A small start-up based in San Francisco is making the final preparations for the launch of a record number of satellites next month, after two test devices successfully reached orbit last week.

Planet Labs has developed imaging satellites, which are not much bigger than a shoebox, that will circle the earth every few days and beam back high-resolution photographs much more frequently than traditional orbiting cameras.

It is one of the more ambitious examples of how electronics originally developed for smartphones are being put to new uses by Silicon Valley’s growing hardware start-up community, as the cost of sophisticated components falls.

Planet Labs’ founders, a group of former Nasa scientists, hope the stream of photos will be used for both humanitarian and commercial purposes.

“We started to do this because we wanted to figure out how to steward the planet,” says Will Marshall, co-founder and chief executive of Planet Labs.

“We are taking images of the whole earth so we can count every tree on the planet. It’s not that we’ll find a hole in the Amazon a month after the trees are being cut down – we can see people logging the trees and call the Brazilian government.”

Other potential uses for Planet Labs’ photos include monitoring disasters such as floods and fires, or in consumer mapping services.

The quality of the images is similar to a person peering out of the window of a commercial airline flight and the resolution is 10 times higher than pictures produced by Nasa’s Landsat programme, first launched in 1972 and now widely used for earth imaging.

Planet Labs’ satellites are also much smaller than Nasa’s thanks to the miniaturisation achieved in developing componentry for smartphones, which means that the majority of the “payload” – or carrying capacity – can be given over to the camera and telescope. By lowering the cost of each unit, Planet Labs can launch several satellites at once, reducing the impact should any one satellite fail.

By the end of this year, Planet Labs will have developed and launched 32 satellites since the company was founded in 2010. Its third launch, of Dove 3 and Dove 4, from Yasny, Russia, successfully went into orbit last week.

After the latest software is tested in those Dove units, its next mission is Flock 1, a “constellation” of 28 satellites launching in December. It will be the largest group of earth-imaging satellites ever launched.

“We’ve built more satellites than we have employees,” Mr Marshall says.

Planet Labs’ modest, unremarkable office block in San Francisco’s Soma district includes a clean room for assembling the units and machines for testing whether they can withstand the impacts and pressures of launch. Temperature tests were run on the devices in a domestic freezer in the office kitchen.

Even though Planet Labs must adhere to strict regulations, it has achieved rapid progress by assembling off-the-shelf electronics into advanced satellites, using what its founders call “agile aerospace” – a reference to the iterative “agile” development framework beloved of software engineers.

“We are treating our satellites like the rest of Silicon Valley treats their software: release early and often,” Mr Marshall says. “We test it, we launch it, then we iterate the capability.”

As well as Nasa, many of Planet Labs’ employees formerly worked at consumer internet companies such as Google and Facebook, and so are accustomed to a much faster pace of working than is usually possible in the government-funded space industry.

“In the space sector, there are a lot of protocols for how you put things into space,” such as whether the technology has been into orbit before, Mr Marshall says. “We have abandoned a lot of those and the satellites have still worked very well. It turns out that consumer electronics is a lot more space-worthy than you might initially guess.”

Mr Marshall previously worked at Nasa’s Ames research centre in Silicon Valley. There, he helped to develop the PhoneSat, using a “commercial grade” Android smartphone as the basis for a simple satellite costing just $3,500. During that time, when at a rocket launch in the desert, Mr Marshall met Steve Jurvetson, a managing director at DFJ, the venture group that also backs Elon Musk’s SpaceX. DFJ went on to lead Planet Labs’ $13m funding round.

Other Silicon Valley start-ups are also looking to the heavens. Just a few blocks away from Planet Labs’ offices is NanoSatisfi, which last week saw its two “cubesats” released into orbit from the International Space Station.

Once testing is complete, NanoSatisfi will rent out time on the toaster-sized satellites, which are based on the Arduino electronics platform, to science students and other private enthusiasts for a few hundred dollars each.

NanoSatisfi’s devices, which were funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $106,330, will function for about 16 weeks before they burn up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Get alerts on San Francisco when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article