Saving the Planet One Tiny Satellite at a Time


A Silicon Valley startup is turning its technical acumen and passion for space into an innovative venture that uses a fleet of relatively inexpensive, tiny satellites to take non-stop pictures of Earth.

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Photo courtesy NASA

The company, called Planet Labs, flew four prototype satellites in 2013. Those proved successful, enabling the firm to quickly follow up with production of a 28-member network that already is aboard the International Space Station and awaiting launch.

The constellation, called Flock 1, is comprised of 4 inch-sided, cube-shaped satellites stuffed with mostly off-the-shelf consumer electronics components, including imagers.

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“Things that were once the province of huge 10-ton satellites are now in these tiny things. That’s what enables us to generate a data set that is unprecedented in terms of coverage and cadence,” company co-founder and chief executive Will Marshall told Discovery News.

The nano-satellites will be released, two at time, over a span of one to two weeks early this year via a cubesat deployer set up in Japan’s Kibo laboratory module. The equipment was part of nearly 1.5 tons of cargo that reached the station Sunday aboard Orbital Sciences Corp’s Cygnus freighter.

Flock 1 will orbit beneath the station’s 250-mile-high altitude to prevent any potential collisions. Like the station, the satellites will circle Earth in an orbit inclined roughly 52 degrees north and south of the equator, flying over most of the planet at some point.

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From that perch, the satellites will be able to photograph objects that are at least 10- to 15 feet in diameter. The resolution is sharp enough for the firm’s humanitarian and commercial projects, while sidestepping potential military interests and privacy issues.

With that resolution, "you can see the canopy of a tree, so we can count every tree on the Earth surface with our system on a really regular basis,” Marshall said.

He declined to reveal partners already signed up to use the data, but said the company plans to cast a very wide net to fulfill its objective of helping organizations and people take care of the planet.

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“There are hundreds and hundreds of applications of the data,” Marshall said.

Possible humanitarian projects include tracking deforestation, identifying illegal fishing, improving agriculture and helping in disaster response.

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