Five Years in the Making: Planet’s Nanosat Fleet and India’s Historic Launch

February 27, 2017
Author
Kelsey Tollefson
February 27, 2017
Author
Kelsey Tollefson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

This past Valentine’s day was record-breaking for the satellite industry. On February 14th, 2017, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) made headlines by launching a record 104 satellites into orbit upon a single launch vehicle. That’s more than the total number of nano/microsats launched in all of 2016.1 Of these 104 satellites, a full 88 belonged to Planet, a Space Angels Network-funded venture which aims to revolutionize our view of the Earth. With these 88 new sensors, Planet’s fleet of “Dove” imaging satellites represents the largest privately-owned satellite constellation in history.2 Planet’s satellite constellation is now capable of imaging every corner of the Earth in the course of a day.

Related: Satellite Constellations Vision Finally Being Realized

For the investors that fund ambitious ventures like Planet, successful launches like last week’s ISRO PSLV-C37 mission underscore the sheer potential (and forward momentum) of the entrepreneurial space industry. Planet and ISRO’s history of launch agreements highlights how savvy startups can leverage emerging international launch capabilities in order to actualize their business goals.  These global connections will one day prove crucial to a healthy space-based economy. Space itself may be a vacuum, but the space industry isn’t. 

Planet’s unique satellite constellation will provide a more complete, up-to-the-moment picture of Earth than has ever been possible.

Image credit: Planet

From the outset, Planet has intended to provide a comprehensive and perpetually current view of our planet’s surface. While we’ve gotten used to relying upon images of Earth taken from space, the founders of Planet saw a problem in the marketnamely, that these images quickly became outdated, and that the current satellite networks weren’t capable of providing timely updates. In 2010, Will Marshall, Chris Boshuizen and Robbie Schingler formed Planet (previously called Planet Labs, and before that briefly named Cosmogia) with the goal of launching a fleet of satellites that could provide a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the planet. 

Planet launched their first two prototype satellites in April of 2013.3 Since then, the startup has doggedly pursued their vision despite multiple launch complications and setbacks throughout the years. Five years after their first demonstration Doves were launched into orbit, Planet has finally accomplished their first-stated business goal: To be able to image the entire surface of the planet, once a day, every day.4 Their Earth-imaging constellation now comprises some 144 satellites, and with more coming online incrementally over the next few months.5

As owner and operator of the largest private satellite fleet in space, Planet has positioned itself to be the world’s only provider of consistently up-to-date, detailed images of our Earth’s surface. This is underscored by their recent acquisition of Google’s Terra Bella imaging business. As part of the deal, Planet adds Terra Bella’s seven SkySat satellites to their current fleet.6 These high-resolution satellites represent an opportunity for Planet to market themselves to a broader range of commercial clients. As part of the deal, Google will license the resulting images from Planet for continued use in their Earth and Maps services.7

PSLV is India’s ticket into the commercial satellite launch sector, and has proven itself as a reliable rocket. 

Image credit: ISRO

Planet wasn’t the only partner making history on February 14th. India’s government-run space agency successfully launched a record-breaking number of satellites into orbita significant accomplishment, magnified by the fact that ISRO managed to launch the PSLV-C37 mission on a $15 Million budget.8

Planet’s satellite fleet was sent into space by means of the ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV. The PSLV has been a mainstay of India’s launch stable since the ‘90s, when it was used to send a handful of ISRO remote sensing satellites into orbit.9 On May 26th, 1999, the PSLV was used to launch a payload of three satellitestwo of which were German and South Korean in origin.10 This launch, named PSLV C2, was also the first international satellite launch ISRO had ever performed.

In the intervening decades, ISRO has continued to improve upon their PSLV technology. The rocket is capable of delivering payloads into sun-synchronous polar orbit and geostationary transfer orbit, which has made ISRO’s commercial launch services appealing to satellite operators around the world. Between January of 2014 and December 2016, Antrixthe commercial arm of the ISROgenerated €98 Million in revenue by launching 44 foreign satellites.11 The agency now provides low-cost lifts into orbit for commercial clients from twenty different countries across the globe.12  

Planet and ISRO’s historic launch was a boon for both entities, and is encouraging for the broader space startup landscape.

