Planet in the News: S.F. is at the center of a booming business in tiny satellites

San Francisco Chronicle
By Benny Evangelista
September 26, 2016

Near­ly six decades after Russia’s tiny Sput­nik 1 made satel­lite his­to­ry, the Bay Area has become a launch­pad for a new type of space race.

As many as a dozen local ven­tures, with names like Plan­et, SpaceVR and Ter­ra Bel­la, are build­ing their own con­stel­la­tions of nanosatel­lites to send into orbit around the Earth.

Also known as Cube­Sats, these satel­lites can be as small as a loaf of bread but pow­er­ful enough to beam back images or data that can be used by farm­ers, res­cue work­ers, weath­er fore­cast­ers and even hedge fund managers.

What I love about this sec­tor is that five years ago, almost no one was active­ly invest­ing in it — it was just a dead zone,” said ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Steve Jurvet­son, a part­ner with Drap­er Fish­er Jurvet­son and an investor in Plan­et and SpaceX. Now, as the sec­tor takes flight, he believes small satel­lites will even­tu­al­ly have an eco­nom­ic impact com­pa­ra­ble to the tran­si­tion from “main­frame to mobile computers.”

The same mobile phone tech­nolo­gies, such as pro­cess­ing chips and sen­sors, that have upend­ed the con­sumer world have also made it cheap­er and quick­er to build Cube­Sats. So it’s less finan­cial­ly cat­a­stroph­ic if the rock­ets that launch them into space fail. (The Face­book-backed satel­lite that blew up this month at a prelaunch SpaceX rock­et test in Cape Canaver­al was the size of a truck and weighed about six tons.)

Pho­to: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

An infrared image tak­en by a Plan­et satel­lite shows Oak­land Inter­na­tion­al Air­port and the island of Alameda.

Over the next two years, we’re going to see an explo­sion of data com­ing from these com­pa­nies,” said Sean Casey, founder of the Sil­i­con Val­ley Space Center.

While tra­di­tion­al satel­lites can cost up to $1 bil­lion, Cube­Sats use more off-the-shelf com­po­nents and can be built for less than $100,000, accord­ing to Dick Rock­et, CEO of New­Space Glob­al, a Cape Canaver­al space indus­try ana­lyt­ics firm.

I don’t real­ly think of us as a space com­pa­ny,” said Will Mar­shall, CEO of San Francisco’s Plan­et, which he co-found­ed in 2010. “I think of us as a data and soft­ware com­pa­ny. We hap­pen to have some assets in space that enable that.”

Mar­shall likes to say that his com­pa­ny has made San Fran­cis­co the world leader in satel­lite man­u­fac­tur­ing. Plan­et already has 60 dig­i­tal imag­ing satel­lites in orbit, includ­ing eight deployed ear­li­er this month from the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. Employ­ees in its South of Mar­ket head­quar­ters are busy assem­bling 100 more satel­lites that the com­pa­ny wants to launch with­in the next year. The two-sto­ry build­ing, a 1940s-era ware­house, also has a test­ing cham­ber that sim­u­lates the cold, harsh con­di­tions of space, and a “mis­sion con­trol” sec­tion next to an employ­ee work break area.

Plan­et has “launched more than most nation states,” said Mic­ah Wal­ter-Range, direc­tor of research analy­sis for the Space Foun­da­tion, a Col­orado com­mer­cial space edu­ca­tion­al group.

The larg­er tra­di­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites, which orbit far­ther from the Earth than Planet’s small satel­lites, still make up the bulk of the industry’s rev­enue. But in the past three years, satel­lite launch­es have increased from about 100 to 150 per year to 200 to 300 a year, and “that’s almost entire­ly due to nanosatel­lites,” Wal­ter-Range said.

In a report released this month, New­Space Glob­al said 72 small satel­lites have been launched this year, with anoth­er 174 planned before year’s end. Investors have poured $4.52 bil­lion into the small-satel­lite mar­ket since 2011.

Planet’s satel­lites, named Doves, don’t have their own propul­sion sys­tem and can’t sus­tain their orbit over the long haul. Plan­et expects each to fall back into the Earth’s atmos­phere and burn up after two or three years in orbit. The com­pa­ny plans for about a 20 per­cent fail­ure rate.


Pho­to: Michael Macor, The Chronicle. 

A tele­scope is inside a satel­lite that gath­ers images of Earth sits in the San Fran­cis­co head­quar­ters of Plan­et, which cre­ates shoe-box size satellites.


We think of them like dis­pos­able assets,” Mar­shall said. “If one doesn’t work, OK.”

The Doves are 4‑by-12-inch rec­tan­gu­lar box­es with solar pan­el wings. (By com­par­i­son, the ball-shaped Sput­nik 1 was 22 inch­es in diam­e­ter.) They are packed with high-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras that can pick out vehi­cles, ves­sels and trees from as high as 295 miles above Earth.

