A high-resolution view of Boston from space taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. BlackSky Global plans to sell Earth imaging services via satellites. Image credit: NASA/processing by Sky Image Lab

Jul 7, 2015 Startup sees new twist in Earth imaging-via-satellite business

Sen—When BlackSky Global thinks about providing imagery of Earth from space, it’s not thinking of selling pictures, but access to its cameras—and a lot of them.

“We’re going to put up this resource and we’ll lease it out and let our customers decide where they want to point it and what pictures they want to take,” BlackSky’s chief technology officer Peter Wegner told Sen.

“Other people in the market are focusing on the satellite as a product, and designing that and selling the product, but we really view it as just an extension of satellite bandwidth as a service and capitalize the constellation and just lease out the cameras onboard,” Wegner said.

Customers will have access to not just one or two cameras, but a constellation that is expected to reach 60 birds in 2019. The satellites are small, weighing in at about 110 pounds (50 kg), so they can fly as secondary payloads on medium- and heavy-lift rockets or aboard small launchers under development by several companies, such as Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, Rocket Lab’s Electron and Firefly Space Systems’ Firefly Alpha.

“We’re looking at everything,” Wegner said. “As they come online, we’ll be interested in launching with them.”

From orbital perches 450 to 550 km (280 to 340 miles) and inclined 40 to 55 degrees above and below the equator, the satellites’ imagers will be able to resolve features and objects as small as one meter—sharp enough to make out cars and groups of people, not individual faces in a crowd, which will avoid privacy issues.

Other companies, including Google’s Skybox Imaging and privately owned Planet Labs, plan similar Earth-imaging satellite constellations, but BlackSky, which is partly bankrolled by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, figures it will be able to offer customers the opportunity to image any spot on the planet within about an hour and revisit the spot repeatedly.

A common city in the world could be imaged 60 or 70 times in a day, Wegner said. “That’s a capability that doesn’t exist today. It’s really unique.”

In addition to U.S. and other government customers, BlackSky says there is strong commercial demand for this type of service.

“You can fly over a Walmart parking lot and count the cars a couple of times a day, so you can predict economic activity through a retail chain like that. You can monitor trucks coming in and going out of ports. In the oil and gas sector, there’s a need for pipeline monitoring,” Wegner said.

Three technologies make the business viable now, he added. First is the availability of low-cost, off-the-shelf electronics, a market largely driven by personal computers, mobile phones and mobile processes.

Second is cloud-based data storage and processing. “When I used to do missions for the Air Force we would spend one-third of the budget on the data center and building up the data base storage equipment, processing equipment for all the data coming down. You can buy that on the cloud now for just pennies. It’s just incredibly cheap. You don’t have to capitalize all that. It’s just there and you buy it as a service,” Wegner said.

Finally is the presence of companies that can crunch huge amounts of data and provide answers to questions, spot trends and make predictions.  

“Big data companies are really propelling this industry forward,” Wegner said. 

“We’re architecting space with a modern twist … using the Internet to task the systems, using cloud based storage. It really is a fresh look at how to build a space architecture,” Wegner said.

Blacksky planned to fly two Pathfinder satellites this year to test the system, then follow up with its first four operational spacecraft in 2016. The prototypes, however, are due to fly as secondary payloads aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is likely to be delayed as SpaceX recovers from a June 28 launch accident, the cause of which remains under investigation.

Pathfinder 1 and 2 are intended to demonstrate that the design of the satellite works and that BlackSky’s ground system can command the spacecraft and receive data from them.

“We want to make sure that the data is the kind of quality we want and can process through our ground architecture. It’s really demonstrating the whole end-to-end system, from design of the satellite, to launch operations, ground system and data coming out the back end,” Wegner said.