Satellite Swarms Revolutionize Earth Imaging

Constellations of small satellites from two Silicon Valley startups promise to shake up the field of satellite imagery.

Planet Labs, using 3U Cubesats, plans to launch 28 mini-satellites next month. Today the company announced that it has raised $52 million in Series B financing.

Their design is based on 10-centimeter-square CubeSats. They use a “3U” — or three-unit — CubeSat design. The first two test satellites launched in April, Dove 1 and Dove 2, were followed in November by Dove 3 and Dove 4.

Planet Labs aims to provide frequent snapshots of the planet, allowing users to track changes—from traffic jams to deforestation—in close to real time. They will have three to five meter resolution.

Existing commercial satellites focus on taking high-resolution images, but it can take days or weeks to get a desired image. Currently much of Google Earth and Google Maps high resolution-imagery is provided by Digital Globe and Spot. Competitor GeoEye was merged into DigitalGlobe in 2013.

The 28 satellites that make up Planet Lab’s Flock 1 will ride inside Orbital Sciences’ robotic Cygnus vessel, which is slated to launch next month on a run to the space station. All 28 satellites will orbit at an altitude of 400 kilometers, powered by solar panels.

Planet Labs’ fleet should be able to take more frequent snapshots of the globe. The exact frequency has yet to be decided, but “it is going to be something the industry doesn’t have today,” says company cofounder Robbie Schingler, a former chief of staff for NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist.

The satellites will send their images to at least three ground stations—two in the U.S. and one in the U.K. The data will be processed and uploaded for use by customers almost immediately.

Planet Labs is not the only minisat startup.

UrtheCast, a Vancouver-based public company, will have publicly accessible cameras on the International Space Station. UrtheCast’s two cameras will stream live, in near real time. The cameras were delivered to the ISS on the Progress cargo spacecraft, on 29 November 2013.

Skybox Imaging aims to launch at least 24 satellites that will be able to take high-definition video of any spot on Earth and capture details just one meter across. Each of its satellites should cost about a 10th as much as a traditional ones, but are significantly larger than the Planet Labs 3U CubeSats.

Skybox’s 1-meter-resolution satellites can be built and launched into orbit for well under $50 million each, with a planned operating lifetime of four years. To date, Skybox has raised $91 million.

Skybox launched its first satellite, SkySat-1, Nov. 21 on a Russian Dnepr rocket, and began capturing its first images within hours of the payload door opening.

The first images taken by a minifridge-size satellite launched in late November were publicly released Dec. 11 by Skybox

Skybox plans to launch its third satellite in early 2014 aboard a Dnepr rocket. For later launches, Skybox reportedly has an agreement with Virgin Galactic to use their LauncherOne rocket.

Skybox hopes to have a constellation of 24 satellites imaging the globe, able to view any spot on Earth three or four times a day.

Three smartphone satellites rode to space aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket. NASA’s off-the-shelf PhoneSats run Android 2.3.3 and link at 437.425 MHz. STRaND-1, a “3U” CubeSat, was the first smartphone-operated satellite in space. The next PhoneSat, version 2.5, is scheduled to launch in February.

The EDSN mission will form a swarm of eight identical cubesats, each cross-linked to monitor space weather. It will be launched from Kauai, Hawaii in 2014. TJCubeSat, the first satellite designed and built by high school students, was launched by Orbital in November.

On November 19, an Orbital Sciences Minotaur I rocket placed 29 satellites and two attached payloads into orbit, breaking a record which had previously been held by a Russian Dnepr rocket since 2007.

Less than thirty hours later, a Dnepr carried UAE’s DubaiSat-2, an Earth observation satellite about the size of a compact car, and thirty one other satellites setting another new record for the most payloads. Among them was SkySat 1, the first of 24 satellites planned by Skybox. An NRO mission on Dec 6 launched 12 QubeSats, including TacSat-6, a 3U communications satellite.

A CubeSat with a 2048 by 1536 pixel camera (3.1 Megapixels) produces ground resolution of 20 to 35 meters. Most modern smartphones have triple that resolution. ARGUS-IS uses hundreds of cellphone cameras in a mosaic to auto-track moving objects in a wide area.

Pocket Qubes are the smallest and cheapest satellites. PocketQube satellites are 5cm cubes, developed by small spacecraft pioneer Bob Twiggs. PocketQube satellites have used Kickstarter crowdsourced funding. Four PocketQubes were launched aboard the Dnepr in November. Jonathan’s Space Report lists the 90 payloads launched just in the past month, most of them very small.

The CubeSat Bus utilizes the same connectors as the PC/104 bus, which is also used in many UAVs. PocketQubes may fit inside smaller UAVs.

Meanwhile, Inmarsat launched one the largest telecom satellites ever built last week. Inmarsat’s Global Xpress is the first of a new family of three satellites. Inmarsat-5, F-1 was successfully launched Dec 8 by ILS.

The $1.6 billion program is operated by the global satellite company based in Britain. The three satellites each have 89 Ka-band beams and consume 15kW of power.

Global Xpress, the “world’s first worldwide Ka-band mobile satellite system”, will unfurl its solar panels and antennas by the end of December and take up operations at 63 degrees east next year.

Two more Global Xpress craft will join it before the end of 2014. Inmarsat’s three principal sectors include maritime, land/mobile, and aviation.

In 2011 aviation made up only 14% of Inmarsat’s revenue but aviation has recently outstripped growth of the other sectors by a factor of over 5.

High Throughput Satellites (HTS) are bringing massive increases in bandwidth to orbit. Over twenty new HTS and Ka-band satellites are in construction, each carrying from 10 to 100 times the capacity of today’s conventional C– and Ku-Band systems.

Northern Sky Research (NSR) counts 17 high-throughput satellites, most of them using Ka-band, already in orbit, with another 30 satellites scheduled for launch by 2022.

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Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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