This space for rent? Private satellites raise profits, privacy concerns

Disposable mini-satellites being dropped into orbit aim to provide less expensive, almost real-time imagery

Planet Labs' first two shoebox-size satellites are dropped from the International Space Station.

Years ago, William Marshall, a former NASA scientist, had an idea to get more affordable satellite images into the hands of farmers, miners and disaster-relief groups. It was a novel challenge. Typical satellites can cost up to $1 billion, and buying the photos they take can be pricey. To realize his dream, Marshall would have to build a flock of tiny, cheap satellites made from off-the-shelf parts.

Today Marshall’s startup, Planet Labs (founded by him and two others), has more than two dozen pint-size orbiters in space. As of Friday, 10 of them had been pushed out the door of the International Space Station while the rest sat aboard waiting to be released over the next several days.

The effort is the most ambitious yet to build a business on the back of so-called nano-satellites — miniature satellites that, until now, have been largely the domain of researchers. It’s also a sign of the coming of age of such shoebox-size orbiters, which are becoming an increasingly important tool in space.

Satellite imaging raises inevitable concerns about privacy. No one wants to be spied on when he’s outside. While the concern is legitimate, it’s one that some experts believe can’t be reversed.

“The privacy ship has sailed,” Gary Hudson, president of the Space Studies Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes space research and education, wrote in an email. “No one can block access to the ground from orbit. And the genie is out of the bottle with respect to capabilities such as reconnaissance, signals intelligence, etc. It can’t be put back in.”

U.S. spy satellites and the private imaging companies they contract with are already watching from the sky. How much they see is classified, although many suspect their technology is good enough to see car license-plate numbers.

A sample image from a Planet Labs mini-satellite over Canada.
Planet Labs

Planet Labs’ cameras, on the other hand, aren’t powerful enough to see humans, Marshall said, and instead pick up only bigger objects such as trees, trucks and houses.

“We can’t see a person in their backyard bathing,” Marshall said.

The decision not to use higher-resolution optics was as much practical as dictated by privacy concerns, he said. Using more powerful cameras would have made photographing broad swaths of territory slow going.

“The more you zoom in, the less area you cover,” Marshall said.

Planet Labs’ satellites, called “doves,” will snap a constant stream of photos of the Earth’s surface as they orbit 250 miles above. The goal is to sell those images to businesses, scientists and humanitarian groups. 

The sky's the limit?

It’s not a new idea. Commercial satellite operators have marketed bird’s eye views of the planet for years.

What Planet Labs is hoping to do is offer nearly real-time snapshots of the ground. The incumbents, in contrast, sell images that can be months or even years old.

Farmers would be able to check the health of their crops in the field. Oil companies would be able to monitor their far-flung operations without having to go to the trouble of visiting them all in person. Investors could get a leg up on the market by tracking when ships leave port, the number of trucks leaving a mine and whether wheat harvests appear strong or weak. Online mapping services could provide users with newer images that show the latest construction instead of misleadingly vacant fields.

Marshall said he is especially enthusiastic about the possibilities for humanitarian groups and researchers. By looking at recent overhead imagery, they could more easily track deforestation and illegal fishing, for example. Aid groups trying to save lives after tsunamis, earthquakes and floods could use them to plan their relief operations, he said. Too often, aerial imagery used to compare the before and after of a city leveled by a disaster is unhelpful because the historical satellite images are outdated.

Whether the photos that Planet Labs plans to sell will be minutes, hours or days old is unclear. Marshall declined to say exactly. Nor would he disclose how much his satellites cost to build — the company makes them in-house — or what it pays to launch them into space (the latest flock hitched a ride to the space station on a rocket owned by Orbital Sciences, a private space cargo company). All he would say is the costs are “orders of magnitude” less than all previous commercial Earth-imaging satellites.

In December, Planet Labs received $52 million in funding from venture capitalists on top of a previous round of $13 million. The company, based in San Francisco, has 50 employees. Marshall, a Brit, has extensive experience with space. He worked on two of NASA’s unmanned lunar missions along with an experimental project to put three satellites cobbled together from smartphones into orbit.

For all their promise, Planet Labs’ satellites look unremarkable. They’re about the size of a loaf of bread and weigh around 9 pounds — small enough to be picked up with one hand. Besides a camera lens, they contain mostly circuit boards. Four test satellites, sent up on different rockets, are already in orbit.

Because Planet Labs’ satellites are in a low orbit, their life expectancy is only about a year. Frequent replacements will be necessary.

The advent of tiny satellites is fueling a boomlet in the aerospace industry. Companies are lining up to manufacture pint-size orbiters to manage missions and carry launch payloads. Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space tourism startup, plans to shuttle small satellites into orbit for customers on reusable spacecraft, for example. 

Space invaders

Planet Labs isn’t the only aspirant in satellite imagery. Skybox Imaging, another startup, is planning to launch a fleet of two dozen orbiters, although they will be bigger — around 200 pounds — and equipped with cameras that take higher-resolution pictures than Planet Labs’, plus some video.

DigitalGlobe, a longtime supplier of satellite imagery to government agencies and online mapping services such as Google’s, dismissed the idea that tiny satellites used by other companies would undermine its business. DigitalGlobe has five large satellites with high-resolution cameras — they can pick up objects smaller than 3 feet, a spokesman said — compared with 9 to 15 feet from Planet Labs. 

A sample image from Planet Labs' satellite over the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland.
Planet Labs

“Competitors are unable to match the native resolution and spectral diversity of our imagery, and the products we deliver are the gold standard for accuracy, currency, completeness, and consistency,” Turner Brinton, a DigitalGlobe spokesman, said in a statement. “DigitalGlobe’s imagery is twice as accurate as that of other commercial providers, which enables our customers to make critical decisions with an information advantage.”

Mini-satellites are expected to become increasingly common as costs continue to drop and technology continues to improve. Their capabilities will also likely grow to include duties such as telecommunications and weather observation. Mini-satellites also open the door to a greater number of countries, companies and researchers getting access to space. But the small size of the orbiters comes with trade-offs. Large cameras for taking detailed imagery can’t fit on board. Meanwhile, small antennas limit the speed at which data can be transmitted back to Earth.

In general, Hudson said he prefers larger spacecraft that can carry multiple payloads. Sharing a single control system and power source is more efficient. But he understands that low costs and more frequent launch opportunities make small orbiters attractive, at least for now.

“Fix those issues, and spacecraft need not be so small,” he said.

For his part, Marshall is convinced his company is on the right track and that the demand for cheaper, more recent satellite imagery is big.

“The space sector is ripe for revolution,” he said. “In a way, it’s very stagnant and high inertia in its current way of business.”

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