a Belgian hyperspectral satellite imagery and analytics startup. With four shoebox-size satellites equipped with infrared sensors, constellr plans to gather daily imagery of agricultural fields around the world. By adding hyperspectral data, constellr can help farmers identify crop disease and manage fertilization schedules.
Under the five-year, $5 million Copernicus contract announced in June, constellr will provide thermal imagery to thousands of European institutions.
“We’ve been working with the European Space Agency for quite some time,” Gulde said. “Government support has been exceptional.”
Washington-based Hydrosat has raised $35.6 million to obtain thermal data from space. Supporting sustainable agriculture and helping customers reduce carbon emissions are the company’s primary goals.
Thermal data can pick up initial signs of drought two to four weeks before optical imagery shows a change in the color of vegetation, said Pieter Fossel, Hydrosat CEO and co-founder.
In June, Hydrosat acquired IrriWatch, a Netherlands company that delivers daily climate, crop, soil and irrigation updates to farmers.
“With IrriWatch, we can point to examples of how customers using
this product, based on thermal satellite insights, are able to reduce water use,” Fossel said. “In a lot of parts of the world, reducing water use means less electricity for pumping that water out of the ground, less electricity for operating that mechanized center pivot irrigation system. And if the irrigation system is being run on diesel fuel, that’s a direct, measurable carbon reduction for the farm in addition to improvements in production, the boosting of yields and the reduction of water.”
Hydrosat, founded in 2017, plans to launch its first two satellites next year to “deliver thermal infrared data as well as multispectral infrared data with higher resolution and greater revisit than what is available today,” Fossel said. “As a climate-oriented business, being able to have very tangible, measurable impacts is something that’s really important to us.”
After being told thermal imagery could not possibly be captured with cubesats, OroraTech’s founders raised $22.4 million to prove naysayers wrong. The German startup demonstrated its first uncooled thermal
infrared sensor on a Spire Global cubesat in 2022.
“People told me I wouldn’t see anything with this camera,” Grübler said. “We see fires at comparable quality to the Visible Infrared Imaging Sensor. We also see temperature quite well.”
OroraTech plans to collect global imagery every 30 minutes with a constellation of 96 satellites. The first eight satellites, built and operated by Spire Global under an agreement announced June 28, are slated to launch into a late-afternoon sun-synchronous orbit in 2024.
“We want to understand the trends in temperature, whether it’s for urban heat, industrial activity or forest fires,” Grübler said. “We want to be the first one to not only know where the forest fire is but the intensity of the forest fire and how it will behave.”
SatVu was founded in 2016 to gather high-resolution thermal imagery with 160-kilogram satellites. After raising 12.7 British pounds ($16 million) for satellites designed and manufactured with Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd., SatVu launched its first spacecraft in June.
A second satellite is slated to launch in 2024. SatVu’s eight-satellite constellation should be operating in a couple of years, Baker said.
To date, 66 companies have committed 128 million pounds to SatVu’s Early Access Programme. SatVu customers who sign up for the Early Access Programme can task SatVu’s airborne sensor to collect thermal imagery and obtain discounts on future satellite-tasking orders.
Defense and intelligence agencies may be SatVu’s first customers “because they already know what the data looks like,” Baker said. “They just don’t have a commercial data source they can share with allies.”
Another potential application is industrial activity monitoring.
“With infrared, you can see activity in a building,” Baker said. “If it’s dormant, it probably has no heat signature. If it’s an active factory, you can see which parts of the factory are operating.”
Earlier this year, Spain’s Satlantis acquired a majority stake in SuperSharp, a British university spin-out developing unfolding space telescopes to obtain thermal infrared imagery.
UK government agencies have provided initial funding for SuperSharp.
The next milestone is to get to a space-rated version of our telescope, which we plan to do by the end of this year,” said Marco Gomez-Jenkins, SuperSharp co-founder and CEO. “After that, we’re focusing on testing our telescope in space by early 2025.”
Satlantis, meanwhile, sells a variety of Earth observation payloads and manufactures satellites like Armenia’s Armsat-1, launched in 2022.
Once SuperSharp’s infrared telescope is flight-proven, the company will begin selling foldable telescopes for microwave-size cubesats and developing a larger version of the telescope for higher-resolution imagery.
One of the first startups to launch a thermal infrared imaging satellite was Aistech. The Spanish startup’s first cubesat equipped with a multi-spectral telescope to collect visible, near-infrared and thermal infrared
imagery reached orbit in 2022.
“Temperature is a unique data source that is key to understanding activity on the Earth’s surface and the changes that can occur,” Aistech founder Carles Franquesa told SpaceNews by email. “And for this, Aistech’s strategic plan involves deploying its space infrastructure to monitor these changes continuously and accurately.”
Aistech is preparing to launch 20 Guardian thermal-imagery satellites into a constellation, scheduled to be completed in 2027, with applications including water management, forestry, environmental monitoring and maritime security. Two additional Guardians are set to launch in the second quarter of 2024.
In June, Aistech was named a Copernicus Contribution Mission contract.
“Becoming part of the select group of companies that provide data generated by their own constellation of satellites through the Copernicus Contributing Missions programme marks an important milestone for the company, since a reference client such as ESA validates that both the technology developed and the data generated by Aistech satellites will provide a new vision of the changes that occur on the Earth’s surface and a value to society facing new challenges on the planet,” Franquesa said. “ESA, through this program, is carrying out important work in promoting and developing new applications based on geospatial intelligence, which will allow a new generation of companies to provide new solutions to specific problems; and this entails an exponential growth in the need for new satellite data, and therefore a great development of the space thermal imaging market in the coming years.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.