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

These satellites are powered by batteries normally found in a laptop, with semiconductors similar to those in a smartphone.

“Nothing here was prequalified to be in space,” Marshall said. “We bought most of our parts online.”

Planet Labs will not disclose its manufacturing costs, but potential customers who have seen the products think the satellites are approximately 95 percent cheaper than most satellites, a figure Marshall would neither confirm nor dispute.

“We leverage the billions of dollars spent on the consumer mobile phone business” for most of the company’s parts, he said.

Launch costs, which are mostly based on weight and distance above the planet, are also lower. All 28 satellites together weigh about 56kg and can easily hitch a ride on rockets carrying other space cargo. In comparison, a single Landsat, a popular Earth-imaging satellite, weighs 2071kg and flies twice as high.

With these small, inexpensive satellites, “We’ll eventually be able to see anything on the planet. Anything,” according to Chris Boshuizen, co-founder and chief technology officer at Planet Labs. “We’ll be able to tell you what something looked like the day before, the day of and the day after an event,” he added.

Planet Labs was founded in 2010 by three scientists who worked at NASA. Boshuizen is Australian, while Marshall is British. The third, Robbie Schingler, is an American who is the company’s chief operating officer.

Like many tech entrepreneurs, all three grew tired of the conventional way things were built — in this case, space products.

For example, the cost of designing, building, launching and monitoring the US government’s Landsat satellite, which takes pictures of the Earth from 772km up, is over US$1 billion, according to the US Geological Survey, which administers data from the satellite.

Breaking into a field dominated by big companies with long government contracts is tough to do. Doing it cheaply is even harder.

In designing their satellites, Planet Labs threw out things like propulsion systems, because of the high cost and weight. Instead, the satellites use commercial light sensors, accelerometers and motors to orient their cameras. Laptop batteries were chosen because a more expensive version cost too much. Plus, they fit inside the satellite’s frame.

By making little machines that are often updated, Gillmore said, “we’re building satellites with computers that are 6 months old. Lots of satellites have 10-year-old computers.”

Version nine, which is almost complete, cost about 35 percent less than the current version in space, and was made four times faster, he estimated.

Should Boeing be worried? Not yet, said James Lloyd, associate professor of astronomy and mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University. Lloyd said he believed the space market was big enough for expensive Boeing systems and cheaper alternatives from startups.

“Essentially anybody can do it, because of a combination of miniaturization, simplification and availability of technology for building small satellites has made it accessible in a way that has never been before,” he said.

Also, while Planet Labs can beat older competitors on price, those expensive features do matter, said David Friedberg, chief executive of Climate, an agricultural data analysis firm owned by Monsanto.

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