Satellite technology puts into orbit swarms of spacecraft no bigger than a loaf of bread
By CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT | The Washington Post | Published: April 6, 2021
The avalanche was a stunning disaster, 247 million cubic feet of glacial ice and snow hurtling down the Tibetan mountain range at 185 mph. Nine people and scores of animals were killed in an event that startled scientists around the world.
As they researched why the avalanche occurred with such force, researchers studying climate change pored over images taken in the days and weeks before and saw that ominous cracks had begun to form in the ice and snow. Then, scanning photos of a nearby glacier, they noticed similar crevasses forming, touching off a scramble to warn local authorities that it was also about to come crashing down.
The images of the glaciers came from a constellation of satellites no bigger than a shoe box, in orbit 280 miles up. Operated by San Francisco-based company Planet, the satellites, called Doves, weigh just over 10 pounds each and fly in "flocks" that today include 175 satellites. If one fails, the company replaces it, and as better batteries, solar arrays and cameras become available, the company updates its satellites the way Apple unveils a new iPhone.
The revolution in technology that transformed personal computing, put smart speakers in homes and gave rise to the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning is also transforming space. While rockets and human exploration get most of the attention, a quiet and often overlooked transformation has taken place in the way satellites are manufactured and operated. The result is an explosion of data and imagery from orbit.
Just as computers have shrunk from room-size behemoths to an iPhone that can fit in a pocket, satellites, too, have shrunk drastically. Instead of being the size of a garbage truck, costing as much as $400 million, satellites now are often no larger than a microwave or a loaf of bread. They cost a fraction of their predecessors, as little as a $1 million or less, and can be mass-produced in factories, or in some cases a garage or college classroom.
As the size and costs of satellites have come down, their numbers have grown significantly. The number of satellites in operation more than doubled from 1,381 in 2015 to about 3,371 by the end of last year, according to Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm that tracks the industry. In 2011, there were 39 satellites launched that weighed less than 1,322 pounds, or 600 kg, according to Bryce. By 2017, that was 338, and by last year, as SpaceX began putting up hundreds of its Starlink satellites designed to beam the Internet to rural areas, the number leaped to more than 1,200.
The industry is poised to continue its rapid growth as SpaceX and others put up constellations of thousands of satellites intended to serve areas without access to broadband. The incredibly shrinking satellite has given rise to less expensive rockets designed specifically to launch batches of small satellites. And competition among the launchers continues to drive down the cost of delivering a spacecraft to orbit.
Now the industry has caught the attention of venture capitalists, who have been funding companies such as Planet. In recent weeks, two satellite companies, Spire Global and Black Sky, have gone public through a merger known as a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC.
Companies around the globe are working to develop small satellites. AAC Clyde Space, a Sweden-based company, has launched 10 satellites, some known as "cubesats," for their small boxes that weigh just a few pounds.
Like Planet, it offers "space as a service," meaning people can buy access to the data from their satellites without worrying about launching or building the spacecraft themselves.
"You don't have to get engaged in how to design the satellites, follow the production, take care of the testing," said Rolf Hallencreutz, chairman of the company's board. "You tell someone, 'I need this kind of data.' And we provide that data. For us, it changes the game because it allows us to serve multiple customers with the same constellation."
The small satellite industry has also caught the attention of the Pentagon and intelligence agencies that would love to have swarms of small satellites, able to launch quickly and easily replaced, peering down behind enemy lines.
Planet was founded in 2010 by a trio of young scientists and engineers who were working at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley in what's become a classic tech start-up story: young guys, driven by idealism, working late on their own time and harnessing their nerdy tendencies to build their own satellites that were smaller and cheaper.
Yes, they did it in a garage in Cupertino, Calif., where Apple is based. Since then, Planet has successfully launched 452 satellites and become the vanguard of the industry.
Now, it has more than 500 employees, and its total active users has grown an average of 40% per year since 2018.
The company's satellites circle the globe in carefully designed orbits that "line-scan the Earth" — taking precise photographs of landmasses that together create an image of the planet every day. That gives scientists and researchers a look at conditions on the ground, so they can track changes to forests, coastal areas, shipping traffic and farmland in near real-time.
The images can help with border security, tracking refugees and disaster relief. Because the company has compiled a vast archive of images, stretching back years, its subscribers can visit the past, observing how it has changed — a searchable time lapse of Earth.
"The pictures don't lie," said Will Marshall, co-founder and chief executive of Planet.
Andreas Kääb, a glaciologist at the University of Oslo, discovered that as he was exploring what caused the devastating avalanche in Tibet. He and other scientists noticed "that the neighboring glacier seemed also to behave strangely," he said in an email. They tried to reach local authorities in Tibet, going through contacts in China, to warn them that it was also about to collapse. But it took about a day before their message got through. By then, "the glacier had already collapsed," he said.
Nobody was injured, but the "case shows that high-resolution daily images are very important in disaster management, and they clearly have the potential for rapid early warnings."