Image credit: Planet

Planet has a history of contracting with both emergent and international launch partners to get their vision into orbit. When Planet launched their first two satellites in April 2013, the first (“Dove 1”) was aboard Orbital ATK’s first-ever Antares flight.13 Two days later, Planet launched their second satellite (“Dove 2”), this time on the back of one of Russia’s Soyuz rockets.14 This isn’t ISRO’s first payload delivery for Planet, eitheron June 22nd, 2016, the satellite operator launched twelve of their Dove cubesats aboard ISRO’s PSLV-C34 mission.15

Planet and ISRO, in turns out, are something of a match made in rocket launch heaven. The Indian agency’s PSLV rocketscalled the “workhorse” of the ISROare rated to lift payloads up to 3,140 lbs into geosynchronous orbit.16 While this may represent only a single full-size communications satellite,17 the PSLV is plenty capable of launching hundreds of CubeSats, like Planet’s Doves. And with small satellites being heralded as the wave of the future, India has now demonstrated that they are a reliable partner for the next ambitious startup that wants a ride into space. 

India’s lower-cost launches may end up stimulating the US-based launch ecosystem by opening up the scene for international competition for commercial clients.

Cooperation between international space ventures will pay off big-time for all parties involved. 

Image credit: ISRO

ISRO and Planet have emerged triumphant, setting an industry-wide record for the most satellites ever launched at once. The launch contract between India’s Antrix and US-based Planet highlights the importance of intercontinental cooperation in advancing mutual interests. ISRO was able to demonstrate their rapidly-improving commercial launch capabilities, while Planet benefitted from an economical launch for their largest-ever batch of nanosats. The launch also serves to reinforce investor faith in the ability of small space startups to deliver on their promises. 

As with any industry, progress in commercial space relies upon productive relationships between a complex web of contributing parties. Developing a widespread network of ventures with complementary core competencies is cruciala firm foundation, the building blocks of what one day may be an enormously lucrative and revolutionary aspect of commercial enterprise.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

Bibliography

  1. Doncaster, Bill, Caleb Williams, and Jordan Schulman. 2017 Nano/Microsatellite Market ForecastRep. Atlanta: Spaceworks Enterprises, 2017. Web.
  2. Schingler, Robbie. "Planet Launches Satellite Constellation to Image the Whole Planet Daily.Planet Pulse. Planet Labs, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  3. Wall, Mike. "Planet Labs Unveils Tiny Earth-observation Satellite Family.SpaceNews.com. SpaceNews, 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  4. Schingler, Robbie. "Planet Launches Satellite Constellation" 
  5. Schingler, Robbie. "Planet Launches Satellite Constellation"
  6. Marshall, Will. "Planet to Acquire Terra Bella from Google, Sign Multi-Year Data Contract.Planet. Planet Labs Inc., 3 Feb. 2017. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  7. Etherington, Darrell. "Google selling Terra Bella satellite imaging business to Planet.TechCrunch. AOL Inc., 3 Feb. 2017. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  8. Mathur, Swapnil. "Five Reasons Why ISRO Is a Force to Be Reckoned with.The Indian Express. The Express Group, 16 Feb. 2017. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  9. Indian Space Research Organization. "List of PSLV Launches." ISRO.gov.in. Government of India, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  10. Ghoshal and Balachandran, “Meet ISRO’s PSLV”
  11. India. Parliament of India. Lok Sabha House of the People. Unstarred Question #1076PDF. 16 Feb. 2017. Question posed to the Prime Minister of India, and answered by Dr. Jitendra Singh on February 8th, 2017.
  12. ISRO. "ISRO Crosses 50 International Customer Satellite Launch Mark." ISRO.gov.in. Government of India Department of Space, Sep. 2015. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.
  13. Foust, Jeff. "Smallsat Constellations: The Killer App?" The Space Review. SpaceNews, 1 July 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  14. Wall, Mike. "Planet Labs Unveils Tiny Earth-observation Satellite Family." 
  15. ISRO. "PSLV-C34 Successfully Launches 20 Satellites in a Single Flight." ISRO.gov.in. Government of India Department of Space, 22 June 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  16. ISRO. "Technical Specifications - PSLV." ISRO.gov.in. Government of India Department of Space. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  17.  Choi, Charles Q. "Space Forecast Predicts Satellite Production Boom." Space.com. Purch Media, 15 June 2009. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
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