SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A Bay Area firm that makes low-cost satellites the size of shoe boxes is planning to increase their fleet of orbiting devices in order to take new images of the entire Earth every day.
Founded by a NASA scientist and two NASA engineers, San Francisco-based Planet Labs launched dozens of what it calls ‘Dove’ satellites from the International Space Station last February to increase the number of its fleet to 71. The company says it plans to have over 100 satellites in orbit by the end of the year.
Planet Labs is among a handful of startups developing the next generation of miniature satellites often referred to as “CubeSats,” which have cost and payload advantages over larger, traditional satellites.
Another company which has deployed a miniature satellite with plans for more is Mountain View-based Skybox, recently purchased by Google.
Like Skybox, Planet Labs hopes to market their images for commercial and humanitarian uses, while Google also says it hopes to improve Internet access and disaster relief using the devices.
The high-resolution images of Earth taken by the CubeSats can also help firefighters pinpoint ways to fight wildfires and help monitor effects of drought.
“The first thing you notice is the beauty,” Planet Labs CEO Will Marshall told the New York Times about his company’s photos. “Then you compare them to older images, and you see that something has changed — a river has been moved, there are new buildings, a reservoir has been built or drained.”
Planet Labs has taken the low-cost satellite approach to new levels by building devices that are limited in scope and are essentially disposable – and building a lot of them.
“Without an onboard propulsion system, the [satellites’ lives] will be fairly limited,” Planet Labs Chief Technology Officer Chris Boshuizen told Space News. “Our [business] model is based on our ability to mass-produce satellites. Instead of building a more sophisticated satellite with a 10-year lifetime, we chose to build a much simpler spacecraft with a design life of a couple of years and replenish the constellation.”
Planet Labs says it plans to make the data is gathers from what it calls its “flock” of Dove satellites available to developers to find new uses for the information.
Spokeswoman Shannon Spanhake told CNN the union of space researchers and the computer-data communities was bound to happen with more private companies getting into the space industry. “It’s a really exciting time as these two worlds are being brought together,” she said. “We’re definitely not the only ones doing this. It’s like this space renaissance is happening.”
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