With over 200 Earth observation satellites, Planet Labs now operates the largest satellite constellation in history. The San Francisco based startup’s first goal – called Mission 1 – was to image Earth’s entire landmass once per day. That milestone was reached in late 2017. Now, the company wants to turn their data into a search engine of the world via its next mission.
Planet Labs was founded in 2010 by three former NASA engineers: Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler, and Chris Boshuizen. The goal of the company was to make “global change visible, accessible, and actionable.”
In April 2013, Planet launched its first two satellites named Dove 1 and Dove 2. Dove 1 launched aboard the inaugural flight of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket, and Dove 2 launched on a Soyuz 2.1a rocket.
Ridesharing with other payloads has been a common strategy for Planet. To date, the company has flown only once on a dedicated mission. This represents a shift from the traditional method used by major satellite operators.
For decades, operators have built large and expensive satellites – requiring launch contracts worth tens of millions. Planet, on the other hand, launches small and far less expensive payloads into orbit. Due to their small size, the satellites can fly as secondary payloads, significantly lowering costs.
Additionally, Planet’s approach also reduces risk. Due to the expensive nature of traditional satellites, a failed mission can be catastrophic. However, Planet’s satellites are cheap and easy to manufacture – making it far less difficult to recover from a failure.
On October 28th, 2014 an Orbital ATK Antares rocket exploded just seconds after liftoff. The rocket was carrying a Cygnus spacecraft full of cargo to resupply the International Space Station. Also onboard was a batch of 26 Dove satellites for Planet. No company in history had ever lost 26 satellites on a single mission.
Following the mishap, Planet CEO Will Marshall explained how Planet places “more satellites in orbit than we require…so that if satellites fail in orbit we ensure continuity. Our eggs were not all in one basket.”
Not long after, a SpaceX Falcon 9 failed mid-flight. It was carrying a Dragon spacecraft – also headed for the ISS. Eight Dove satellites were part of Dragon’s cargo.
In total, an unprecedented 34 satellites had been lost in less than a year.
Another advantage of Planet’s strategy is that they can leverage their more affordable model by regularly refreshing their hardware. The company has numerous launches booked each year, with new batches containing upgraded electronics. As a result, Planet maintains the latest technological advances in its satellites. Meanwhile, many traditional satellites are left with years-old hardware.
Looking into the future, Planet’s strategy of launching satellites will be aided by advances in the small satellite launch industry. Companies such as Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems, Virgin Orbit, and Stratolaunch have systems under development designed to specifically place small payloads into orbit.
For Planet, this means that it could fly as a primary payload, while also avoiding the traditional costs of a dedicated launch. Flying on a dedicated launch allows for several advantages including greater schedule certainty and delivery to a more specific orbit.
Rocket Lab has already secured several launch contracts from Planet for flights on its Electron launch vehicle. While the Electron rocket is yet to begin regular commercial launches, it took a big step in that direction with a successful “Still Testing” launch on January 21st, 2018. The launch included a Dove satellite for Planet named “Dove Pioneer.”
Planet’s constellation is composed of three types of satellites: Dove, RapidEye, and SkySat.
Doves are 3U CubeSats which weigh 4-5 kilograms and are the size of a loaf of bread. Doves are typically launched in batches called “Flocks.” Each Dove contains an optical imagery system called a PlanetScope. PlanetScope is capable of capturing images with approximately three meter resolution. Today, there are nearly 180 Doves in orbit.
Planet also has five RapidEye satellites in its constellation. RapidEye are capable of taking images with five meter resolution. The 150 kilogram satellites were added to the constellation when Planet acquired BlackBridge in 2015. Because the RapidEye satellites have been in orbit since 2009, by acquiring BlackBridge’s assets, Planet significantly increased the historical data available to its customers.
Finally, Planet has 13 SkySats in orbit. The satellites were built by Terra Bella, which Planet acquired from Google last year. At the time of the purchase, there were 7 SkySats in orbit. Last October, Planet launched an additional six on a Minotaur C rocket. The 100 kilogram SkySats are capable of sub-meter resolution – making them the most powerful in the constellation. Customers can request to have these high-resolution satellites target their locations of interest.
Planet’s constellation orbits Earth in either a sun-synchronous or polar orbit. This means that the satellites can be arranged in a line, rather than having to spread out across the entire planet. Due to the Earth’s rotation, the next satellite in the line will see a slightly different portion of Earth’s surface than the one before it. As Planet’s CEO Will Marshall explains, “It ends up being like a line scanner for the planet.”
Planet achieved a major milestone in November 2017. For the first time, the satellites were capturing Earth’s entire landmass once per day. The milestone, which Planet calls “Mission 1,” has created an unprecedented amount of data for customers to utilize.
The satellites are currently capturing over 1.4 million images a day. After the images are taken, they are stored on the satellite until it passes over a ground station.
The imagery is being used in a wide variety of fields including agriculture, disaster relief, infrastructure, and deforestation.
Additionally, a large portion of the data is available to the public. Users can visit Planet.com/explorer and explore some of the most up to date satellite imagery available.
Planet’s next mission is to harness machine learning, as doing so will drastically improve the usefulness of its imagery.
Marshall explains that machine learning will enable Planet to perform “object recognition on its imagery to enable users to query what is on the Earth (how many houses are there in Pakistan?) and [to] build customized information feeds (e.g. count the number of ships in the top 10 ports vs. time).”
He goes on to add, “In short, Planet will index physical change on Earth the same way Google indexed the internet. Imagine the possibilities.”
This new mission will be a key focus for the Planet as it looks to continue its momentum into 2018.
Apart from software, there are also hardware improvements in store.
Most notably, two high resolution SkySat satellites will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base as part of Spaceflight Industries’ SSO-A mission. The launch – targeted for no earlier than this summer – will also include another Flock of Dove satellites.