The Amazon Conservation Association, a nonprofit, uses the satellite imagery to monitor illegal logging and gold mines in the Andean Amazon. In the past, it used traditional government satellites that took pictures "every eight days, and if it's cloudy, you have to wait another eight days," said Matt Finer, director of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project.
Those images had 30-meter resolution, which was decent but not great when you're trying to count trees. Then the European Space Agency launched a satellite with improved resolution, showing objects 10 meters across. But Planet's satellites were a welcomed improvement, three-meter resolution and images that are available daily.
"This is real-time monitoring on the scale of hours or days," Finer said. "A lot of times, we're looking at an image of today or yesterday."
The government data was free, and the group had to pay a subscription fee for Planet's images. But it was well worth it, Finer said. "You're talking about leaps of improvement in your visual and analytical ability," he said.
And using some of Planet's next-generation satellites, which provide even higher resolutions, "we can see individual trees. We can see logging camps," he said. Even the blue tarps that miners put up as makeshift roofs to protect from the rain and sun can be seen.
Given the high costs of satellites, traditional operators often rely on technology they know is reliable but may not be the most up-to-date, Marshall said.
"We've taken a different risk approach," he said. "You've got more satellites coming in, and if a few of them fail, no big deal. That is what enables us to take the latest technology . . . and iterate fast."
Small satellites are less expensive, to launch — leading to a new model of small rockets designed to be less expensive and launch on demand. Rocket Lab, which launches out of New Zealand and soon out of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, is the leader in this relatively new market.
Later this year, it plans to launch a satellite the size of a microwave to the moon. The satellite would fly in the same orbit around the moon that NASA expects to use for the space station it intends to operate there — Gateway.
Other rocket companies are entering fast, including Virgin Orbit, the start-up founded by Richard Branson.
Instead of launching its rocket vertically from a pad, the company tethers its boosters to the wing of a 747 airplane that carries it 40,000 feet or so. The rocket drops, then fires its engines and takes off.
That gives the company the ability to launch nearly anywhere there is a runway — and that is of interest not just to scientists and conservationists who want to get satellites up quickly but to the Pentagon and intelligence agencies as well.
After Virgin Orbit's first successful launch in January, Gen. Jay Raymond, the Space Force's chief of space operations, congratulated the company on Twitter. And Will Roper, then the Air Force's top acquisition and technology official, tweeted that the capability "is a big disrupter — and hopefully a deterrent — for future space conflicts. The satellite equivalent of keep an ace up your sleeve . . . err, plane."
Satellites already provide missile warnings, GPS, communications and reconnaissance, and they guide precision munitions. But the smaller and more capable they become, the more the Pentagon is interested in using them.
"These small satellites are now mission-critical," said Dan Hart, the chief executive of Virgin Orbit.
Another key benefit is that if one malfunctions or is taken down by an adversary, "we can very quickly put another one up, and we can do it from anywhere on Earth," he said. Using a 747 as a launcher, the Pentagon could also do it surreptitiously.
Much of the increase of satellites in orbit has been driven by Elon Musk's SpaceX, which has launched more than 1,000 of its Starlink satellites in the past year or so. The company intends to put up a constellation of thousands more, each weighing about 550 pounds, that would beam the Internet to remote and rural places on the ground that are not served by broadband.
Late last year, SpaceX received $886 million from the Federal Communications Commission as part of an effort to help bring Internet service to underserved communities. The awards would bring "welcome news to millions of unconnected rural Americans who for too long have been on the wrong side of the digital divide," then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the time.
Several other companies have similar plans.
OneWeb, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, has more than 100 satellites in orbit and plans to launch hundreds more. It says it can build a satellite in a day instead of the weeks or months it takes for larger spacecraft. And they cost about $1 million each, compared with the $150 million to $400 million for a larger satellites that live in more distant orbits, and are able to endure for years.
Amazon plans to launch a constellation it calls Kuiper that would put up about 3,200 satellites. It has until 2026 launch half of those to keep its approval from the FCC.
But it does not take millions of dollars to make and launch a satellite anymore.
The Education Department is sponsoring a competition among high schools across the country to build cubesat prototypes. It recently announced five finalists whose proposed small-satellite projects would determine whether homeless encampments in California are in high-risk wildfire areas; study the ways urban and rural areas absorb heat; and determine how a North Carolina town's population growth affects "air quality, land use and temperature."
At the University of Michigan, Professor Brian Gilchrist's engineering class worked to build a small satellite that would test using Earth's magnetic field for propulsion. If successful, it would have allowed small satellites to orbit Earth without having to carry fuel, allowing them to stay aloft for longer periods of time. It was a novel project for the class. "None of the students involved in this project had ever built a spacecraft before," Gilchrist said.
The cost was about $500,000 to $600,000, paid in part by the university and NASA. Parts came from industrial mail order suppliers, including a few from Amazon, Gilchrist said. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Meanwhile, he said, some of them are back in the lab "and now are already working on ideas for the next one."