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December 2nd, 2013
What does the launch of more than 60 microsatellites in one week mean for the future of Earth observation?

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Last week, two rockets launched a combined 61 micro satellites, with many of them focused on Earth observation missions. This unprecedented explosion of low-Earth orbit satellites marks a wave of lower cost observation platforms that trade reduced longevity for nimble and flexible deployment and more tailored observations.

A new record was set when 28 cubesats were launched on Nov. 19 on an Orbital Sciences Corporation Minotaur I rocket sponsored by NASA’s ELana (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program. A Russian Dnepr rocket carried 32 satellites into orbit on Nov. 21, with an imaging satellite for Dubai (DubaiSat-2) as the main payload with a resolution of 1 to 4 meters in single color. Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs both launched satellites aboard the same Russian rocket. SkySat-1 is the first of 24 planned satellites with a one-meter resolution. Planet Labs’ Dove-3 and Dove-4 will capture images of up to three meters, and will be joined by the Flock constellation of 24 satellites that is planned to launch soon. In addition, four satellites were launched from a Japan-built cubesat launcher on the International Space Station.

All of these satellites are focused on observation, with many of them capturing Earth imagery that can be analyzed and ingested into geospatial systems for a better awareness of the complexities and changes taking place on our planet. The small satellite providers Skybox and Planet Labs both intend to shake up the imagery market with cheaper and more easily accessible imagery that leverages cloud computing and big data analytics — a current mantra of their Silicon Valley base. This week of satellites will certainly cause some ripple effects in the marketplace, and hopefully also in the observation space by providing new insights to aid efficiency and improve environmental management.

Satellite Sensing

Many years of space development and innovation have laid the foundation for this satellite explosion. The decades-old bus and SUV-sized observational satellite workhorses of the government and commercial-backed imagery providers have proven their worth, and have spurred other companies and governments to get into the game. Governments gain new understanding of their economic, environmental and security objectives, and commercial providers find eager markets to provide these same insights for their commercial customers.

The need to make sense of global change is a growing motivation for both governments and business organizations. The interconnectedness of our actions to the environment, and the ripple effects of climate change upon the economy, will drive new policy that will require this newfound level of observation. Scrutiny upon business practice that increases carbon is only made possible with the greater global oversight that these platforms provide.

Accessibility of Space

The rapid pace of space commercialization is happening on multiple fronts all at once. Commercial launch vehicles are growing in number, with capable rockets from upstarts such as SpaceX as well as countries such as India and China that are looking to expand their customer base. There are also new and innovative platforms such as Virgin Galactic with their Launcher-1 satellite launching platform that has already secured a dozen clients and has spurred Richard Branson to call it the best investment he has ever made. The capacity of Virgin Galactic alone will be astonishing as they ramp to daily flights to feed the interests of space tourists. It’s interesting that a recent call from the U.S. military innovation organization DARPA had called for ideas for a low-earth satellite delivery vehicle, just as Virgin Galactic was making it known that they have added this capacity.

In addition to these new launch options, there’s also a lower cost for connecting satellite data feeds to the ground with an established network of base station, a lower cost of electronic components thanks to the advancements in computing/communication with mobile phone innovations, and cloud computing capacity to process and deliver insights. With the growing number of satellite sensing platforms, the price to launch and begin collecting satellite imagery will be driven down relentlessly, with it quite conceivable that global companies with an interest in observation, such as commodity players or logistics companies, may want satellite constellations of their own.

Future Focused

The effort of NASA’s ELana (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program is perhaps the most prescient element of last week’s launched. This inclusion in the satellite design and deployment game by high school and college students is a leap forward that is unprecedented in relation to the past where whole careers might have only touched several missions.

The small teams that gained exposure from this program stand poised to usher in a new level of Earth awareness that will provide strong meaning for their work, as well as global societal impacts for an improved planet. The accessibility of space provides a key driver as the age of context and quantification takes hold. Earth observation has never had a brighter future, and the systems that help us make sense of these new inputs stand to proliferate as insights inform our best actions.

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