Planet says that the India launch will break the record for most satellites deployed on a single rocket. Launches remain one of the most costly aspects of the space business, and the company has gotten burned for its frugality before. Its leaders know, from firsthand experience, that not its satellites all will survive the journey to space. In October 2014, Planet became the first company ever to lose 26 satellites at once when an Antares rocket exploded on the tarmac. Nine months later, it lost another eight spacecraft when a SpaceX rocket failed before it left the atmosphere.
But if even a minority of the satellites make it into orbit, Planet will operate the largest private satellite constellation ever built. The Iridium Communications constellation, which encompasses 72 satellites, holds that title now (though Iridium’s satellites are more expensive than Planet’s and they orbit farther from Earth).
This constellation will have two components. A standard Planet satellite, which it calls a “dove,” is cheaply made. It is essentially an extra-large Cubesat, a widely used standard for building small spacecraft. It captures pixels that are three meters to a side. Each of the seven Terra Bella satellites, on the other hand, is about the size of a dorm-room fridge. A Terra Bella satellite detects pixels that are 90 centimeters to a side under good conditions.
“You can use the medium-resolution constellation to scan the planet every day, and then—say you see a plane crash or a flood in a town—you can use the high-resolution satellites to snap those changes,” says Will Marshall, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Planet.
He said the dual-layered constellation opened up new capabilities for the company. “If we see a change in the middle of Siberia, in some field, we won’t point the high-resolution satellite at that,” he told me. “But if we detect some change in downtown Kiev, it might be good to have a high-resolution image. ”
The sale and acquisition caps off half a decade of growth and turmoil in the sector. When I first wrote about the small-satellite industry three years ago, it seemed a rare locus of hardware innovation in a software- and services-obsessed technology industry. Earth-observing satellites require, at minimum, high-quality image sensors and reliable radio antennas. The smartphone boom had transformed both: Thanks to economies of scale and foreign electronics manufacturing, the bare technological components of a satellite had become both cheap and nearly industrial-grade.
Taken together, this allowed companies to build much cheaper satellites. Unlike legacy players in the business, which build a single satellite worth tens of millions of dollars over the course of years, a startup could build lots of small satellites fast and hurl them into orbit. Losing a satellite during launch, which was once cause to ready a company’s obituary (or at least its legal team), would now become a point of pride. “If you never lose a satellite, you’re not pushing the envelope,” Marshall told me at the time.