Space & Innovation

Despite Launch Failures, 'Dove' Sats Will Map the World

Two shipments of Dove satellites never made it to orbit in recent months, but the company says it hasn't been unduly slowed down in its quest to map the world.

It's been a tough year for shipments to the International Space Station; three cargo ships from three separate programs (Russia's Progress, SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital Sciences' Cygnus) failed to make it to their destination.

Planet Labs is just one of many space companies that lost stuff and aboard the SpaceX and Orbital flights were 34 mini-satellites that were supposed to gaze at Earth and send back data real-time for customers.

PHOTOS: Satellite 'Flock' Launched From ISS Cubesat Cannon

"While we bounced back relatively quickly, that was a shock for us," president Robbie Schingler told Discovery News. The company has scrambled to move its Dove satellites to other ships as fast as possible, which happened a few months ago when they managed to slip two machines almost last-minute on to another SpaceX flight (one that reached orbit safely). Another shipment of 14 is expected to be sent to the space station on Japan's HTV spacecraft on Wednesday's scheduled launch.

Planet Labs is a young company that plans to map the world real-time with 100 mini-satellites, every single day. It has received $183 million in venture capital rounds during the past four years. Its revenues are growing, but the startup company doesn't disclose if it is profitable yet.

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Also expanding is its employee base -- 145 employees today compared to roughly 65 this time last year. Most work out of an office in San Francisco, but a small number work remotely in locations such as Texas and Washington, D.C.

Right now there are about three dozen Planet Lab satellites working in space. They have an operational lifetime of about six to nine months, requiring fairly frequent resupplies to keep the fleet going. In the long-term, they plan to place satellites in orbit that will last two to five years. As the technology improves, Planet Labs has been trying to get higher-resolution cameras into space, showcasing a resolution of about three to five meters per pixel. (The average is 3.7 meters.)

The company hopes to have its 100 satellites (and a few spares) in orbit in the next year. They have a select number of customers right now as sort of a test base, but they plan to greatly expand their clients once their fleet is at capacity. The range of possibilities includes those monitoring Earth for reasons such as environmental or commercial.

NEWS: Saving the Planet One Tiny Satellite at a Time

And where next for Planet Labs? The company says its investors are happy for now and that Planet Labs has a range of business options after their fleet is complete, including a possible initial public offering.

"The focus right now for our company is to get these launches up over the next 12 months or so, collect our data, and from that be in a strong position to go in a variety of different directions," Schingler said.

Fire! Dove satellites fly into space from the International Space Station in February 2014.

The world's newest satellite launch site is off to a busy start, with 16 spacecraft put into orbit within a week -- and no rocket required. What’s the trick? Well, the launch site itself is in space. The satellites -- tiny Earth-imagers owned by Silicon Valley startup Planet Labs -- were deployed into orbit over the past week from aboard the International Space Station.

NEWS: Saving the Planet One Tiny Satellite at a Time

Read on to see stunning orbital photographs of one of the launches.

Planet Labs is the first customer to make use of a new small satellite launcher owned by NanoRacks, another commercial space firm. NanoRacks' so-called "cubesat deployer" (photographed here in action) was flown to the station last month and installed in Japan’s Kibo laboratory. The module includes an exposed back porch, accessible via a small airlock and robotic arm. Japan also operates its own cubesat launcher on Kibo.

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Planet Labs’ satellites are part of a planned 28-member network of tiny spacecraft equipped with cameras to continuously image Earth.

Like the station, the Planet Labs constellation, known as Flock 1, will fly in orbits inclined about 52 degrees above and below the equator. They will be lower than the station’s 250-mile altitude to prevent any potential collisions.