Commercial Spacecrafts Are About to Change Everything

Planet Labs was founded in 2010 by a team of ex-NASA scientists. Their mission: to image the entire Earth every day and provide universal access to the data they collect.

They started as a small team of physicists, aerospace, and mechanical engineers in a garage, using the cubesat form-factor to come up with their first iterations of their “Dove” satellite. Two years after their first satellite entered space, Planet now operates the largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites, ever.

Their real world applications span across industries and sectors covering everything from measuring agricultural yields and monitoring natural resources to aiding first responders after natural disasters and informing government policy. Businesses and humanitarian organizations alike can utilize the information they capture to make better informed decisions about their business and the planet.

They launch these satellites aboard unmanned SpaceX capsules headed for the International Space Station. Within about a month of launch, those satellites join their existing fleet of Doves orbiting the Earth.

Launching these capsules is no easy feat, and the team has seen many postponements, failures on the launchpad, and even explosions. Rockets have to first reach 10 times the speed of sound without breaking apart. The spacecrafts then have to survive a two-day journey to the International Space Station (ISS), 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. Delays and errors can cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Once they reach ISS, astronauts aboard the space station gather the satellites and send them into orbit. Planet Lab’s systems back on the ground establish contact and determine if the floating boxes are working properly.

The goal is to eventually have enough Doves in orbit to capture a wholistic view of the entire Earth every day.

Robbie Schingler, one of three Planet Labs co-founders, speaks of their vision:

It allows for people to have greater insight into where there are problems and mitigate the problems before they become disasters.”

So who’s most interested in Planet Lab’s goals?

Well, Silicon Valley venture capitalists have already invested $1.7 billion into space-related companies this year alone, according to numbers provided by CB Insights. Thats almost twice as much money invested in 2015 as in the past three years combined. Planet Labs closed a very successful $118 million round in April.

Last year, Google poured $500 million into satellite maker Skybox Imaging, a venture-backed start-up whose technology can enhance products like search, maps and Google Earth.

When did this space-revolution start happening? The turning point for the industry came in 2012 when the SpaceX Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to visit ISS. Private space exploration is the infrastructure that allowed for businesses that never before could have existed before now. That, and the rapidly dropping cost of flight.

The last decade has paved the way as far as providing cutting edge cloud computing and big data analytics. Couple that with the ever lowering prices for electronic components and a thriving population of skilled coders, and space becomes something we never thought it could be: affordable.

According to SpaceX’s website, by 2016 a Falcon 9 launch will cost $61.2 million. This year, they plan to launch the Falcon Heavy at an estimated cost of $90 million. That might sound huge at first, but it’s actually less than one-third the price of its closest competitor.

Doves debuted in space in April 2013, and nine of 11 launches have been successful. Planet Labs co-founder and CEO Will Marshall isn’t discouraged when it comes to set backs and the occasional failure. As he eloquently stated in reference to a recent roadblock,

We’ve said it before: Space is hard.”

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