Planet Labs. Opensourcing Earth Images

Everyone loves to watch pictures of the Earth from Space. In particular, many small companies and associations would like to get these pictures for cheap prices but they cannot afford to allocate a budget for obtaining them. Planet Labs will make these dreams true from 2014 launching its own fleet of low-cost but high resolution imaging satellites. As the company points out, everyone from ecologists to citizen journalists will be able to track frequent changes to any place on the planet — a frequency and coverage greater than ever seen before. Thanks to this technology, it will be easier to monitor wildlife, desertification, glaciers retreat and many other natural phenomenon.

Nowadays, there are a good number of private and governmental satellites that are screening the Earth. The most precise ones are belonging to private companies and are especially used for defence or commercial purposes. The technology they use allows them to focus on special areas but the demand means that they take a lot of time before getting the pictures and the cost will be quite high. The governmental ones are taking pictures in regular bases but still not too often (once per month) and the resolution is really low, showing images dozens or hundreds metres far from the surface. So, at the moment, the situation is stuck. The first ones wouldn’t lend their images for non-commercial (or, worst, environmental) purposes, while the second ones are not provided in regular basis. That’s exactly the situation in which that Planet Labs could find its niche.

This Startup, founded in 2012 by 3 ex NASA scientists, has risen $13M from Venture Capitalists (DFJ, Capricorn, OATV, Founders Fund Angel, Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective and First Round Capital) in order to launch the World’s largest fleet of imaging satellites called Dove by Q1 2014.

The first two Doves (Dove 1 and Dove 2) have been launched in April and the demonstration has been effective. The data and images provided were good quality, the key technology has been validated and the resolution was as high as expected. The next images will be provided early next year, after the launch of the complete fleet.

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But Planet Labs is not the only company launching its own fleet of satellites for entering the Earth-screening market. Skybox Imaging will launch a fleet of at least 24 satellites. I believe this situation will be interesting and the competition will allow the creation of more and more precise satellites which, hopefully, will help to monitor our surface and our wildlife.

MEV. The space-cleaner droids.

When communication satellites or other orbiting spacecrafts run out of fuel, their destiny is marked. They are either de-orbited to destruct in the atmosphere, or they are positioned in a parking orbits, or, the worst fate, they are left in the outer space as dangerous space junk. The most of the times, they are still functioning.

This means a huge loss for the companies which sent them in orbit and the need for a real solution to this waste represents a huge commercial opportunity. For this reason Vivisat, a young spacecraft company, in partnership with ATK (an historical company that built solid rocket motors for NASA), is building a droid that will serve as repair droid and orbital gas station for vehicles which need to be fixed or refueled.

This droid will be called MEV (Mission Extension Vehicle) and, as the name suggests, its job will be to dock with commercial satelites to extend their life spawn. Its support could extend the operativity of the vehicles up to 10 years with an average of 3 to 5 years. With future improvements, the droid could also reposition spacecraft in new orbits.

I actually believe that this system is extremely forward-thinking and economically sustainable. Not only it permits to create a new space business which will bring future improvements but also help out resolving the problem of space debris (including all the rocket stages and the dead satellites which risk to collide with working ones). Furthermore, It will allow the deployment of more funds in research (not thinking about commercial satellites) and an important improvement in the space industry.

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The company hasn’t announced yet the launch of its fleet (initially composed of 2 MEV, with other 8 planned in the further future) but the chief operating office Brian McGuirk, during SATCON 2012 Satellite & Content Delivery Conference & Expo, said that they are having a lot of conversations with potential customers.

We just wait and see if this business will work, hoping that it will also start a more important conversation about space junk and a motivation to create vehicles with long lasting lives.

Android conquers the space!

After the landing of Curiosity on Mars, understandably, all the attention has been focused on this major event. But this is not the only Nasa project on the go.

In fact, Nasa is planning for the end of 2012 the launch of mini-satellites powered by Android and by the Smartphones Nexus One and Nexus S.

This project is called “PhoneSat” and will make the Nasa understand if a mini satellite with a smartphone can really operate, gather and send data from the space. Two prototypes have been buildt by now. The first one is called PhoneSat 1.0, a 10×10 cm cube and includes a Nexus One, external batteries and it will be monitored by a motherboard circuit which will reboot the Nexus One if necesaary. The second prototype  is called PhoneSat 2.0. It includes a Nexus S, solar arrays and a GPS. The satellite is controlled from the ground by a radio and the solar panels allow to embark long.duration missions.

The mission has been prepared since 2010 and the Nexus One have been launched succesfully on rockets in order to test it at high speed and altitude.

The purpose of this project is to launch inexpensive satellites composed by commerical hardwares that don’t require ulterior research. For this reason they are working with products and hardware that are available in normal markets.

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Samsung and Google once again reveal to be innovative, ecletics and part of the future. Ironic question: why Nasa didn’t choose iPhone and its iOS?