So much news… Sunday, a cargo launch arrived at the International Space Station. Except the vehicle was a commercial “freighter,” and its cargo included commercial satellites. Onboard:
- UAPSat-1, from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Peru
- LituanicaSat-1, from the Kaunas University of Technology
- LitSat-1, from the Lithuanian Space Federation
- SkyCube, from Southern Stars Group LLC
- ArduSat-2, from NanoSatisfi, Inc.
- and a whopping twenty-eight satellites (“Flock-1”) from Planet Labs
All are micro- or nanosatellites, depending on your definition. The first 4 are basic CubeSats, 10x10x10 cm. ArduSat is a 2U, or 10x10x20, and Planet Labs’ birds are 3U.
Aside from Lithuania’s first launches (Peru is making them look a little slow here), the last three are projects of commercial space firms. SkyCube will act as an amateur radio and amateur astronomy satellite, with a transceiver and a small camera. You can actually submit an observation request to Southern Stars Group. ArduSat-2 contains experimental electronics; deep geeks can run circuit experiments on an actual, flying spacecraft.
Flock-1, though, is “new ground” environmentally and economically. With the low cost of CubeSats, three ex-NASA staffers decided to found their own company and build their own satellites. Even in a CubeSat, you can get a picture with 5 meters’ spatial resolution if you know what you’re doing. No, this is not a spy satellite. 5 meters won’t show a car except as a pixel- one measly pixel. Your house will show up, but as a blur. People won’t show up at all.
What Planet Labs’ satellites will do is image Earth on a regular basis. Commercial Earth-observation satellites existed before, such as DigitalGlobe and OrbImage. However, with only one to three birds, each company could only promise pictures of a given place about every week or so (their “revisit time”). This was still useful for, e. g., urban planners and farm surveyors, forest rangers and firefighters, earthquake and tsunami response planning, etc. DigitalGlobe and OrbImage then went to higher resolutions (about one meter) to be more useful for this kind of surveying.
Planet Labs, instead, is improving the revisit time. With 28 satellites, even quite simple ones, they can post images of places under their orbits, once or maybe twice a day. This provides rapid response in case of a natural disaster- that means lives saved. Oil spills show up readily from space, with fast response times and rapid updates. This means coastlines can prepare their defenses with precision. Less newsworthy, some images posted by the company will show deforestation, including illegal logging, mining, and slash-and-burn sites. In other words, Planet Labs wants to be the world’s webcam.
This is not much of a competitor for DigitalGlobe or NASA, more of a complementary service. For one, Planet Labs won’t charge you for looking; it’s your planet, after all. Nor does Flock-1 have competitive spatial resolution like DigitalGlobe, or precision color measurement or signal strength or infrared resolution like NASA. But thanks to the door opened by CubeSats (itself opened by continuing miniaturization of electronics), we will soon have a greater understanding and security in our land and ocean resources, and a responsive tool in case of disaster.
But hey, where does the astronaut fit? Oh yeah, they press a button and eject the next unit.