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.

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.

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.

"One of the challenges today is that after a disaster, whether it's a fire, a flood, an earthquake or tsunami, everyone scrambles to get imagery as quickly as they can, but that tends to be later than they want. We'll be able to do it much faster," Marshall said.

"More importantly, they almost never have an image just prior to the disaster for a sort of apples-to-apples comparison of what happened. The last image of that area might have been taken many years ago," he added.

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Potential commercial applications include mapping, precision agriculture and financial industries interested in tracking mass around the planet, such as output from mines, ships out of ports, urban growth and global crop yields, Marshall said.

Eventually, anyone should be able to go to a website and see some satellite imagery, he added.

The satellites will have relatively short lifespans of about one year in orbit before they re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Before then, however, Planet Lab expects to have replacements in space.

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"The space sector typically takes extraordinary conservative approaches to satellite design, build and manufacturing. We've taken a much more Silicon Valley, release-early, release-often, rapid iteration-approach," Marshall said.

"Our demos showed that this high-risk, much-more-latest-technology approach works pretty well. All of our satellites thus far worked and produced beautiful imagery of the Earth," he said.

The 28 spacecraft that make up Flock 1 prior to being sent to the launch pad for delivery to the International Space Station.

On Jan. 9, Orbital Sciences launched its Antares rocket, boosting the company's unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Two and a half days later on Sunday, the spacecraft, loaded with supplies and experiments, caught up with the orbiting outpost where Expedition 38 astronauts grappled the spacecraft and berthed it in a flawless operation. Here's what the astronauts and cosmonauts on board the space station saw.

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As the Cygnus cargo ship increased its orbit toward the space station, Expedition 38 crew members had a golden opportunity to photograph the mission. The vehicle was named "C. Gordon Fullerton" after the space shuttle NASA astronaut who sadly died in 2013.

Shown here, the Cygnus spacecraft flies above an ocean dotted with fluffy clouds. Orbital Sciences isn't the only commercial space company to be contracted to resupply the space station. Orbital is working in tandem with Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a NASA contract.

As the Cygnus spacecraft gets closer, space station astronauts control the Canadarm2 robotic arm to begin berthing procedures. "Cygnus" is Latinized Greek for "Swan" and a constellation in Northern Hemisphere skies.

Canadarm2 inches closer to Cygnus as the space station passes over the southwestern Alps.

A closeup of Cygnus and Canadarm2.

As the space station orbits into the shadow of Earth, the grappled Cygnus spacecraft is carefully guided toward the space station's Harmony module where berthing will be completed.

Berthed! With Cygnus attached to the space station's Harmony module, Orbital Sciences first contracted resupply run is complete.