Satellite imaging startup Planet closed a deal to buy Google’s SkySat network in 2017, but it’s not stopping with the existing constellation. Planet aims to become the fastest satellite imaging firm thanks to a new deal with SpaceX. Planet will squeeze some of its satellites into some upcoming Starlink launches, giving customers access to fresher imagery.
When Planet purchased the constellation from Google, there were 15 individual satellites orbiting at an altitude of 500 kilometers (about 310 miles). The company recently lowered the altitude to 450 kilometers. That might not sound like it would make a major difference, but it increased the effective resolution of the images from 80cm per pixel to 50cm per pixel. That’s the difference between seeing blobs traveling down the road and being able to differentiate between cars and trucks.
Boosting image clarity is only part of the plan — Planet also wants faster updates. Many of its customers in forestry, agriculture, and technology want the most up-to-date images possible, and you can only get that by putting more satellites in orbit. Even small satellite launches used to be hideously expensive, but that’s changed with SpaceX’s frequent Starlink missions with reused rockets.
Each one of Planet’s satellites is roughly the size of a washing machine and weighs 110kg (about 242 pounds), and it’s currently gearing up to add three of them to the next Falcon 9 Starlink payload. SpaceX has completed eight Starlink launches so far, most of which carry 60 individual satellites. It’ll be a tight fit, but there’s more space inside that fairing than you’d probably expect. SpaceX just shared a video (above) of the fairing deploying on its most recent Starlink mission.
SpaceX will need a lot of rockets to get its proposed 12,000-node Starlink constellation. Realizing this, the company set up a “rideshare” program, allowing it to work directly with small satellite operators to use every bit of space on upcoming launches. At $500 per kilogram, the price is low enough that Planet decided to deploy more satellites — expanding its fleet wasn’t even on the table before the rideshare program.
The first set of three will go up in a few days, and another three are scheduled for July. Activists painted “Black Lives Matter” on a street leading up to the White House last week, and Planet captured a widely seen image of it just hours later. With a total of 21 satellites, Planet will be even quicker to snap such images.
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