Planet Labs, a startup company founded by NASA engineers who worked on the PhoneSat project, has announced plans to launch a flock of 28 nanosatellites for remote sensing.
Flock 1 will be launched as a secondary payload on an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares mission headed for the International Space Station in 2014. Planet Labs (formerly known as Cosmogia) successfully launched two test satellites, Dove-1 and Dove-2, on an Antares test flight and a Soyuz mission in April 2013.
Like NASA’s PhoneSats, Planet Labs’ Dove satellites are built from low-cost non-traditional aerospace parts. Operating a large number of very-low-cost satellites will allow Planet Labs to provide remote-sensing data with unique coverage and cadence. Instead of the traditional model of point-and-shoot imaging with targets chosen by high-paying customers, Planet Labs will have an always-on imaging platform with broad coverage and frequently updated imagery. The CubeSat satellites will be placed into 400-kilometer circular orbits, where they will provide 3-5 meter resolution imaging of the Earth from the equator to 52 degrees (approximately the latitude of London, England or the Falkland Islands).
The scale of the imaging does not compromise privacy but allows monitoring of deforestation, agricultural yields, and natural disasters. The company intends to use an open-data model so that everyone from ecologists to citizen journalists will be able to track changes on the planet.
Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures said, “Planet Labs will create an entirely new data set, with both humanitarian and commercial value. We’ve become used to having imagery of the entire Earth. What we haven’t yet understood is how transformative it will be when that imagery is regularly and frequently updated.”
O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is one of several venture-capital firms that recently invested $13 million in Planet Labs.
Another investor is Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which also invested in Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Steve Jurvetson, managing director of DFJ said, “We’re seeing unprecedented innovation in the space industry, starting with SpaceX lowering the cost of access, and now with Planet Labs revolutionizing the satellite segment.” Jurvetson also serves on Planet Labs’ board of directors.