Cube­Sats are small enough that “you could put them all in a sin­gle launch vehi­cle to get them up there because they’re so tiny,” Wal­ter-Range said.

But rock­et launch fail­ures have tak­en their toll. Plan­et lost 28 satel­lites in an Octo­ber 2014 explo­sion of an Antares rock­et lift­ing off from Vir­ginia, and lost eight more in a June 2015 explo­sion of a SpaceX rock­et from Cape Canaveral.

Dick Rock­et of New­Space Glob­al said small-satel­lite com­pa­nies can’t turn a prof­it until the com­mer­cial space indus­try can improve the rock­ets’ reliability.

Once we begin to have launch­es at rates that are sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than has ever been done, then we’ll see these small-satel­lite ven­tures do the things that are tru­ly trans­for­ma­tive, like pre­dict­ing the weath­er, pro­vid­ing high-def­i­n­i­tion images from space, expand­ing our under­stand­ing of nature,” he said.

Mar­shall said Plan­et can make a prof­it if it can meet its goal of hav­ing 150 nanosatel­lites con­stant­ly in orbit, pro­vid­ing a dai­ly snap­shot of “every sin­gle inch of the Earth.” Instead of images every few weeks or months pro­vid­ed by tra­di­tion­al satel­lites, fre­quent images make even sub­tle changes on the ground more vis­i­ble, and the results are telling, he said.

For exam­ple, Planet’s images were used by the Ama­zon Con­ser­va­tion Asso­ci­a­tion to uncov­er an ille­gal gold min­ing oper­a­tion in Peru ear­li­er this year, while res­cuers in Nepal were alert­ed to remote vil­lages cov­ered in mud­slides after the April 2015 earth­quake. The satel­lites have also cap­tured detailed images of the dev­as­ta­tion caused by recent Cal­i­for­nia for­est fires, and the spread of Syr­i­an refugee camps.

We can pick up any issues not vis­i­ble with the naked eye, big or small,” said Mari­na Barnes, vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing for Farm­ers Edge, a Cana­di­an com­pa­ny that sells crop-man­age­ment tech­nol­o­gy to farm­ers. Since the res­o­lu­tion can detect changes in about a 16-foot sec­tion of land, the satel­lites can help farm­ers see if a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of crops are over-watered or under-fer­til­ized, she said.

Farm­ers Edge buys Planet’s images because they pro­vide more fre­quent updates than old­er satel­lites, which might miss weeks worth of changes if the farmer’s fields are cov­ered with clouds dur­ing a fly-over, Barnes said.

Some big names have embraced the small satel­lites. Google sub­sidiary Ter­ra Bel­la, once named Sky­box Imag­ing, had four small satel­lites launched into orbit this month, accord­ing to the indus­try pub­li­ca­tion Space­News.

Aero­space giant Lock­heed Mar­tin, which built its first com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite in 1958, is exper­i­ment­ing with Cube­Sats for Earth sci­ence mis­sions and for gov­ern­ment cus­tomers, said Stephen Frick, a for­mer NASA astro­naut who is now direc­tor of Lockheed’s Space Sys­tems Advanced Tech­nol­o­gy Cen­ter in Palo Alto. Lock­heed is also research­ing how NASA’s deep-space Ori­on mis­sions could take Cube­Sats “to the moon or far­ther,” he said.

Oth­er com­pa­nies are build­ing just one satel­lite — like San Francisco’s SpaceVR, which aims to put a vir­tu­al real­i­ty satel­lite into orbit in 2017.

Spire Glob­al, anoth­er San Fran­cis­co com­pa­ny, has two types of satel­lites, one used for ship track­ing and the oth­er for pre­cise weath­er mea­sure­ments of the atmos­phere; so far the com­pa­ny has launched 17.

Spokesman Nick Allain said his com­pa­ny, which makes its satel­lites in the Unit­ed King­dom, con­sid­ers itself a data-col­lec­tion firm, not a space com­pa­ny. Cube­Sats, he said, will “nev­er ful­ly replace tra­di­tion­al satellites.”

Some instru­ments are sim­ply too large to fit into a Cube­Sat,” Allain said. “Where satel­lites the size of Spire’s excel is in pas­sive­ly cap­tur­ing radio sig­nals using deploy­able anten­nas, in cap­tur­ing data in very high speed about the entire plan­et at once and in hav­ing high sys­tem reliability.”

One fail­ure,” he added, “doesn’t take down the system.”


Source: SF Chron­i­cle

Ben­ny Evan­ge­lista is a San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: bevangelista@​sfchronicle.​com Twit­ter: @ChronicleBenny