BlackSky Global Aims to Blanket the Globe with Small Imaging Satellites

BlackSky Global, a new offshoot of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, aims to launch a constellation of imaging satellites that would provide one-meter resolution pictures of almost any place of the earth, delivered on-demand to customers hours after they place an order.

Chief technology officer Peter Wegner, who previously led the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, says the company aims to do so at a tenth the price of today’s satellite imagery. Moreover, by deploying dozens of small satellites that would constantly circle the globe, customers could get as many as 70 images a day of certain locations.

“That’s just something that’s never been possible before at the [non-government] level,” Wegner says. “I think it’s going to open up a lot of markets.”

BlackSky aims to launch its first six satellites by the end of next year. They are part of a new class of smaller, less expensive satellites, not dissimilar to the ones SpaceX is planning for a worldwide Internet service (a project that is a focus of SpaceX’s new Redmond, WA, offices).

There is a growing cluster of commercial space businesses in the Seattle area, drawn by the region’s deep pool of aerospace engineers and technicians, machine shops and component makers, as well as software developers and other IT experts.

“I don’t think Seattle was nearly on the map even five years ago as it is today as a destination for space companies,” Wegner says. “But five years ago there weren’t these kind of space companies popping up around the world. It’s really a pretty new phenomenon.”

He adds: “The space industry as a whole is really changing right now, and it’s changing because of … rapid advancements in consumer electronics and big data and Web-scale businesses. That’s changing the satellite industry all over the world, not just in the U.S. and not just in Seattle.”

Consumers have become accustomed to zooming down from above on our houses and favorite destinations, accessing satellite imagery via Google Earth. For most of us, images that were taken a few months or even a few years ago are fine. But businesses and governments that use satellite images for operations need them in near real-time. That’s why BlackSky believes having a constellation of satellites—as many as 60 by 2019—would give it an advantage.

BlackSky plans a constellation of 60 satellites, allowing many locations to be photographed up to 70 times a day.

BlackSky plans a constellation of 60 satellites, allowing many locations to be photographed up to 70 times a day.

Customers for satellite imagery include governments, which use them for everything from border protection and security to weather forecasting to coordinating disaster relief, and often use their own satellites to gather the images. For a sense of the government satellite imaging market, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency issued a 10-year $7.3 billion contract award in 2010, according to this 2011 paper (PDF) envisioning the future of the U.S. commercial satellite imagery industry.

Commercial customers use satellite imagery, too, for things like precision agriculture, natural resources extraction, and commodities trading.

The one-meter resolution color images BlackSky plans to provide allow clear views of “cars in parking lots, cargo containers on ships or trains, semi trucks over the road. You can distinguish crops of different kinds, oil exploration, pipelines… general economic activity,” Wegner says.

The U.S. government last year changed the limits on the resolution of images commercial satellite companies can sell, allowing DigitalGlobe, based in Longmont, CO, to sell images as detailed as 0.25 meter resolution.

Wegner says there are legitimate privacy concerns to consider, particularly with higher-resolution satellite images. Individual people cannot be distinguished in a one-meter resolution image, he says.

Wegner.

Wegner.

“I personally think that’s a very important issue, because on the one hand I have my own very deep concerns about personal privacy and how important that is for our own liberty,” Wegner says. “But on the other hand, by providing high-resolution images in near real time, it sort of democratizes that information and makes it available to people around the world. Better information always leads to more freedom and more security and better lives for all of us.”

There are limits on what U.S. commercial satellite companies—licensed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—can photograph, and to whom they can sell those photographs. The government can also shut off commercial satellites under certain national security circumstances, he says.

DigitalGlobe is the largest player in the commercial satellite imagery business. Other competitors include Skybox Imaging of Palo Alto, CA, acquired by Google last summer; and large aerospace and defense companies such as Orbital ATK and Airbus Defense and Space.

The cost of satellite imagery today varies widely depending on factors like what’s being photographed, the resolution, and how fast you need it. Many customers buy lots of images and get volume discounts. “But if you were to go order a single picture today, just on the general international marketplace [it] would probably cost you somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500 range,” Wegner says.

BlackSky believes it can significantly undercut current prices by taking advantage of the expertise of its sister companies, Spaceflight Systems, which is building a fleet of smaller satellites, and Spaceflight Services, which will launch them into orbit. A third unit of Spaceflight Industries will provide communications.

Spaceflight Industries has raised $27.5 million, including a $20 million Series B round in March from RRE Venture Capital, Vulcan Capital, and Razor’s Edge Ventures. Wegner says a portion of that funding is dedicated to BlackSky. Each unit of Spaceflight Industries has its own management and keeps its own books, he says.

BlackSky has about 12 employees, while the broader Spaceflight Industries has around 70, Wegner says.

The cost of building satellites is coming down thanks to improvements in other fields.

“There’s really a dramatic change happening in the satellite business today, and much of it is being driven by the rapid improvement in consumer electronics,” Wegner says. “So we’re able to put a flight computer in space today that has a tremendous amount of onboard storage, and it’s very inexpensive to do that. When I was working on satellite programs 20 years ago, we had a fraction, a hundredth of the data storage we can put on these satellites [now] and it cost us about 1,000 times more than these flight computers cost today.”

He says other aspects of the satellite design will reduce costs, providing few specific details. “Those are our competitive edges,” he says.

But one example is in the propellant used to adjust the satellite’s position in orbit, maintaining a height of about 450 kilometers above the surface. Instead of highly volatile and poisonous hydrazine, which brings added costs for materials handling and facilities, BlackSky is using a butane propulsion system.

That’s one part of the satellites that Spaceflight Systems (known until recently as Andrews Space) is building in Tukwilla, just south of Seattle, for BlackSky. Each one weighs about 50 kilograms and is roughly the size of a dorm room refrigerator. The main components include a camera with a telescopic lens; a set of reaction wheels that control where the satellite is pointed; the flight computer; radios to receive commands and transmit images back to earth; a solar array and battery for power; and the butane propulsion system.

BlackSky Global

BlackSky Global

“They’re very simple systems that only know a couple commands,” Wegner says. “Take a picture of this spot and download it at this spot.”

The company plans a cloud-based platform for ordering and delivering satellite images, giving rise to its “satellite imaging as a service” business model.

“Innovation’s in one sector can have a really disruptive effect on an entirely different sector that you would never imagine would be related,” Wegner says. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing in the space sector today.”

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