Sat, Mar 22, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Startups aim to conquer space market

New companies have disrupted the government-led space industry with Silicon Valley’s fast-and-cheap business model

by Quentin Hardy and Nick Bilton  /  NY Times News Service, SAN FRANCISCO

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

It was party time at the Planet Labs satellite factory, in an unkempt office in the trendy South of Market neighborhood here.

A man in a blue tuxedo shared pancakes with about two dozen young engineers at the space startup. The air was filled with the smell of bacon and the voices of Russian and Japanese astronauts. The astronauts communicated over a video hookup to the International Space Station (ISS) 370km above the kitchen, one morning last month.

“Now we’re going to push the boundaries,” said Chester Gillmore, the company’s director of manufacturing.

He was referring to his cooking skills, but he could just as well have been talking about his 40-employee company, which has already put dozens of small satellites in space. Once they are connected, they will be able to provide near-constant images of what is going on back on Earth.

That, Gillmore believes, could be the basis of a very good business.

California’s Silicon Valley, not content with changing how retailers, taxi companies and hotels do business, is taking its disruptive ways into outer space. Several young companies with roots in Silicon Valley are trying to elbow their way into a business long dominated by national governments and aeronautics giants like Boeing.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, started by Tesla founder Elon Musk, is already a contractor for NASA, running supply missions to the ISS. Another startup, Masten Space Systems, with headquarters in Mojave, California, is developing rockets designed for unmanned research flights. Skybox Imaging, based in Mountain View, California, makes satellites similar to those of Planet Labs, though they are significantly larger.

These startups have one thing in common: They think they can undercut the old guard with lower prices and smarter thinking.

While the Planet Labs staff ate pancakes that morning in February, two shoebox-sized, 4kg pods made in the company’s unconventional factory floated from the ISS toward a polar orbit of the Earth. Ten hours later, two more were released.

The plan was to launch two to four a day, for a configuration of 28 satellites. The small, basic devices with solar panels and simple maneuvering equipment and radios are expected to last two to four years and are capable of taking weekly photos with details as small as a car.

However, that is just the start. Last week, Planet Labs announced that it would put about 100 satellites into space from the US and Russia, bringing the total number of “Doves,” as the company calls them, to 131. That larger network, which Planet Labs hopes to complete within a year, is expected to create a daily photo mosaic of most of the Earth.

That mosaic could be valuable to private customers, like agricultural companies monitoring farmlands, or even to governments trying to figure out how to aid natural disaster victims. The company has so far booked contracts worth more than the US$65 million in private equity it has raised, according to Will Marshall, the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

Working from what he calls a “clean-ish room,” separated from the kitchen by some loose plastic sheets, Gillmore and a small team are working on newer versions of the lightweight satellites, adjusting and improving them with the frequency normally seen at a software company. The satellites now in space are the seventh version; versions eight through 10, which are expected to cost less and do more, are being assembled.

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